Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
Wrapping up our duets albums just in time for Valentine’s Day: today we spin the Motown/Tamla classic You’re All I Need, by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, from 1968.
Marvin Gaye was an established star at the Detroit label Motown when he was asked to cut a duet with a female singer in 1967. Gaye, who had giant hits way back in 1965 with “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “Ain’t That Peculiar,” Gaye recorded “It Takes Two” with singer Kim Weston for Motown’s Tamla label in ’67.
Written and produced by William “Mickey” Stevenson (also Weston’s husband), the song wasn’t Gaye’s first duet but at that time it was his most successful. It also made him an international star by going to No. 1 in the United Kingdom. But there wasn’t gonna be a followup: by the time the record hit the top of the charts, Weston and Stevenson had already left Motown. In fact, at this point Gaye had three duet partners: Weston, Mary Wells and Oma Page, and they had all left the label.
But label chief Berry Gordy wanted to repeat the duet success, so he enlisted Motortown Revue singer Tammi Terrell, who also happened to be the girlfriend of singer David Ruffin, of the Temptations. Initially she cut her vocals separately from Gaye, and they hit with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love,” both written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
Gaye and Terrell toured behind these singles and their first duet album, but in 1967 Terrell collapsed onstage and was later diagnosed with a brain tumor. She had the first of six brain surgeries, and she was pretty much finished as a live performer. When she came back in a wheelchair to cut vocals with Gaye, it was face-to-face in a studio and one of the first songs they recorded is a classic: “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” by Ashford & Simpson.
“Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” is perhaps the archetypical Motown duet, with instrumentation by the Funk Brothers and the “sweet” Motown strings usually present on the label’s more romantic offerings. Gaye and Terrell hit their marks as vocalists, and this was a nearly perfect record: listeners thought so as well, as it was an R&B and pop hit in 1968.
“You’re All I Need To Get By” was even bigger: it was a Top 10 pop hit in the United States and the United Kingdom and reached No. 1 on the R&B charts, where it stayed for quite a while in ’68. “You’re All I Need” had a sort-of gospel backing choir (which included Ashford & Simpson) but it was assembled in the studio, with Gaye and Terrell cutting their vocals separately.
In fact, due to Terrell’s condition it was impossible for her to record new vocals for a full album. So they took some of her old solo songs and overdubbed Gaye’s vocals into them to create duets. Some of these included “Memory Chest,” “Baby Dont’cha Worry”, “Give In, You Just Can’t Win” and “When Love Comes Knocking At Your Heart.”
The album, You’re All I Need, on the Tamla label, was a moderate success (Motown usually had more success with singles) and would be the final album the duo would really record together. A third duet album, Easy, was assembled and released in 1969, but Valerie Simpson sang along with Gaye in the studio for “guide vocals” then Terrell came in and painstakingly cut her own vocals. In 1969 Motown also released Terrell’s only solo LP, Irresistible, but by this time she was too ill to promote either album.
She finally died in 1970 of the brain tumor. Marvin Gaye would later say Tammi Terrell was his best duet partner, and her death would really tear him up emotionally. His classic album What’s Going On is reportedly partially inspired by Terrell’s death. Marvin Gaye would himself die prematurely, shot fatally by his own father in 1984.