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Monday, March 12, 2018

Marvin Gaye (w. Tammi Terrell): United

MARVIN GAYE: UNITED (1967) (w. Tammi Terrell)

1) Ain't No Mountain High Enough; 2) You Got What It Takes; 3) If I Could Build My Whole World Around You; 4) Somethin' Stupid; 5) Your Precious Love; 6) Hold Me Oh My Darling; 7) Two Can Have A Party; 8) Little Boy, Little Ole Girl; 9) If This World Were Mine; 10) Sad Wedding; 11) Give A Little Love; 12) Oh How I'd Miss You.

General verdict: Some of the liveliest duet singing in Motown history captured here.

Thomasina Winifred Montgomery, better known as Tammi Terrell (because alliterations are good for you, as per Berry Gordy), had two things going for / against her: she was gorgeous, and she died at the age of 24 from a brain tumor. For, because this is why she is still being remembered; against, because, well, first of all, dying at the age of 24 from a brain tumor really sucks, and second, because this kind of posthumous fame naturally makes one question whether there is anything else to her, you know? (The same kind of question that would, three decades later, be asked about Aaliyah).

Of course, it is often hard to tell with classic Motown performers: there were so many of them, and so many of them completely depended on their songwriters, musicians, arrangers, and pro­ducers, that assessing the degree of «raw talent» in each one of them is a very difficult and highly subjective matter — in a way, you could argue that it wasn't until the next decade that everything properly fell into place, and by the time that decade started, Tammi was already dead anyway. But one thing is for certain: United is the first really, really good album of duets between Marvin and another lady singer — and, although it shows great promise, it would not be topped ever again, sadly, for reasons beyond anybody's control. After the somewhat lukewarm chemistry with Mary Wells, and after the promise with Kim Weston that was sadly undermined by the subpar quality of the material, third time is the charm: with Tammi at his side, and with a few song­writing remedies applied, Marvin finally hits gold, or at least silver.

Like its predecessors, United is unabashed sentimental teen-pop, but, like the best of sentimental teen-pop (think Supremes or Shangri-La's), it finally manages to bottle some of the spirit of the times — upbeat, optimistic, playful, innocent, harmless, and generally clad in solid hooks, this time mostly courtesy of the songwriting team of Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol (who also co-produced the record). I suppose that Kim Weston could have handled the partner role in such a venture, too, but now that Tammi is here, she proves to be quite a versatile and worthy compa­nion: she can belt it out when the song requires for a belt-out, she can coo and croon, and she can build up a perfectly credible musical relationship with Marvin (in real life, it never came to that, since Marvin preferred to structure their friendship along the «caring elder brother / sympathetic younger sister» line — probably just as well, since both of Tammi's previous relationships, with James Brown and David Ruffin respectively, used to end up in beatings).

ʽAin't No Mountain High Enoughʼ, announcing the arrival of the Ashford & Simpson songwriting team to Motown, was the first single from the album, and I believe that the original version is still more frequently played on the radio than the puffed-up, gospelized, monumentalized Diana Ross version from 1970 — which does have its place in the universe as well, but there is really no beating the steady, danceable build-up of the first take. Its placement here as the first track is almost symbolic, too: the song is a grandiose, chivalrous pledge, and while ʽIt Takes Twoʼ was a breathtaking, fun, sexy romp between two singers, here you get the subconscious feeling that something far more special is taking place. And it would have been simple to just record the song as a slow, sappy romantic serenade — instead, there is a wild beat, and the vocal lines come on like gradually surging waves, building up to the chorus release: quite spectacular.

Motown was so swayed by the success of the single that they followed it up with another Ashford & Simpson composition, ʽYour Precious Loveʼ — which charted even higher, despite being much less explosive; more of a traditional slow doo-wop number, it has a fairly standard, though enjoyable, descending guitar melody and an equally standard, though enjoyable, descending vocal hook ("heaven... must have sent you... from abo-o-ove..."). There is a spark to it, though, just as there is one in the third single, ʽIf I Could Build My Whole World Around Youʼ, whose «hook» is actually limited to some doo-doo-doo's in the chorus. Simply put, there is a lot of life in Tammi's vocals — the sort of life that even inspires surrounding musicians to play with more verve, and inspires Marvin to sing with even more verve and openness than usual. (It is said that Tammi, with her love of public performance, actually pushed Marvin to overcome his stage fright, which would later return in full force once she passed away).

In compositional terms, these songs are nothing special, but when you cannot invent an original genre, it always makes sense to be influenced by the best possible ones — thus, ʽYou Got What It Takesʼ emulates the Ike & Tina Turner approach, and although Tammi could never hope to have Tina's swagger, the two produce quite a respectable approximation. ʽTwo Can Have A Partyʼ is infectiously fun Sam-Cooke-meets-Supremes stuff; and ʽSomethin' Stupidʼ is faster, bouncier, cheerier, and groovier than the Sinatras' version. As for Marvin himself, he only contributes one song, ʽIf This World Were Mineʼ, and while it is not one of his best compositions on the whole, the only thing that really matters is the call-and-response "if this world were mine..." hook between Marvin and Tammi — in fact, I'd have no problem with it if the entire song just featured them bouncing that line back and forth between each other.

All in all, it's all fairly slight and giggly, but it is very difficult not to smile when listening to this album — and you certainly do not need to be aware of its contrast with the tragic future of both members of this duet in order to smile; but the very contrast between how much pulsating life this record contains and how much death would follow in its wake certainly adds an extra dimension to the experience. Highly recommended.


  1. I love that this album doesn't follow the '1 hit and 9 b-sides' pattern. Also to me the key success apart from the songs' quality is Tammi's temperate vocal delivery, which really sets the ground for Marvin to open up more than he used to. Great duo.

  2. Yeah, this one is a total blast. And conceptually perfect aside from "Sad Wedding," which is pretty dorky and dumb. Great review, George