Go to the archives

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jun 30, 2015
Category: Soul

Last week, the week of Charleston and the Confederate flag and the President singing “Amazing Grace,” I thought of Marvin Gaye and the song that changed soul music:

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
We’ve got to find a way
To bring some loving here today…

And then I went back, to the early days, and the love songs — the duets of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, recorded in forever ago 1967.

What songs were on that CD? Oh, just classics: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “You’re All I Need to Get By.” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You.”

No wonder I never tire of these duets.

Marvin Gaye never enjoyed being on stage. Those sessions with Tammi Terrell opened him up, made performing fun. And why not? He was a stunningly handsome young man in a tux, crooning with a beautiful young woman who seemed to have been made for him.

As Gaye put it, years later, “We created two characters — two lovers that might have been in a play or a novel."

He’s not woofing. Just look at the video — the rare video, because this was 1967 — of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Pay special attention to this part:

My love is alive
Although we are miles apart
If you ever need a helping hand,
I’ll be there on the double
just as fast as I can
Don’t you know that there ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you, baby

When Tammi sings “My love is alive” and Marvin whoops — with that Motown drummer playing circles and a xylophone in the background — it makes me wanna holler. Watch:

These are fabulous affirmations. The way we want our relationships to be. Road maps to the heart of life. [To buy the CD of the Gaye-Terrell duets from Amazon for a ridiculous $4.99, click here. There’s no download of the whole CD, but to download “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” click here.]

And then there’s real life.

A few months after these duets were recorded, Tammi Terrell collapsed in Marvin Gaye’s arms in the middle of a concert. The diagnosis: brain cancer. Over the next three years, she had eight surgeries. Her doctors never told her that her cancer was incurable — her will to live trumped their professional distance. When she died in 1970, she weighed 83 pounds. She was just 24.

Marvin Gaye gave the eulogy. It was short and broken-hearted. He and Tammi weren’t lovers, but he mourned like one. As he said a few years later, "It was a deep vibe, as though she was dying for everyone who couldn’t find love." Though he wasn’t responsible, he faulted himself. A drug binge followed. And reclusiveness. And then, the next year, his masterpiece, “What’s Going On.”

Depressed. Drugged. Paranoid. A bad end awaited. In 1984, it came — Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father. He was 44.

The music is different when you know what happened after. More urgent. If possible, more joyful.

Valerie Simpson, who co-wrote many of these songs with her husband, sees the bright side: “There will always be a couple getting a groove on to those songs.”

Good advice.


Long after Tammi Terrell died, this was Marvin Gaye — alone, no band. You’ll share this.