Marvin and Tammi
By sean mcnulty
Marvin and Tammi
They did not merge physically, were never lovers – they met only in a show of perfect flawless devotion. In the early days, they would meet by chance in the halls of Hitsville, and flirt innocently with one another.
Is that my lover, Marvin Gaye, where he be rushin’ off to? Tammi would ask.
Hey, Tammi, Marvin would reply. I got some shit to do somewhere.
You got some shit to do?
Shit takes a lotta doin’, these days, baby.
Always a front. Always treading the boards. It was more fun when it was an act. The real thing bore too much trauma with it, too much pain better left alone. With this, they could encapsulate the most immaculate love story in the world, minus the customary manacles.
It’s a trick from the beginning, a beautiful deceit in the very fabric of its dawn. Their first song together, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, is in fact recorded separately, their voices meeting for the first time in some cosmic tin-canned moment inside of a recording studio to the delight of some studious engineer. It has been recorded as a Tammi Terrell solo number, and is all set for release, when Motown’s founder Berry Gordy Jr. suggests Marvin’s vocal be added to make it a duet. In those days, both Marvin and Tammi simply go ahead and do what they’re told. No questions asked. Marvin arrives in the studio one evening and works towards rolling his own vocal around Tammi’s pre-recorded track. But this is no straightforward recording session for Marvin. Something happens that day. Two lost voices meet. Even though she’s not in the room as he sings, Marvin is absolutely aware of Tammi’s presence, somehow in complete attunement with her being. He has sung to invisible lovers previously, but now she materialises before him.
Both are puppets of the hit factory, acting out one of a million tales, potentially one in a million. Here is where love is manufactured, but done so with care and empathy, with the hard bits left out, no pips to choke on.
Tammi takes a lot of shit from the younger ladies of Motown as a result of her affair with David Ruffin of the Temptations. They bitterly besmirch her name daily under guarded hush all along the halls of Hitsville. What a little slut! Who does she think she is? Where does she come from anyhow? She ain’t from Detroit! Shacks up with David and suddenly she got leverage.
Tammi chooses to ignore the infighting. She smiles at one and all when she passes them in the halls. Ain’t got nothin’ on me!
Marvin, being married to Anna Gordy, Berry’s daughter, encounters similar jealousy amongst his peers. Not only is he married into the Gordy family, and receiving what many consider to be preferential treatment, he after all models himself in these early years after Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, softly-does-it-stylings, and show-tunes – in the R&B world, his act is generally thought of as one of condescending pomposity.
Tammi’s tempestuous affair with David Ruffin, the latest in a series of abusive relationships, is in full swing.
I like David, but he’s goddamn crazy, Marvin tells Tammi.
Crazies belong together, don’t you know, she says, smiling. Come on, Marvin, it takes two, baby!
I don’t know, I just think you should…I just worry about you.
Oh, Marvin, sweet man of mine, you’re just too good, you know that. I know David’s got a bad streak in him, but I’ve seen that in everybody. People just ain’t perfect, Marvin. The real thing is pretty hairy, you know. You just gotta accept it. In all folks, there’s some bad, and there’s some good.
Their first show together: There’s something different about Marvin as he takes to this stage. He is wearing as always the elegant and rather conservative suit, the obligatory attire of the young modern crooner, but he moves towards the centre of the stage with a greater calm and poise, more comfortable than before, more than just suit and voice. Tammi complains about headaches before the show. She gets these from time to time. But it’s long forgotten in the overflowing brightness of her first appearance. She skims out like the spirited pixie everyone knows, but her cheeky teasing way is amplified in Marvin’s company, is a show in itself. The songs they sing together, written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, a married song-writing duo, are on their surface slight uncomplicated Motown numbers, but treated to the fizzling energy of Marvin and Tammi’s pairing, these songs rise from the stage, soaring above like great winged deities, no longer simply pleasing ephemeral jingles, but grand celestial statements on the subject of human love.
The love story presented, and established, Marvin and Tammi set out to colour it, recording more singles, albums, performing concerts from state to state.
Tammi’s headaches worsen when they arrive in Virginia. She spends much of her time in the dressing room, falling in and out of consciousness. Marvin can see her frailty as they ready to mount the stage. She is moving with a certain drowsiness, which cannot have gone unnoticed, but she fights the concern of others with characteristic resilience.
You okay, baby? Marvin asks, as they stand waiting for the stage announcer to introduce them.
I’m great, she replies. A little tired, but it’s nothing. Ain’t no mountain!
After two songs, Tammi loses her footing and constancy. The audience watch in stunned confusion as she buckles and begins to fall. Marvin catches her in his arms, and holds her up. She looks up towards him and smiles warmly, but as she lowers the glance, Marvin observes that Tammi’s mischievous playful features of old have left, now replaced with an exhausted expression that is foreign to her buoyant face. The music sputters into a dark silence, rhythms dimming, handclaps slowing and finally dying.
Tammi’s recording career comes to an end at that very moment. She is diagnosed with a brain tumour. She never takes to the stage again and dies three years later. Those last few years are spent emaciated and numb, in hospital beds, and wheelchairs.
The rumours begin to whirl. That Tammi had been beaten with a hammer by one of her drunken boyfriends, that David Ruffin had roughed her up prior to the concert, that her headaches began at the same time as her apparently violent early association with James Brown. But nothing could be said for sure of these rumours.
Marvin reacts to Tammi’s death by withdrawing from Motown for some time.
He eventually returns to the label, following a long re-evaluation of his life and music, in order to write and produce an album entitled What’s Going On, an unbroken sequence of music concerning social and spiritual identity.
We got a good thing goin’, Mr. Gaye, Tammi tells Marvin following their first performance together. No damn two ways about it. You think we’ll ever get past the show though, break free from the act, and be real with one another. You know, the real thing.
We are the real thing, replied Marvin. No damn two ways about it.