Remembering Terry Callier

Terry Callier
Terry Callier. Image by Johan Palmgren

Today is the 6th anniversary of the passing of Terry Callier.

I’ve been meaning to write this in time for the anniversary of his death for at least the past 3-years. After really enjoying his Hidden Conversations album [youtube playlist], I put it on my to-do list and here it is. I’ve tried not to just repeat all the other obituaries and rather make this more of a retrospective.

I don’t recall precisely when I became aware of Terry, sometime in the late 1990’s. Probably in some activity or performance around the 1998 release of his Timepeace album. My favorite Callier track, as I suspect many of his UK fan base was the eponymous Ordinary Joe, only bettered by the Nujabes 2005 album remix version.

Terry and his music reminded me why, and rekindled my love of soul music. His style, reminiscent in many ways of Gil-Scott Heron, lyrics often protest or love based. The ying/yang of soul music.

Callier, a Chicago native, he grew-up in the same Cabrini neighborhood as Major Lance, Jerry Butler, Ramsey Lewis and Curtis Mayfield also Charles Stepney, and via his early recording on Chess, house drummer Maurice White, who with Stepney went on to create the Earth, Wind and Fire sound and extravaganza. That area of Chicago was a petri dish for soul music. Callier though was largely undervalued and overlooked in the US. His style, his music, and his personality didn’t fit into a music business stereotype.

Part preacher, part activist, gentle soul, unassuming, and real Dad, Callier was renowned for making short term decisions based only on what was right. He effectively quit the music business in the mid-80’s to become a full time Dad and support his daughter who decided she wanted to stay in Chicago and attend high school there.

By the mid-90’s though, Callier got caught up in the whirlwind of being an American black musician is the UK. It’s something that happens to you, and for you, if you let it. Unlike the American music scene, where you still have to fit into a predetermined stereotype, and your music has to be classified within a narrow band, so it can be sold across a vast market. It Britain, your music has to be good, not exceptional, and YOU have to be adopted, and malleable enough to adapt to the your adopted market.

A great current example of this is Gregory Porter. He’s already Nationally famous in the UK, sells out the largest venues and can regularly be seen on TV. He is even front man for his own series on the BBC, Gregory Porters Popular Voices.

Callier was not just exceptionally authentic, after years of neglect by the US music industry, he was excited to absorb the admiration and inquisitive demand from the UK music industry, and especially the artists. Calliers music blossomed, not just his past work, but his future work. The story of how Acid Jazz founder Eddie Pillar contacted Callier and brought him back to music, is included in pretty much every write-up about Terry, including this obituary from his hometown paper, the Chicago Herald Tribune. In a Guardian article/interview by Tom Huron, following Calliers death in 2012, Pillar himself tells how this came about.

Hey, wassup? It’s Terry, Callier, I got a new way to flow for Ordinary Joe, you know!

and with those words, as he opened his return to music and introduction to the UK at a sold out 100 Club in London, 1991. In the years that followed via both label agreements, and through exposure getting absorbed into the emerging UK hip-hop scene. Over the coming years, Callier was involved in Giles Petersons UK label, Talkin’ Loud, stable-mate Urban Species; this low-res home recording of Callier and Urban species on the autonomous Later with Jools Holland, shows Terry in great form playing the soul man to the hip-hop

His work continued with Beth Orton, and not just samples, as is often suggested, but entire new tracks and collaborations, like “Bother to Brother” with Paul Weller, released on UK label Mr Bongo , the haunting Love Theme from Spartacus with north London duo Binns, Hardackers, Zero 7 who became a leader in the then emerging Chillout scene; and many more. It’s the collaborations with Massive Attack though that are the best for me, especially the music, lyrics and video for Live with Me.

Callier, like many others, including Alexander O’Neal have found the UK Soul, Jazz, Dance music scene much more compelling than the USA. It’s geographically smaller, much more diverse, less racially profiled and it’s had a successful business span of 50 plus years, and continues today.

It’s easier to perform live, you can get to most of it within day. Musicians and fans can stay home, or at the very least avoid flying to get to gigs. Word travels fast, and there is a national media who broadcast news and tv, that doesn’t require you to spend months on a tour bus in order to spread the word. Most of all the charts are not segregated. When you make #57, as Terry did with Love Theme from Spartacus, it was behind Madonna, Simply Red, RUN-D.M.C. and everyone else, not in a narrowly defined segment.

Calliers real impact can be measured by the fact that the BBC, and the major British broadsheets(the serious papers), The Guardian , The Independent all ran obituaries as well as the New York Times, Most remarkable though, perhaps, was the 2012 Terry Callier Tribute Concert at the Islington Assembly Halls. The youtube video, below, captures the beauty of Terry and his music. His original version of Love Theme to Spartacus.

I would rather be playing music, but what’s important isn’t always what you want, and what you want isn’t always what’s important. Isn’t that the truth?” – Terry Callier

Keep Terrys name alive!

Three to follow-up with:

Read: Jazzusa,com Interview with Terry – Terry Callier, Reluctant Musician

Hear: Massive Attack tribute Windmill Hill sessions.

See: Electronic Press Kit for Terry.

Terry Callier EPK from Alistair Batey on Vimeo.