Soul Serenade: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”
The story of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell is one that ends tragically, but begins in glory. Together they stormed the charts in 1967 with a series of indelible soul pop classics that retain an honored place in popular culture to this day, and are among my favorite recordings in the soul canon.
Some of you will remember that Gaye had an earlier partner, Kim Weston, and in early 1967 they had an international Motown smash hit with their duet “It Takes Two.” But Weston left Motown, and Gaye, forcing him to choose a new singing partner. His choice was Philadelphia’s Tammi Terrell, who was a music business veteran. The duo recorded a string of hits during an 18 month period beginning in 1967. Their first hit was the unforgettable “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Others included “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need To Get By,” and today’s selection, “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”.
“If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” was written by Harvey Fuqua, Johnny Bristol, and Vernon Bullock, and released by Motown’s Tamla subsidiary in December, 1967. It was the duo’s third single together, and second to hit the Top Ten, where it reached #2 on the R&B Chart, and #10 on the Pop Chart. The backing band on the track was, as always, the Funk Brothers.
By the time the single came out, Tammi Terrell was already ill. After complaining of headaches for some time, she collapsed in Gaye’s arms at a college appearance in Virginia on October 14, 1967. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, and although she never performed live again, she did continue to record until 1969. Tammi Terrell died on March 16, 1970. She was only 24 years-old.
Marvin Gaye reacted to his partner’s illness by falling into depression, and even attempted suicide. He was so distraught when she died that at her funeral he spoke to her as she lay in state, as if expecting a response. He became isolated, and didn’t emerge again until 1971, when he released his classic album What’s Going On. The ’70s were both triumphant and trying for Gaye, the latter as a result of his bitter divorce battle with Anna Gordy. After signing with Columbia Records, he made another comeback with his 1982 album Midnight Love, which included the huge single “Sexual Healing.”
When his tour in support of Midnight Love ended in 1983, Gaye, suffering from depression and health issues, isolated himself again, moving into his parent’s house in Los Angeles. There he argued bitterly with his father, and threatened suicide several times. On April 1, 1984, Gaye’s father shot him to death during an argument, and one of music’s brightest lights was extinguished.