Were Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell Motown's Greatest Duo?

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, 1967
Photo Credit
Gilles Petard/Redferns

The long history of Motown has included a brace of great duets, from The Supremes and The Temptations' "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," to Billy Preston and Syreeta's "With You I'm Born Again," to Lionel Richie and Diana Ross' "Endless Love." Even perennial funkmaster Rick James got into the duet game, both with his protégé Teena Marie ("Fire and Desire") and with Motown stalwart Smokey Robinson ("Ebony Eyes").

Read More: Give It to Me: Rick James' 'Street Songs' At 40

Marvin Gaye, though, had the Motown market cornered on duets, scoring hits with Diana Ross, Mary Wells and Kim Weston. But his best, most lasting work with another singer was arguably the records he made with Tammi Terrell, with whom he created 12 pop chart hits and two R&B chart No. 1s. Their voices slid and glided together as though they were made for each other (perhaps they were). When Terrell died of brain cancer at age 24 - three years after collapsing into Gaye's arms onstage - a devastated Gaye gave up live performance for years, entering a period of emotional turmoil that it is said affected him in ways both negative (his drug addiction) and positive (the spiritual searching that resulted in 1971's What's Going On).

Read More: Songs of Black Lives Matter: Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On"

Were Gaye and Terrell Motown's greatest duo? It's hard to argue against them. Just listen:

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough": This first of many brilliant, beautiful tracks for the duo was, oddly enough, the result of the pair recording separately - Terrell laid down her vocal first, and Gaye's was recorded and mixed with Terrell's later. You'd never know it to hear it.

Read More: April 20, 1967: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell Release "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"

"Your Precious Love": Everyone from Neil and Dara Sedaka to D'Angelo and Erykah Badu have taken a crack at this doo-wop-forward cut, but no one has ever hit that chorus - that gorgeous, modulated chorus - quite like Gaye and Terrell.

"Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing": The chorus of this song cascades down from the heavens; the verses let us believe we're eavesdropping on two lovers expressing their affection for one another; the melody makes us believe every word.

"You're All I Need to Get By": If there's such a thing as secular gospel, this is it - that descending figure that repeats throughout the song; Gaye's "Come on, darling" ad-libs in the pre-chorus; the vocal gymnastics late in the song. Whereas the Motown hit machine was all about tightness, melody, and control, Gaye and Terrell tear at the fabric of the song and seem just shy of breaking through it. It is among the finest songs the label put out in the late '60s, which is saying a lot.

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