Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Pop # 8, R&B # 1
By Joel Francis
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s first album together, “United,” was a smash that spawned three Top 5 R&B hits and turned Gaye into a soul superstar. A follow-up was inevitable. In March, 1968, less than three months after the release of their previous single, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” announced the fruits of the duo’s new collaborations.
“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” is more of a Brill Building pop song than a soul number. Each singer gets two brief verses, but the heavy emphasis is on the chorus, which is usually repeated. There is a touch of Carol King’s phrasing in Terrell’s verses and the piano line – particularly the bit that introduces the first verse owes to King’s style. Although the structure is deceptively simple, the song works because the hook allows the complementary voices to dance. The clever bridge also surprises up the verse-chorus structure.
The song is definitely outside of the Motown paradigm, but Gaye’s voice , especially the soulful moans that appear after the drums and bass introduce the song, let the listener know we’re still deep in Motown territory.
Sadly, “Real Thing” was the next-to-last “real thing” Gaye and Terrell worked on together. In October, 14, 1967, following the completion of the No. 1 R&B hit “You’re All I Need To Get By,” Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms while performing at college homecoming in Virginia. Doctors diagnosed Terrell with a brain tumor and her days as a singer and performer were over.
Gaye completed the pair’s second album, “You’re All I Need,” by overdubbing his voice to Terrell solo recordings, a trick reprised on the duo’s third and final album, “Easy.” Largely present in name only, “Easy,” found Valerie Simpson standing in for Terrell on all but two albums. “Easy” spawned three Top 20 R&B hits, but nothing as influential or wonderful as “Real Thing.”
When Terrell died at age 24 on March 16, 1970, Motown released her final “duet” with Gaye in tribute.
“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” has been a go-to duet for 40 years. Diana Ross and the Supremes were the first to capitalize, recording a version with the Temptations in 1969. The following year the Ross-relieved Supremes cut another version with the Four Tops. The Jackson 5 included their cover on their 1972 album “Lookin’ Out the Windows.” Aretha Franklin recorded a rare solo version of the song in 1974.
Other performers to record “Real Thing” include Donny and Marie Osmond, Gladys Knight and Vince Gill, Elton John and Marcella Detroit, and Beyonce and Justin Timberlake. Michael McDonald and Boyz II Men also included interpretations of the number on their Motown tribute albums.