This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #268: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrill.
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is all the proof you need to know that the roots of Soul and R&B music lay in Gospel. Of the many rousing, soaring, Gospel-influenced songs written in the Motown era, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is one of the most popular. While this song is being sung, you can close your eyes and easily imagine that you are listening to a choir singing in a church, rather than singers on a concert stage. However, despite the joyous nature of this song, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” has a ribbon of tragedy sewn into its’ fabric. That tragic tale involves both singers, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrill and is remarkable for how devastating it all turned out to be for both.
In his early days with Motown Records, Marvin Gaye was often paired with female singers and, as a result, many of his early hits were duets. The way Motown was organized saw songwriters teamed with specific singers; the songwriters would write songs and submit them to CEO Barry Gordy who, in turn, would assign them to his stable of musical talent. Many of these songwriters, such as Smokey Robinson, went on to enjoy successful careers of their own, after they had “paid their dues” as writers first. Like Smokey Robinson, Motown employed a husband and wife team of songwriters, who went on to be successful later on, named Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Ashford and Simpson wrote many hits songs but, for the most part, they were assigned to write duets for pairs such as Marvin Gaye and whoever he happened to be singing with at the time. It was Ashford and Simpson who wrote “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Gaye and Terrill. But, before we get into that, let’s get to know Tammi Terrill.
Her story began the very day she was born. Back in the 1950s, there were no such things as ultrasounds and, consequently, no such things as gender-reveal parties and the like. In those days, you went to the hospital and discovered the sex of your baby the second it was born. Terrill’s birth was the first experience at childbirth for her parents. Like many men of the day, her father hoped to have a son to carry on the family name. He was so convinced that his child would be a boy that he had picked out a name already. That name was to be Thomas. When Terrill was born and found to be female, the father was devastated! So much so that he refused to abandon his dream of a son and thus, his first born daughter was named, “Thomasina”. Her full name was Thomasina Winnifred Montgomery. She was called, “Tommie” up until age twelve when she saw a movie at a theatre that contained a character named “Tammi”. From that point on, she went by the name Tammi Montgomery.
Tammi Montgomery sang in church, like so many people of colour tended to do. She loved singing Gospel songs and became noted for her beautiful, delicate figure and strong, powerful voice. At age 17, she was noticed by one of the most influential men in America at the time, singer James Brown. He hired her to be a back-up singer in his “James Brown Revue”. As you may know by now, Brown was a man who demanded absolute obedience from his crew and was prone to fits of violence and temper should he feel that someone wasn’t pulling their weight or following his orders to a tee. One night, his wrath fell upon the diminutive, Tammi Montgomery. He accused her of not paying enough attention to him while he sang and gave her a severe beating that resulted in much loss of blood and multiple head injuries. Luckily, Montgomery had enough fortitude to walk away from her contract.
After healing, she left her musical career and enrolled in university. However, while at university, she was approached by an executive from a new record label and given a new contract to sing her own songs. She had several minor hits while still managing to keep up with her schooling. Soon, however, she came to the attention of Motown CEO, Barry Gordy, who signed her to a new, richer contract and, just like that, Tammi Montgomery became a Motown singer. Gordy demanded that she change her last name to something that sounded “sexier” and thus, Tammi Montgomery became Tammi Terrill.
Not long after she joined Motown, Terrill became involved with singer, David Ruffin, who, at the time, was with “The Temptations”. Unfortunately for Terrill (and for Ruffian, too, I suppose), Ruffin began drifting from the group, demanding more money and a bigger spotlight and, worst of all, he began dabbling in drugs. In the course of his addiction, he assaulted Terrill, striking her about the head with a motorcycle helmet. She was only 23-24 years old at the time.
Finally, she was paired with singer, Marvin Gaye. Gaye was always known for his lovely singing voice but, he was, also, known for being somewhat a quiet, introverted person when it came to stage presence. By pairing Gaye with the outgoing, vivacious Terrill, Gaye was able to step forward and command the stage with a little more confidence. The two became one of Motown all-time leading musical couples on stage. Off-stage, they became very good and trusting friends. It was to this partnership that Ashford and Simpson bequeathed their favourite song, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. That song became a #1 hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrill. It was just the first of many the duo enjoyed, in partnership with Ashford and Simpson, over the next year.
Then, as if happiness was poison, Terrill collapsed on stage one night into Gaye’s arms. She had always had a history of migraine headaches and, along with the head trauma she received from James Brown and David Ruffin, it turned out that Terrill was suffering from brain cancer. She underwent several unsuccessful operations to remove her tumours. At age 25, she passed away. Mrs. Montgomery, Terrill’s mother, was furious at everyone involved at Motown for contributing to the circumstances that, in her words, accelerated her daughter’s medical condition. At Terrill’s funeral, the only Motown personality allowed to attend was Marvin Gaye. His kind treatment of Terrill stood in stark contrast to how most men had treated her over the course her lifetime.
For Gaye, Terrill’s death touched him deeply. Many believe that his descent into drug and alcohol addiction that characterized his later years, all started with the loss of Terrill from his professional and personal life. As many of you know, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his own father. He was only in his 40s.
As if to resurrect “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from the pit of misery it suddenly found itself in, Diana Ross received permission to record the song as part of her first solo album. The result was a huge hit for Ross. Consequently, the song was such a hit that many people mistakenly believe that “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is, actually, a Diana Ross song. It is not. It was a Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrill song…..until it was too heartbreaking to be theirs anymore.
I will play their version of the song first and then, for those who like Diana Ross’ version, I will play that, too. In both cases, please enjoy this beautiful, uplifting, joyous song. As you do, spare a few thoughts for the two original singers. May they both rest in peace.
The link to the video for the song, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrill, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Marvin Gaye, can be found here.
The link to more information on the life of Tammi Terrill, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Diana Ross, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for supporting the very best musicians, from all eras and musical genres. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.