Tag Archives: tammi terrell

America/Idea

I fell in love with an idea of America.

Desert roads, haze on the horizon, white lines on grey tarmac disappearing to the vanishing point in the impossible distance.

Art Deco towers in chrome and steel, visions of the future from the 30s.

Open skies above endless plains.

Wrought iron fire escape stairs unwinding down concrete buildings.

John Ford vistas in Monument Valley. Woody and Diane on a bench in Central Park, Springsteen ripping up the Jersey shore, Marvin and Tammi radiating love and colour through black and white TV sets, and Bob and Jeff in the Village, decades apart, holding coffee shops with just a guitar and poetry. Joni in Laurel Canyon.

Sane crazy dreamers on Haight Asbury, daisy chain strings in their hair, tuning in, turning on, dropping out. Pushing furthur on the bus with Kesey and the Pranksters. Chasing the ghost of Gram Parsons in the scrub of Joshua Tree.

Pedal steels and heartbreak.

Adidas trainers, laces pulled out, tapping on caged courts cracked under the sun.

Shore to shore, coast to coast, highways criss crossing State lines and states of mind.

I fell in love. And my idea of America remains.

We got love sewn up, that’s enough

3. You’re All I Need To Get By – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

When: 1999 to today

Two minutes and fifty one seconds. It will take longer to read these thousand or so words than listen to the song. If you’re short for time then, seriously, skip the words and listen to the song: everything you need to know about joy, about love, about the best parts of life, is there.

Tammi Terrell was born Thomasina Montgomery in 1945. She died, aged just 24, in 1970 of complications from brain cancer. Marvin Gaye was born Marvin Gay in 1939. He died, aged just 44, in 1984: fatally shot by his father. Two lives cut tragically short that entwined to glorious but brief effect, from ’67 until Terrell’s death, on thirty six songs spread across three albums.

Terrell was singing from her mid teens, working back up for James Brown and releasing material as a solo artist until she came to the attention of Berry Gordy who signed her to Motown in 1965. Gordy suggested the name change from Montgomery to Terrell and, two years later, hooked her up with Gaye to record a series of duets. Her life to that point had seen more than its share of pain; Terrell was raped as an eleven year old, was beaten by James Brown, and later suffered further physical abuse from David Ruffin, singer with the Temptations, with whom she had a love affair without realizing that he was married with three children. In contrast to all of that she forged a close, platonic friendship with Gaye and they complemented each other perfectly as performers: her street sass against his boy-next-door charm.

Their partnership was underpinned by the songwriting of Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford whose opening gift to them was “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. As opening gifts go that’s not too shabby. Footage of Gaye and Terrell performing together seems pretty rare but there’s a couple of performances of this song on Youtube (here and here) which are well worth watching to get a visual sense of their chemistry; they are utterly adorable and she’s sensational. There’s also a great 40 minute TV documentary – Unsung – which tells the story of her life if you’re curious for more. It’s a story that’s crying out for a biopic and she deserves to be much better known.

“You’re All I Need To Get By”, their sixth single, would have been part of my childhood. Picking up the thread from the last entry my parents had a number of Motown compilation albums – all in the Motown Chartbusters series. Volume 3 (the one with a silver, almost mirrored cover) is an absolute doozy – all killer, no filler, including:

Marvin Gaye: I Heard It Through The Grapevine

Diana Ross & The Supremes: I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, Love Child

Stevie Wonder: My Cherie Amour, For Once In My Life

The Isley Brothers: This Old Heart Of Mine

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas: Dancing In The Street

The Temptations: Get Ready

Jr Walker & The All Stars: (I’m A) Roadrunner

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles: Tracks Of My Tears

It’s the one you’d send into space, the one that would serve any party anywhere in the world, for any age group. What are you waiting for ? You can pick up volumes 1 to 3 for less than a fiver. Two hours of the finest crafted pop music in history for the price of a couple of cappuccinos.

Musically “You’re All I Need To Get By” departed a little from the Motown template and feels rooted in soul and gospel. Lyrically it’s a heartfelt, straightforward dedication of love. There’s a purity to Gaye and Terrell’s duets, sweet without being saccharine, romantic but real. They’re incredibly light of touch, perfectly capturing the heady sensation of falling in love; for me they’re the perfect encapsulation of that initial realisation that you’ve fallen for someone. They sound like they’re in love – tonally complementing each other, improvised call and response, harmonies to die for. All the more remarkable given that, for the most part, they recorded their vocals separately – scarcely believable when you listen. It sounds like they must have been face to face singing into the same microphone.

For much of my life the sentiment in “You’re All I Need To Get By” was an aspiration, a desire to find the one person that I wanted to spend my days with. That changed in 1999 when, through good fortune and a fair amount of alcohol, I met my wife. I’ve been on innumerable corporate “development” events over the past 18 years or so, learning how to bluff accounting (finance for non-finance managers – as soul destroying as it sounds), how to give feedback (“your punctuality can’t be faulted but….”), and even how to listen (a skill not found in abundance in most large organisations). I’ve taken Myers Briggs to uncover my personality preferences (INTP if you’re interested – if you’re also INTP then you would be), Belbin to work out my team role (can’t remember but definitely not completer finisher), and conducted various quizzes and questionnaires designed to work out what I’m best at. However, the one lasting, constant change to who I am, to my entire life, that arose from one of these events was meeting Nikki.

In early ’99 I had relocated from Nottingham and the world of hosiery and vitamins at Boots to live in London, commuting out to Comet in Rickmansworth. At the time Comet was still part of the larger Kingfisher group and, by some subterfuge, I had blagged my way on to participate in the development events that supported KMDS (Kingfisher Management Development Scheme) – essentially a graduate program to shape their business leaders of tomorrow.

The first event I attended was in Southampton and ran across two days. I have absolutely no idea what the course content was but can remember that we ended up in a dodgy club called Jumpin’ Jacks on the night out: this will tell you all you need to know about my less than meteoric career rise since. During the course of said night out I spent a lot of time talking to Nikki Matthews whom I’d met that day. Sassy, sexy, clever, and prepared to argue the case for late 90s boy bands with a surprising degree of passion. This is her, obviously, not me. Sparks flew.

Fast forward a few months and Nikki moves to Comet. Serendipitous. Once again we got to spend some time together on a development course; this time an outward bound leadership event in Devon. I was a delegate, Nikki was a facilitator. This was the first and last time in my working life that I had to rescue someone from a pothole or salvage toxic nuclear waste from an island (losing only one person to the lake and no-one to the fake radioactive material). Subsequently there hasn’t been much call for either skill in the topsy turvy world of market research. Nikki had to follow me on one of the exercises and appraise my performance: it was also the first and last time she had to chase after me. A post course invitation to lunch, to “get some additional feedback” (real smooth, Phil), and the rest is history.

I can’t genuinely lay claim to “You’re All I Need To Get By” being an intrinsic part of our early relationship; it was never “our song”. In fact, that part of our time together was marked, not entirely ironically, by a shared love of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle” and, later, by Josh Rouse’s “Slaveship”. The reasons for the former now escape me, I may return to the latter at a later stage in the 42.

However, I can lay claim to the song speaking fundamentally to me about the enduring love I have for my wife; both in the expression of the romantic ideal of love but also the recognition that it’s something that takes work, that deepens with effort and time. I can’t say it better than the song says it: 

Cause we, we got the right foundation and with love and determination
You’re all, you’re all I want to strive for and do a little more
You’re all, all the joys under the sun wrapped up into one
You’re all, you’re all I need, you’re all I need, you’re all I need to get by

Ultimately that this pure expression of love should come from two singers that led, on the face of it, such tragic lives is fascinating to me. Particularly with respect to Tammi Terrell – on recording this song she had been diagnosed with cancer, had undertaken a major operation to remove a tumour from her brain, and had lived a short life enduring dysfunctional, violent relationships and ongoing pain from her illness. It’s testament to her prowess as a performer or her spirit as a human bring, or both, that she’s able to articulate so convincingly one of the finest experiences as a person – falling and being in love – whilst suffering so much. Her story is an inspiration and, whilst mine might not inspire the world at large in quite the same way, I’ll always endeavour to carry some of the same sentiment, the same courage, and the same joy in being in love and being alive.