A survivor of the 1960s folk boom, with a preference for jazzy chord- structures and soulful vocals shared by better-known folkies such as Richie Havens and the late Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley, Callier tasted success only briefly first time round. He recorded his debut album, The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier, for jazz label Prestige in 1965, then three more sets for the Chess subsidiary Cadet in the early 1970s, when he also wrote a hit single for soul group the Dells. In the 1980s, he gave up music to work as a computer programmer and study for a degree in sociology while bringing up his daughter in his home city, Chicago. Encouraged to start performing again by the cult acclaim for his earlier recordings on the British Northern Soul and jazz-dance scenes, Callier was signed by Gilles Peterson to Talkin' Loud Records. His comeback album, last year's Time Peace, was a big success. The new follow-up is unlikely to disappoint his faithful followers.
"I know what you mean about the gentle thing," he says. "It's probably a function of growing up in Chicago when I did. Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler lived in the neighbourhood and when I started singing in doo-wop groups as a kid we were mainly ballad singers. Then, as you grow older, the things you prefer are the things you return to and they become the things you do best. I'm still listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Billie Holiday, but my daughter's in her twenties so I get to hear the Cranberries and Alanis Morissette, too." Callier's unique fusion of folk, jazz and soul was also a function of his early career, when he accompanied himself on guitar for folk music gigs on the coffee-house circuit ("doing Harry Belafonte songs and stuff like that") and then go to jazz clubs on his nights off.
"The first time I saw Miles was in 1962 and that was very impressive, but then in 1964 I saw the John Coltrane in a small club in Chicago," he says. "I remember sitting at the bar, which was the best place to see the stage, and the musicians just walking on without any introductions and starting to play. I was in no way prepared for the emotion and the physical force of what I heard. I made myself stay until I started to get into it and then I went every night of the engagement, hearing every set and every note until they left. Immediately after that I stopped playing and started looking for a day job until I could get some of the same dignity, commitment and intensity into my music that they had. I didn't play clubs for nine months and when I got back I was doing things differently and playing my own material." Soon after, Callier made his debut for Prestige. As the budget allowed for two other musicians, he followed Coltrane's example by choosing double-bassists, ensuring the album's distinctive sound. For Time Peace, Callier was able to play with Coltrane's musical disciple Pharaoh Sanders, who guested on tenor sax.
Why Callier stopped playing for so long was due more to his daughter's welfare than any real sense of failure. "She was the reason. I was only discouraged with the business aspects of my career and I wasn't fond of the way record companies handled things, but I had no control over that. When she was 12 my daughter decided she didn't want to return to her mother in San Diego and preferred to go to school here in Chicago. My mother let us both move in with her and I started training as a computer programmer at the University. Giving up wasn't difficult and the only time I put the guitar away was when I was finishing my studies and also working full- time. In September 1988 I received my degree and the first thing I did was go to the closet and get my guitar out."
Maybe the hardship of life as a single parent, plus his studies, made Callier less than content with the gentle side of things. "LifeTime has as much spiritual content as TimePeace, but the subject is more down to earth, with songs that take a concentrated look at relationships with people," he says. "A lot of times we have too many expectations, because a relationship is not going to change the world. Things have changed too much to ever revert to a pastoral, restful kind of thing, and we found out in the Sixties and Seventies that music wasn't going to change the world. Back then, we thought that if we could just get the right chord structure and the right words we really could change it. Now we've seen that there's only so much that artistic endeavours can do. My assignment, as it were, is to deliver my part of the message. The rest is up to you." The irony is that what we probably want is more of that gentle Terry Callier stuff, and the more pastoral and restful it is the better.
`LifeTime' is released on Monday on Talkin' Loud. Terry Callier begins a British tour on 2 Oct