Listen to this track by Motown titan and smooth as silk soul-pop provider Marvin Gaye, along with his vocal counterbalance, and no slouch in the soaring vocal department herself, Tammi Terrell. It’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, a single from writing partnership and real-life couple Ashford & Simpson. The song was a top twenty hit single in 1967, released on the Tamla label, a sister label of Motown, eventually appearing on the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell joint album United.
The song was thought of by its writers as being their golden ticket into the Motown stable, even turning down Dusty Springfield who wanted to record it herself. Ashford and Simpson held it back , and it was eventually offered as a duet to Marvin Gaye, and to Tammi Terrell who made it one of the most prominent songs of the Motown catalogue, and an important record of the whole decade. Later on, Diana Ross would record it when she split with the Supremes and went solo in 1970. It would be a number one hit, and become a signature tune for her.Yet, it’s the alchemy that the Gaye-Terrell version offers that makes this the definitive version of the song.
Terrell had signed with Motown at the tender age of twenty, after a short career of minor hits, and even a time at the University of Pennsylvania as a pre-med student. But despite the run of singles and albums she would have with Marvin Gaye as her singing partner, Terrell would face greater challenges of a more personal nature.
Tammi Terrell’s voice would be the perfect balance to Marvin Gaye’s, and she would be specifically chosen to replace Kim Weston as his singing partner. As young as she was, she was no babe in the woods, having worked with Bert Burns, James Brown, and Jerry Butler even before she signed with Berry Gordy. By the time she was paired with Gaye, she’d gained valuable stage experience, and had recorded some minor soul hits from 1965 onward. Upon becoming a Motown artist, she toured with the Motown revue and opened for the Temptations as a solo artist, even starting a relationship with David Ruffin.
As you can hear on this song, she really shines when matched with Marvin Gaye, with her sweet girl-next-door voice contrasted against Gaye’s desperate and passionate man of seasoned experience voice, although personality-wise the two were reported to have been each other’s diametrical opposites on this score; Gaye being the introverted shy one, and Terrell as the extroverted streetwise one. All the while their growing personal relationship was akin to two siblings, despite their sexual chemistry on record.
This being their first go-round as a unit together, the two artists had recorded their vocals separately on this track, and the duet was created in the studio . But that aforementioned chemistry was undeniable anyway, bolstering the epic grandeur and sweeping romanticism of the material, making it one of the biggest songs of the 1960s in terms of scale, and of sales too. It became a major crossover pop hit, as well as scoring big returns on the R&B charts too. Gaye and Terrell were Motown’s golden couple, with Gaye calling her his perfect musical partner.
Their collaboration yielded several hits of the classic Motown era, including “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, “You’re All I Need To Get By”, and “Your Precious Love”, also all Ashford and Simpson songs. They would record three albums together over the next two years, with this period being looked upon by many as one of the finest in Marvin Gaye’s career, with Terell contributing significantly to that success.
But, there was something very wrong.
Terrell had suffered migraines for many years, and one night during a concert in Virginia, Terrell stumbled on stage and collapsed in Gaye’s arms. He carried her offstage. Later, it was discovered that she was suffering from malignant tumours in her brain. From their initial success in the spring of 1967, and through 1969, Terrell kept up a recording schedule while also undergoing several operations to remove the tumours. None were successful in the long term, and Tammi Terrell died in March of 1970 at the young age of 24, the same year Diana Ross recorded her version of this song.
Retrospectively, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is an anthem to Terrell’s determination to succeed despite her cancer diagnosis the very year she gained international succcess, as well as to her considerable talent. Not too many other singers can shine with equal brightness as Marvin Gaye under any conditions, let alone ones with a terminal illness. The song’s epic quality would attract cover versions from many. But, this original version is the one by which all others must be judged, including Diana Ross’, largely due to the sheer defiant vitality that Tammi Terrell brought to the performance.
Marvin Gaye would of course continue to make his mark as one of the most gifted vocalists of his generation. But with Terrell gone, this vital phase of his career was at an end, with that combinations of voices bursting with personality never to be repeated.
To learn more about Marvin Gaye’s career as one-half of a duetting team with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and eventually Diana Ross, take a read of this article from the New Yorker, which also touches on how important the duet was to pop music at one time as a hit-making template, even if that became less the case later on.
You can read more about the life and career of Tammi Terrell here.