Remembering Tammi Terrell

R&B singer's sister unveils brief, tragic life in biography

Books

October 02, 2005|By ANNE TALLENT | ANNE TALLENT,SUN REPORTER

Like many younger siblings, Ludie Montgomery adored and admired her older sister as a model of beauty, popularity and talent. But no other girl had as an older sister Thomasina Montgomery, better known by her Motown stage name, Tammi Terrell.

Now, 35 years after Terrell's death at age 24, Montgomery has overcome a litany of troubles to co-author a biography of her sister, who gained fame as Marvin Gaye's duet partner on such songs as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Your Precious Love."

The broad outline of My Sister Tommie: The Real Tammi Terrell (released by Bank House Books in June) has the makings of a Hollywood biopic: A Philadelphia girl and a stage mother, both so driven that Terrell began her show-biz career in her teens. A tour with James Brown, playing places such as the Royal Theater in Baltimore. Rough relationships with Brown and Temptations lead singer David Ruffin. A phenomenal pairing with Gaye at Motown that created a deep friendship. The brain cancer that sent her falling into Gaye's arms during a 1967 performance in Virginia and killed her in 1970.

In fact, Montgomery, 55, who still lives in Philadelphia, and co-author Vickie Wright, 39, of California are shopping around a screenplay, hoping to attract Beyonce Knowles or other marquee names.

But Montgomery's story, which she reveals in the book, is also dramatic -- a tale of sisterly love, suffering and strength. During their childhood, spent with their parents and a stern aunt, the girls' mother was often hospitalized with depression and headaches.

As Terrell fell ill, Montgomery was caring for her own infant son, and her husband was serving in Vietnam. Terrell's death isolated the family, she says. After their mother had surgery for an aneurysm, she fell into a vegetative state and remained that way for seven years. Montgomery's marriage crumbled. Her father died, then her mother. She nearly committed suicide.

"I was just overwhelmed during that period. I was so young," she says in an interview. "I can't describe it -- the hurt and the loneliness, the abandonment. You feel like Robinson Crusoe during those lonely years."

Eventually, she built up her faith in God and realized that she was not alone. In the 1990s, she started making contact with Terrell's fans and colleagues such as Kim Weston, another duet partner with Gaye.

Montgomery has worked in the Philadelphia courts, as a travel agent and in cosmetics. Between working and caring for family members, Montgomery says, she didn't face her feelings. When she finally had the time, the readiness and Wright's aid, working on the book was a cathartic gift. As Wright says, "She needed to do this."

It was also a gift for fans, many of whom visit Web sites devoted to Terrell and have formed fan clubs.

"This is the thing that I wanted to see happen for 30 years," says Keith Summers, 38, of Columbia, who attended a book-signing recently.

Summers recalls listening to a Motown compilation record at a friend's house when he was about 9 or 10 and hearing "I Can't Believe You Love Me," one of Terrell's solo recordings.

Like many fans, he was hooked on Terrell's music but frustrated by the lack of information on the singer. Up until now, most information on Terrell had been published in biographies of Gaye; several authors have reported that her illness and death sent him into a creative slump.

The new book, available on Amazon.com, is the recollection of a loving relative. And Montgomery isn't finished. Efforts are under way to have Terrell inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in New York and to have Gaye and Terrell inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Sharon, Pa.

But the toughest part is over.

"I'm good," Montgomery says. "God brought me through."

anne.tallent@baltsun.com

TAMMI TERRELL'S

NOTABLE SINGLES

"If You See Bill" as Tammy Montgomery (1961)

"I Cried" as Tammy Montgomery (1963)

"I Can't Believe You Love Me" (1965)

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough" with Marvin Gaye (1967)

"Your Precious Love" with Gaye (1967)

"If I Could Build My Whole World Around You" with Gaye (1967)

l "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" with Gaye (1968)

"You're All I Need to Get By" with Gaye (1968)

"What You Gave Me" with Gaye (1969)

"Onion Song" with Gaye (1970)

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