Chicago has produced a plethora of wonderful artists, but always (and unfairly) under-the-radar was the incredible, soulful voice of Terry Callier, who passed away this weekend, aged 67.
Terry Callier didn’t possess an average talent and had an equally unusual back-story to accompany. Yet, despite such an interesting and rich life, music has lost one of the warmest, kindest and most down-to-earth people ever to grace the company of another human being. Cutting his teeth through folk, blues, jazz and soul, surrounded by some of the most destructive and ego-driven personalities in music, Callier remained sweet, considerate and unbowed.
After growing up with Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler, Callier signed to Chess while still wet behind the ears. When I met Terry, I’d assumed he’d joined Chess because he was clued-up and wanted to sign with the best. He impishly informed me that his main reason was down to a crush on Etta James. No bravado. No myth-making. An honest, kind soul with a playful glint in his eye.
From the folkie circuit, he cut ‘The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier’, a mix of self-penned ballads and trad. arr. number, showcasing Callier’s intimate, powerful voice. As strong as his voice was his writing talent. As well as writing for other artists (including the excellent ‘The Love We Had Stays On My Mind’ for The Dells), Callier created the hugely underrated jazz-folk LPs, ‘Occasional Rain’, ‘What Color Is Love’ and ‘I Just Can’t Help Myself’. Songs like ‘You’re Goin’ Miss Your Candyman’, ‘Dancing Girl’ and his finest song, ‘Ordinary Joe’ showed off the kind of songwriting that should have made a superstar of Callier, held alongside Gil Scott Heron and Bobby Womack, but alas, fate had other ideas.
While rock ‘n’ roll engulfed many, Callier managed to survive while raising his daughter full-time after gaining custody. There, wanting stability for his family, he took a job at the University of Chicago as a computer programmer. His colleagues had no idea who they were working with. Callier had become an ordinary Joe until his cover was blown when his ‘Timepeace’ LP won a United Nations’ ‘Time For Peace’ award for an outstanding achievement to the contribution of world peace.
Callier got sacked for moonlighting.
Mercifully, Callier saw a renaissance of his music before he was unceremoniously dumped by his day job after DJs like Gilles Peterson revived his back-catalogue. Acid Jazz honcho, Eddie Piller reissued ‘I Don’t Want To See Myself (Without You)’, and soon enough, Callier was using up his holiday time playing shows in Europe. Beth Orton continued to keep Callier in the limelight which lead to work with Massive Attack, Zero 7 and 4Hero.
And through all this, Callier remained honest, humble and sweet, exuding rich warmth with whoever he met or played to. When I spent time with him, desperately trying to hold back my unswerving fanboydom, I found a funny, shy, welcoming man, so quietly spoken and mystified as to why anyone would want to hear him speak. Yet, while he quietly spoke of his work and his family, everyone circled him, rapt, with the same hypnotic reverie seen at his shows.
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After a long illness, Callier has left us, but his terrific back catalogue remains. If anything good can come from his passing it is that hopefully a whole new breed of Terry Callier fans are about to become acquainted with one of the finest soul voices of his generation.