Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

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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.

7 thoughts on “Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

    1. Absolutely. I hope Terrell’s family were able to take care of her medical bills with the royalties from those last two albums. There’s no reason that last duet album to exist otherwise. Thanks for reading, Scott.

  1. In the interests of balance, it’s only Marvin who ever claimed (in the interviews for David Ritz’ biography, IIRC) that Tammi wasn’t on Easy; both Valerie Simpson and Tammi’s own sister have always consistently denied it, Valerie even going into extreme detail about them bringing Tammi into the studio and painstakingly recording one or two lines at a time before she had to go away and rest.

    Simpson does admit standing in for Tammi for Marvin to do his vocals when there wasn’t a pre-recorded Tammi track for him to sing and react to, and suggests that maybe this is what Marvin got confused, but remains adamant that her guide vocals were replaced and that she isn’t featured on the finished record. If you listen to Simpson’s own solo records and compare them to the vocal that’s supposedly her on e.g. The Onion Song, they really don’t sound that much alike.

    I like to think it’s Tammi.

    1. Thanks for reading, Nixon. That’s some great perspective. It implies, however, that Tammi was coming back in the studio to cut tracks. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I always understood that she never sang or performed again after her onstage collapse. If she didn’t return to the studio, then why would Gaye needed to sing with Simpson’s guide tracks? He could have just used Tami’s unused “solo” recordings.
      Can anyone else shed light on this?

  2. Well, I can clear up one thing: Tammi definitely did both perform and return to the studio a number of times since her collapse; her last visit to Motown was in March 1969, when supposedly her final few vocals for a couple of tracks on Easy were finished off.

    Valerie Simpson’s own story is that she filled in for Tammi as a guide vocal for Marvin to sing to when there wasn’t a Tammi track to serve that purpose, presumably because Marvin had other commitments and it took so long to record Tammi by that stage. In the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 9, page 108, Simpson says:

    “I’ve heard that so many times, but it’s not really true. To the extent that yes, when she was sick, I would stand in for her initially. But after we got Marvin’s part down, we would painstakingly bring her in and do her in a different kind of way because, at that juncture, she really wasn’t well. I’ve heard this all along, but I’m just not that good. I’m good, but I’m not that good.”

    According to Tammi’s sister Ludie Montgomery, Tammi felt well enough to perform live with James Brown at Seton Hall in March 1969, so she was far from hospital-bound and bedridden at the time – I believe it was more a case of having good days and bad days until her last series of operations and her final decline. (Ludie also claims to be able to recognise her sister’s voice rather than Simpson’s).

    Simpson’s suggestion is that Marvin simply remembered singing with her in the studio, and the passing of time and his Seventies, um, “recreational habits” caused him to first misremember, and then swear by, a new version of events. It’s a bit of a confusing picture, because Nick Ashford didn’t exactly deny it when confronted with the suggestion after Divided Soul came out, but Marvin said a lot of rather bizarre things in that book that have since proved somewhat questionable, and obviously he wasn’t around to ask to clear things up, so I don’t know if we’ll ever really know the truth.

    It doesn’t really matter, I suppose; Simpson had a good voice on her (check out her Exposed LP) and Marvin had a lot of duet partners in his time, so it doesn’t really devalue these records; like I said, I just really like to believe that it’s Tammi singing on them.

    1. Thanks for taking time to respond again, Nixonradio. I was extremely interested in the Motown Singles sets, but they were beyond my budget. The limited press run caused them to quickly go out of print and eclipse their original price. I’m envious that you have at least one of these. Simpson’s quote seals the deal for me, and honestly it makes me feel a lot better about those projects, too. It always got a bit queasy thinking Berry Gordy kept Terrell’s name on the albums to keep the commercial franchise alive while having someone else perform. I also feel better knowing Terrell was still able to sing and record after her collapse. Her story was always a tragedy. Thanks to your insight, it is considerably less sad.

  3. With the greatest respect for Valerie Simpson as an individual and as a brilliant talent, it’s very clear on the “Easy” album that Tammi Terrell’s voice is heard only on two tracks left over for recording sessions for the previous two Marvin and Tammi albums. Anyone with musical training can easily hear the differences in intonation and timbre and placement. Furthermore, none of the Marvin and Tammi duets were recorded as duets; the singers were always recorded separately to give producers the maximum choice in mixing, so it wasn’t a matter of Simpson doing guide tracks for Gaye to react to. Berry Gordy wanted the album completed to insure royalties for Tammi’s family but even upon its release many people noted there were two voices doing Tammi’s part. I think it is unkind to indicate Marvin Gaye was confused in discussing this matter; he was indeed very clear about what was taking place and it bothered him for many years until he finally spoke about it.

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