Remembering Terry Callier
Chicago folkie, folk-jazz innovator, late-blooming British acid-jazz sensation: Terry Callier had a fascinating career, much of it under the radar of popular tastes. He was also a strong and singular individual. Talking to him for this 1996 Sun-Times feature was as humbling as it was enjoyable. RIP TC.
By Lloyd Sachs
All you have to do is shake hands with Terry Callier to know he’s the kind of guy with his priorities in order. With his honest smile and easy presence, he quietly projects the peace-and-love ideals he promoted as a folk singer during the ’60s at local haunts such as the Earl of Old Town. At the same time, his level gaze radiates the tough assurance of a man who has learned to take care of himself and those close to him.
For Callier, that has involved major sacrifices. Even in these liberated times, it’s rare that a man will table his career to rear a child. But that’s what he did in 1983, when his daughter, Sundiata, then 12, announced she wanted to live in Chicago with him rather than in San Diego with her mother (from whom he was divorced).
“I was making rent and not much more,” said Callier, who released five albums in a distinctive folk-pop-jazz vein during the ’70s but was now without a label. “I had to do better to support her.”
And so, after gaining custody of Sundiata (whose name, fashioned after that of a royal from Africa’s Mali, translates as “sun queen”), he traded in his guitar for a nonmusical keyboard, becoming a computer programmer for the National Opinion Research Center, an affiliate of the University of Chicago. Thirteen years later, he’s still working his day job, and father and daughter are still together. But thanks to the happiest and unlikeliest twist of fate, Callier has been summoned back to his real calling.
In 1991, out of the blue, he got a call from London telling him a 12-inch single he recorded in 1982 had become a major acid jazz hit there (acid jazz being a dance-oriented ’90s pop phenomenon fueled by ’60s American jazz and soul). The success of the song, “I Don’t Want to See Myself (Without You)” – and the hot collectors-item status of his out-of-print albums – drew Callier to England for his first stage appearance in eight years.
Earlier this year, he was signed by Verve Records, a leading American jazz label. Friday, when he performs at the Old Town School of Folk Music, he will officially be “back” – a life shift that cosmically coincides with his daughter’s final year at Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University.
Calllier can only shake his head over his good fortune. “My career has been funny in that everything happened without me having much to do with it,” he said. “I had no idea anyone had taken the 12-inch to London.”
He modestly credited the appeal of “I Don’t Want to See Myself” to its fiery solo by Chicago saxist Rich Corpolongo. But the nine-minute tune, which builds from ballad to spiritually charged uptempo number, owes its special charm to Callier’s melodically rich, scat-informed vocals, hard-strumming acoustic guitar style and rare gift for building momentum by stretching out.
The 51-year-old artist was reared in what later became known as Cabrini-Green by his mother, whose “fantastic” record collection introduced him to artists such as Nat “King” Cole, Billie Holiday and Louis Jordan. He formed a doo-wop group as an eighth-grader, when his friends included future soul stars Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and Major Lance. At 17, he signed with the local Chess label, which in 1963 released his first single, “Look at Me Now.”
He embraced folk music as a student at the University of Illinois in Champaign. “That’s what was happening at the time,” he said. But so was a jazz revolutionary named John Coltrane. After seeing the tenor saxist’s great quartet perform on Chicago’s South Side, Callier overhauled his style: “I got there early and heard all this hammering. I went in and Elvin Jones was nailing down his drum kit. What was I in for if he had to do that?”
The answer: “Men throwing themselves into the music with abandon, pushing the envelope in terms of technique and style and sound. It dawned on me that I wasn’t nearly as committed or intense in what I was doing. I got a day job and didn’t play for two years.”
Striving for a Coltrane-like intensity, he featured two bassists on his debut album, “The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier” (Prestige). But under the spell of psychedelia, producer Sam Charters holed up with the tapes on an Indian reservation in Mexico. “He said they were all he listened to,” Callier said, laughing. By the time the album was released in 1968, its newness didn’t matter. Folk was dead.
Drafted in 1970 into Butler’s fledgling songwriting workshop, where he teamed with Larry Wade to pen tunes for Butler and other local singers, Callier kept his career alive. After the Dells scored a top 20 hit with his “The Love We Had Stays on My Mind,” he was signed to Cadet, a subsidiary of Chess – whose blues greats, including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, “thought it was weird that I was playing guitar and not playing the blues.”
With their kitchen sink string and horn effects, his three LPs for the label (anthologized on the British import “The Best of Terry Callier on Cadet”) suffered from overproduction. But Callier came into his own as a performer, singing more and more pointedly about life and love in the inner city. Then and now, his theme song is “What Color Is Love?”
In the late ’70s, musical tastes changed again and, once more, Callier landed on his feet – this time in the jazz-rock fusion department of Elektra, for whom he recorded two albums. As ever, he had critics in his corner and fans in his pocket. But after the executive who championed him left the label, Callier was dropped from its roster.
If anything, his years in obscurity have only enhanced his cult status. “For a guy who isn’t well-known, he gets the most ecstatic receptions wherever he goes,” said Mike Friedman, whose local Premonition Records recently issued “TC in DC,” which documents a 1982 Washington, D.C., show by Callier, bassist Eric Hochberg and conga player Penn McGee – the trio playing Friday.
Callier shrugs off the adulation. “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,” he said. “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.”