Along with the candy, flowers and fuzzy handcuffs, Valentine’s Day is a time for love songs. Some of the greatest were sung by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the duo behind classics such as “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Happy endings are easy when you just have to get through 2:31 to the fadeout; real stories are more complicated …
Marvin Gaye grew up in Washington, D.C., singing in church and trying to avoid the wrath of his abusive father. He was signed to Chess Records as part of a doo-wop group, but joined Motown as a solo artist in 1961. Initially, he was more successful as a songwriter than singer, but within five years, his chart-topping hits included “Can I Get a Witness” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You).”
Philadelphian Tammi Terrell began performing professionally when barely in her teens; around that age, she was raped by several neighborhood boys and also began suffering from persistent, severe headaches. She joined the James Brown Revue but, after a few years, a few singles and a rocky relationship with the Godfather of Soul, she retired to the pre-med program at the University of Pennsylvania. After briefly joining Jerry Butler’s nightclub show, she was seen and signed by Motown’s Berry Gordy.
Male-female love duets were a pillar of pop music, from Louis & Keely to Sonny & Cher to Barbra & Barry. Motown paired Marvin with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and others, but nothing clicked until Tammi. The pair’s first song was 1967’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” When the producers realized what they had, they stripped out backing vocals, leaving the voices front and center, with chemistry so potent it rang true through the tinniest transistor-radios. The pair released three albums, scoring hits on R&B and pop charts, including “You’re All I Need to Get By,” a mini-opera of unshakeable devotion, and “Keep on Lovin’ Me, Honey,” in which a raw-voiced Marvin pleads with Tammi for reassurance, which she supplies with enough tangible warmth to melt an iceberg.
Their relationship became something both more and less than a romance, perhaps because both were involved with other people. Even their personalities complemented each other: Marvin quiet and sensitive, Tammi vivacious and streetwise. He was shy and disliked performing onstage but Tammi relaxed him. In video clips, they are radiant, gazing into each other’s eyes, tossing off vocal ad-libs and improvised dance moves.
But it couldn’t last. Tammi’s headaches had been getting worse. One night, she collapsed into Marvin’s arms during a concert and was carried offstage; doctors discovered a malignant brain tumor. Her last public appearance was in 1969 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Marvin was performing. He saw her from the stage and walked through the audience to her as the two began singing “You’re All I Need to Get By” one last time.
The song played again several months later at Tammi’s funeral, as Marvin delivered the eulogy. Marvin withdrew from performing for several years, saying it was “as though she was dying for everyone who wouldn’t find love. My heart was broken … I could no longer pretend to sing love songs for people.” Tammi’s death helped inspire What’s Going On, his greatest work, but it also pushed him into depression and drug abuse, which ended when his father shot him in 1984.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “A sentimental person thinks things will last, a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t.” “All I Need” is a romantic song because of that lingering note of the nearly was, the sound of a fairytale within reach but never grasped. Maybe somewhere, in a place free of headaches and heartaches, where there’s no dope or despair, Marvin and Tammi are raising their voices high enough to finally reach happily ever after.