Revisiting 'United' by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

It’s rare that a voice overshadows Marvin Gaye’s, but somehow Tammi Terrell manages to accomplish this feat on the duo’s first album together, 1967’s 'United.'
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Duets are almost always a dicey proposition – just listen to Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga in 2014’s uneven and uninspired Cheek to Cheek duet album – but when done well, they can transcend a single voice in every way. The latter is true of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s partnership, especially on their 1967 album United.

Gaye already possesses one of the greatest voices in popular music, but when placed beside Terrell’s it becomes even more of an impressive instrument – capable of both subtle backing parts and take-charge lead lines. Terrell possesses stunning pipes, able to transition seamlessly from a breathy whisper to full-voice hollering within seconds. It was easy to see why Berry Gordy and the Motown head honchos thought their voices would make for commercial success when packaged in unison, and they were right – you can hear the chemistry crackling, even 50 years after the album was released.

Some of the arrangements on the album are dated, specifically the chintzy “Hold Me Oh My Darling,” but the rest of the instrumentation is vibrant and spirited, which is typical of the Motown sound.

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s partnership on their 1967 album United transcends

Terrell tragically died of a brain tumor only three years after this album came out, and Gaye was never the same, despite the fact that they were never romantically linked. Those close to the two singers called their relationship a close, platonic, and almost sibling-like bond. Despite her tragic death, she left behind a unique legacy, and a handful of classic tracks.

Song Highlights

"Ain’t No Mountain High Enough"

The one true masterwork on the album, this song is deeply ingrained in the public consciousness – being given pride of place in the final scene of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Searing vocals highlighted by striking harmonies in the chorus (taken from two separate takes by each artist, recorded separately) with Terrell’s husky, fiery vocals almost overshadowing Gaye's masterclass in diction and soul.

"You’ve Got What It Takes"

Following “Mountain High” was never going to be easy, but Terrell and Gaye offer a terrific track on the heels of that classic. Starting off with a spoken word intro from Terrell (that velvety voice – wow!) and featuring soulful vocals, interesting harmony choices, and an unusual false finish, You’ve Got What It Takes stands out as an excellent track.

"If I Could Build My Whole World Around You"

One of the most romantic songs on an album full of sentimental missives, the call-and-response format of the chorus and pre-chorus brings the palpable chemistry between Terrell and Gaye to the forefront. A lovely song.

"Somethin’ Stupid"

Terrell and Gaye’s take on this standard is a fun, slight aside from the more heartfelt and soulful Motown originals with stellar close-harmonizing from the two vocalists and an engaging, twangy guitar part – all combined with typical 60s orchestral and brass flourishes.

"Two Can Have A Party"

Most albums in the 60s had some filler, and United is no different. What sets the best albums from this period apart is the quality of the filler – an element in which United can boast an impressive array. This jaunty little number features brisk instrumentation and stellar call-and-response verses from Tammi and Marvin. A “cozy chair” has never sounded more alluring than when Marvin Gaye sings about one.

"Your Precious Love"

A jazzy, sauntering number, Your Precious Love starts off with a verse from Gaye that segues into a soaring chorus of close harmonies between himself and Terrell. Clean, smooth guitar and beautiful lyrics (Terrell: “I look in the mirror, and I’m glad to see laughter in the eyes where tears used to be,” Gaye: “What you’ve given me I could never return, ‘cause there’s so much girl I’ve yet to learn”) and the duo’s electric chemistry make this a highlight.

"If This World Were Mine"

A delicate, pensive track with gossamer instrumentation and gorgeous lyrics, this song is worth the price of admission just for the “Gimme plenty lovin’ baby” segment near the end.

"Oh How I’d Miss You"

Closing out the album with gusto, the arrangement for this track features percussive xylophone flourishes, an unforgettable melody, and the soulful call-and-response vocals that typify the entire album. A fitting end to an album that features some of the most powerful chemistry between two singers that’s ever recorded.

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