We are all familiar with their hits. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, You’re All I Need to Get By, If This World Were Mine (yes, that one, before Luther had a hit with it), and the list goes on and on. These beautiful and ageless gems are undoubtedly the product of a special kind of love. But Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s relationship was so much more – and so much less – than people think.
[Listen to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell render their version of If This World Were Mine]
Marvin Gaye, most famous for solo hits such as What’s Going On, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), Trouble Man, Let’s Get It On, and Sexual Healing, is renowned as one of the greatest balladeers of all time, regardless of genre. His vocal range is legendary, as is his appeal to the fairer sex. Most are also aware of his personal demons. Gaye battled drug addiction and faced tax problems which led him to flee the United States for a period. Most people also know that he was shot and killed by his own father on April 1, 1984, just one day shy of his 45th birthday. Those are unfortunately the kinds of stories that make the news. Taxes, death and trouble, to quote the man himself.
Less is remembered about Tammi Terrell, as she still rests largely in Marvin’s shadow. Almost without exception when one hears her name, it is being mentioned in the same sentence with Marvin Gaye. Not only that, but it’s always Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Never Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye. One would be surprised to learn that there was much more to Tammi’s story than simply being Marvin Gaye’s lady.
In fact, she wasn’t his lady at all.
Tammi Terrell’s story began tragically. Ludie Montgomery, Terrell’s sister, wrote in her memoirs that Terrell was the victim of sexual molestation by three boys after leaving a neighborhood party at the tender age of eleven. This was not mere speculation either. All three boys were arrested and convicted of rape for the incident. Not surprisingly, Terrell’s behavior changed drastically after the incident. Outwardly it appeared that she lived a very promiscuous lifestyle. Early in her career, Terrell was involved with several men both inside and outside of the music business. Terrell was reportedly romantically interested in singer Sam Cooke, and had a friendship with Gene Chandler. In 1962, while only 17, she signed with James Brown, and the two engaged in a highly publicized sexual relationship. Her involvement with Brown resulted in her allegedly being abused by him repeatedly. After one particular incident with Brown backstage after a performance, Terrell asked Chandler, who witnessed the incident first hand, to take her to the bus station, so she could go home. Chandler later called Terrell’s mother and asked her to pick her daughter up, and thus ended Terrell’s two-year long affair with Brown.
As if the soured relationship with Brown wasn’t enough, more heartbreak ensued. In 1965, Terrell became involved in a romance with legendary Temptations singer David Ruffin. The following year, Ruffin proposed to Terrell. However, Terrell was devastated once she learned that Ruffin already had a wife and three children, as well as another girlfriend, also living in Detroit, right under her nose. The incident underscored her naivete, but it also added to her reputation as a loose woman, despite her youth. The couple fought publicly many times after her discovery. It was later claimed that Ruffin hit Terrell with a hammer and came after her with a machete, but these claims were denied by Terrell’s family as well as others with the Motown label. Her sister Ludie Montgomery, however, claimed that Ruffin hit Terrell on the side of her face with his motorcycle helmet, resulting the end of their relationship in 1967.
After the rumors about Tammi and Sam Cooke (with whom she reportedly never actually had a relationship), and her well-publicized involvement with the likes of James Brown and David Ruffin, Marvin Gaye would seem a logical next step, right?
Wrong. After her horrific ordeal at 11, and her tragic series of abusive relationships that began in her teens, what Tammi Terrell needed was simply a friend. That is exactly what she found in Marvin Gaye. By both of their accounts, as well as those of people close to them, Gaye and Terrell were never, ever romantically involved.
Marvin Gaye had his own struggles and could perhaps relate to Tammi Terrell more than most could. The son of a strict Black Hebrew Pentecostal preacher (I know, right?), Marvin struggled to find his own identity outside of his father Marvin Gay Sr’s shadow. He was also allegedly abused by his father in his childhood, and stated that he would have ended his own life had his mother not encouraged his singing, in which he found an outlet. Marvin was so traumatized by his childhood that he changed his last name, adding an “e” at the end both as a means to squash rumors about his sexuality (largely stemming from his soft-spoken nature) and to distance himself from his father.
Not only were the pair not romantically involved, but initially they even recorded their respective vocal contributions to their duets completely apart from each other, only coming together after their earlier engineered collaborations were released and well received by the public. Though it has frequently been speculated that their relationship grew into a brief romance, this claim has been strongly refuted by those who knew them well. Ashford & Simpson, who wrote most of Marvin and Tammi’s hits, and Gaye himself, characterized the relationship as sibling-like. In fact, while most assume that Gaye was the leader of the duo, he was actually extremely shy and introverted, while Terrell was by far the more streetwise and extroverted of the two. At the time of her death, Tammi was engaged to Ernest Garrett, a physician at the hospital where she was being treated for terminal brain cancer.
By 1970 Terrell was confined to a wheelchair, suffered from blindness and hair loss, and weighed only 93 pounds. On January 25, 1970, Terrell went into a coma and never came out of it.
On March 16, 1970, Tammi Terrell succumbed to brain cancer. She was only 24 years old, despite having lived an adventurous and successful yet traumatic life. At her funeral, Gaye summoned the strength to deliver the eulogy. You’re All I Need To Get By played in the background as he spoke. Marvin Gaye was so devastated that he withdrew from performing for more than two years following Terrell’s death.
When Marvin Gaye finally reemerged, he was on fire. Bold, brazen, exuding charisma and sexuality, bucking the system and unapologetically speaking his mind on political and social issues. He was never the same again. He took on the Motown establishment that never gave Tammi her due, refusing to promote albums without assurances from the label that they would cover the remaining expenses from her illness, and demanding the freedom to record message songs such as What’s Going On despite the risk of rocking the boat. His clean-cut, soft-spoken signature image was never seen or heard from again.
It was as if Tammi losing her life caused Marvin to find his. The power of love is amazing.
Even when it isn’t that kind of love.
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