Because of her short, tragic life, it’s too easy to think of Tammi Terrell primarily as a victim. Used and abused by a series of violent men and then wracked with terminal illness, her recording career was already long finished by the time of her death in 1970 (quite how long finished is a matter of considerable dispute, as we’ll see later), meaning one of the brightest and most promising of all Motown stories was cut short before Tammi reached the age of 25.
But that’s unfair to Tammi and to her memory. The story is about Tammi, not what she might have done; during her short time in the spotlight, she racked up a staggering body of work, and it’s a privilege to be able to finally give her due weight here. Her young death was a tragedy – not only on a basic human level, but her illness also deprived the world of what I’ve no doubt would have been a string of 70s Tammi masterpieces (in my mind’s eye, I see mid-Seventies Tammi as an imposing kind of Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick soul-disco diva figure) – but it shouldn’t define her, especially at more than forty years’ remove when there are so few survivors from Motown’s Golden Age still with us. The work she did complete during her time here on Earth marks her out as one of the greats, and when we talk about Tammi Terrell, I want to do it in this light.
She’s remembered today, if she’s remembered at all, as a footnote – in the stories of Marvin Gaye and (to a lesser extent) David Ruffin, or in the endless and endlessly tedious debate about who really sang what – or as a soapbox to complain about domestic violence or sexually-assertive women or just how cruel and unfair Motown and the 60s music industry could be. The actual woman behind those stories was a fabulous singer who deserves so much more recognition for what she actually did, what she actually left us, and on Motown Junkies this, here, is where we start.
JUST TOO MUCH TO HOPE FOR
Thomasina Montgomery, known as Tommie and then Tammy (after Tammy and the Bachelor, the same Debbie Reynolds movie that had inspired the name of Tamla Records, coincidence fans), a precocious singer from Philadelphia, was already something of a showbiz veteran by the time she pitched up at Motown. Having first recorded several singles as a young teenage solo artist for Scepter and Checker before becoming one of James Brown’s backing singers, music was never Miss Montgomery’s entire life, and she proved it in her late teens by becoming a college student, majoring in pre-med at Penn.
Tammy was such an obvious star that Jerry Butler kept her on the books even after she enrolled at university, getting her occasional live shows to fit around her studies, and one of these engagements led her to the Twenty Grand in Detroit where she was seen by a rapt Berry Gordy. Never mind that Motown already had problems finding spaces on the release schedules for the veritable army of singers they already had on the roster; as with everyone who ever saw Tammy perform in person, Gordy knew he was watching something special.
Motown signed Tammy Montgomery on her 20th birthday; on Gordy’s advice, she changed the spelling of her first name to “Tammi”, adopting the stage surname “Terrell” to generate a frisson of controversial publicity hinting she might be married to boxer Ernie Terrell. (In another of those bizarre Motown coincidences, Ernie Terrell’s real-life sister Jean did later sign with Motown, replacing Diana Ross as the new lead singer of the Supremes in 1970).
Unlike so many of Motown’s new signings after 1964, there doesn’t ever seem to have been any question of Tammi being a speculative signing, destined to be cut loose after one underpromoted 45 to make room for the next young hopeful fresh off the production line – she was there for the long haul. Or maybe it’s just impossible, listening to this record, to imagine her ever being thought of any other way; Tammi Terrell’s first Motown single exudes star quality, so much so that you can see exactly what Berry Gordy saw that night at the Twenty Grand. She’s amazing.
For her Motown début, rather than pair her with one of the label’s marquee writer/producer names, Gordy assigned Tammi to a new-old team, Harvey Fuqua and his old friend and compadre from the Harvey/Tri-Phi days, Johnny Bristol: two powerful creative forces who’ve so far barely registered an impact on the Motown singles story. Fuqua and Bristol, as artists, had been among the star players in a different, parallel early-Sixties story to the one told here on Motown Junkies, and here they reunite to relaunch Tammy as Tammi.
The record has the outward sound of something inspired by the Supremes, but the structure is much more ambitious, especially for a 45 intended to introduce American airwaves to a new artist. It’s a strange fish of a song, all stop-start rhythms and big vocal stretches; Berry Gordy used to get angry in Quality Control meetings if he thought a song had “buried its hook”, and there’s certainly no risk of that here, the record battering straight into the sort-of-chorus refrain –
No, I can’t believe you love me
No, I… can’t believe you love me
No I… CAN’T BEL-IE-EVE that you love me
whoh’I CAN’T… BELIEVE that you love me
- within a couple of seconds of the opening. Four identical lines, repeated back to back; quite an introduction. Tammi doesn’t phrase any two of them the same way.
It’s pretty much the only anchor that either Tammi or the listener are afforded throughout the record, and we need it more than she does: it’s a familiar home point to keep us clinging on tight through all the weird twists and sinewy spirals of strings and dead stops and great thudding chunks of one-finger bass and echoey drums. Tammi, on the other hand, needs no such reassurance, using that refrain as the launching pad for a thrilling journey, and her conviction is such that we daren’t let go or look away. When the song opens, on hearing it for the first time, Tammi’s repeatedly-underlined declaration of disbelief seems to be coming from a place of dewy-eyed delirious joy, in the style of I Hear A Symphony, before the rug’s swept away (along with the music, other than a terrifyingly ominous, echoing, offbeat one-note bass twang) abruptly and shockingly from under the listener’s feet:
not like BE-fore…
And that’s all the time it took to convince me that we’re in the presence of greatness.
PLANT LOVE SEEDS
Tammi, we’re told, was not popular with the other female acts at Motown. She must have cut an intimidating figure to some of the working-class kids from the projects; despite being the same age (or younger) than many of her new labelmates, she comes across as so much more worldly in every sense. Vivacious, beautiful, educated, intelligent, well-spoken, experienced in both showbiz and love, extremely forthcoming with opinions, openly flirty, undeniably sexy; perhaps not someone you want your boyfriend working late around. You can see how she might have put some people’s backs up.
The male staff, we’re told, took rather a different view, and Tammi seems to have flirted with pretty much all of them, regardless of whether they were married, regardless of whether their wives were right there, and so darker rumours began to swirl around her, aspersions that have never really been properly cast off. I find it interesting that it only seems to be Tammi who gets singled out for this sort of thing – regardless of what Maxine Powell wanted the President and the Queen to see, whichever way you cut it, chivalrous sexual morals didn’t figure particularly highly in the Motown story.
But against that backdrop, the message that comes through is that Tammi had something about her, something magnetic beyond physical attractiveness. Bristol, as smitten as anyone, comments in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5 that he appreciated Tammi’s “commercial sound” and states “Her personality in the studio was amazing. She was just fun.” Whatever her X factor was, it’s undeniably there, and it’s something which comes over loud and clear on record. Without wanting to get too melodramatic, even though nobody in America knew her (new) name yet, she sounds effortlessly confident, like she knows that she’s doing something special, that she is something special; she sounds like a star.
AWAY IN MY MEMORY CHEST
Stop twenty random Motown fans in the street, and it’s remarkable how few will know Tammi ever had a solo career at all. Certainly Motown felt confident enough in her obscurity to repurpose a number of her solo cuts as Marvin-and-Tammi duets, this one pitching up (with an alternate vocal take for Tammi’s parts) on the controversial third M&T album Easy.
Quite often, Tammi wasn’t given the solo material to match her talent; that’s not the case here, and while I’m heartened I Can’t Believe You Love Me was a decent chart hit, I’m surprised it wasn’t bigger, that it wasn’t better known. She takes a difficult, complex song and completely owns it, so much so that on the live performance from the Roostertail as captured on the (essential) Come On And See Me anthology (left) – with the band clanking and wheezing their way through the music at a fast pace – it sounds like Tammi that’s actually leading the way. And here, on this 45, she’s nailed it, there’s no other possible reaction.
The song’s technical difficulties – the near-operatic intro, the stop-start structure, the sputtering rhythms – are reflected in the lyrical mood. It’s not a particularly easy listen, Tammi bringing plenty of genuine hurt to the table as she remonstrates with her increasingly-indifferent lover (I’ve reflected before about Mary Wells having to act well enough to suspend disbelief in this kind of situation too!), but there are so many highlights in her performance I’ve found it almost physically impossible to resist going back and playing it again. She swoops from one end of the scale to the other, seamlessly and in quick time; she finds exactly the most memorable way to pronounce every syllable of every line; she imbues the whole thing with the exact picture of this character, to the point you feel you know her and the story of the relationship even without having been given really any details at all.
My word, she’s such a good singer. There are entire classes to be taught just on the way Tammi Terrell delivers some of lines in this song. Highlights are almost too many to pick out. “When I speak your name in the sweetest tone / It’s just as though I am all alone…” – check out the way she enunciates “I am”, not “I’m”! – or perhaps the show-stopping second verse: There’s no thrill in your kiss / There’s no sin-cer-i-ty / I do believe you’ve gotten over me, which is still bringing me out in goosebumps the fiftieth time. The song is full of hidden and rewarding depths, but it needed a star performance to tease them out; luckily, Tammi has what it takes.
The best of Tammi Terrell’s work with Marvin Gaye, for me, approaches something like another plane. Understandable that her solo work has been overshadowed by those achievements, especially since we never got to hear the next act in her story. But this right here is Tammi’s show, and she inhabits the record body and soul, handling all the tricky turns, stopping on a dime, pinning you up against the wall. As calling cards go, they really don’t come much more impressive than this.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in Tammi Terrell? Click for more.)
“All For Someone”
“Hold Me Oh My Darling”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.