Obituary: Terry Callier
Cult jazz-folk songwriter's occasional reign comes to an end aged 67
Words Alex Denney
TERRY CALLIER, mystic jazz-folk veteran and a man who has been called “the lost genius of Chicago soul”, has died at the age of 67.
Born and raised in the same project neighbourhood as childhood friends Curtis Mayfield and Impressions cohort Jerry Butler, Callier began singing with doo wop outfits aged 12, and signed with Chess Records when he was just 17, scoring a hit with his first single ‘Look At Me Now’ in 1963.
Invited to tour with Etta James and Muddy Waters across the US, he was denied permission to hit the road by his mother, a decision which Callier said led him to blank her for a month, but for which he was grateful in retrospect.
Feeling drawn to the folk explosion of the mid-sixties while attending college in Chicago, Callier began playing coffee houses with a style influenced by Bob Dylan, Fred Neil and John Coltrane, whose music at one show he’d witnessed seemed to contain all of “heaven, hell, [and] whatever’s in between”.
In 1964, Callier met Prestige label producer Samuel Charters, and the two cut Callier’s debut, The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier, the following year. Frustratingly, Charters took the masters out on a three-year trip to Mexico, and the record went unreleased until 1968.
He was contacted by Chess producer/arranger Charles Stepney, who had worked on ‘Look At Me Now’, to write for The Dells in 1971, and co-wrote their minor hit ‘The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind)’ alongside Jerry Butler. Stepney offered to record some solo material with Callier, and the two went on to make a defining run of releases including Occasional Rain, What Color Is Love and I Just Can’t Help Myself, on Chess’s Cadet subsidiary.
Despite the acclaim that met these releases — which are very much of a piece with an era which produced such spiritually attuned fare as What’s Going On, Goodbye And Hello and Astral Weeks — Callier failed to shift many records, and he retired from the business in 1983, taking work as a computer programmer at the University of Chicago.
His music was rediscovered as part of the UK rare groove scene of the late-’80s, and he began recording again after the Acid Jazz label started reissuing some of his classic releases. Indeed, Callier split his later years between London and Chicago, and he made music with a slew of enamoured Brits including Massive Attack, Paul Weller, Beth Orton and even darkside drum’n’bassers 4 Hero.
His 1998 album, Timepeace, landed him the United Nations’ Time For Peace award for outstanding artistic achievement contributing to world peace.
Asked about his late-period career resurrection by the Chicago Sun Times in 1996, Callier said: “People respond to me because I’m a throwback to an older tradition that believed you should do more than sing a song for an audience, that you should make people feel something. You can make accessible music and still sing about love and peace and truth and life and death. In the end, those are the only things that matter.”
Terry Callier, May 24, 1945 – October 28, 2012