The duets between Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were some of the smoothest and most indelible tracks in Motown’s entire history of legendary recordings. Although they were strictly platonic friends, Gaye and Terrell were able to channel real love and emotion into their performances, playing off each other like a couple who had known each others’ intricacies and idiosyncracies for decades.
The duo’s first collaboration, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, went on to become one of Motown’s defining anthems. Gaye had recorded duets with the likes of Mary Wells and Kim Westing prior to getting together with Terrell, but the pair’s chemistry together was immediate. Despite this, Berry Gordy still had the two record their vocal parts separately, at least during initial sessions.
But the explosive nature between the two couldn’t be ignored. Soon came another string of duets, followed by an entire album titled United. Terrell was a powerhouse live performer, inspiring the relatively shy and nervous Gaye to be more energetic on stage. The two fed off each other, and the results became some of Motown’s most memorable material.
Sadly, the collaboration ended in tragedy. During an October 14th, 1967, concert in Virginia, Terrell fainted into Gaye’s arms. After being rushed to the hospital, Terrell was diagnosed with a tumour that required brain surgery. The initial surgery was successful, and Terrell returned to Detroit to continue laying down duets with Gaye, including classics like ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’ and ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’. However, by the end of 1969, Terrell was forced to retire from live performances, as her health was failing.
After eight operations, Terrell finally succumbed to brain cancer in March of 1970. Motown had already issued Gaye’s and Terrell’s third duet album, Easy, a few months prior, but Gaye claimed that Motown brought in Valerie Simpson to record Terrell’s parts. Devastated by the loss of his creative partner, Gaye considered permanently retiring from music, intent on joining the Detroit Lions NFL team instead. Eventually, Gaye was persuaded to return, and produced his landmark LP What’s Going On a year later.
Check out the isolated vocals of Gaye and Terrell, plus the locked-in bass groove of Motown bassist James Jamerson, down below.