James Maycock charts his extraordinary fall and rise.
Defining soul music is an elusive and complex issue. Its intangible quality is a product of a profound depth of experience with life, which leads to an equally weighty outpouring of emotion. Terry Callier believes it has a sacred aspect: "When you're talking about the soul, you're talking about a very deep entity." To him, the definition is a broad one: "Ravel's Bolero has soul, James Brown has plenty of soul," and he adds, chuckling, "Ray Charles probably has more soul than anybody else on this planet." Terry Callier, too, has stoically wrestled with unending disappointment but he still considers himself "blessed". He hasn't released an album since 1978 but, today, is signed to the progressive English label, Talkin' Loud Records, whose elite roster includes the jungle artist, Roni Size, the Mercury Prize winner. Although Terry Callier enthusiasts will describe his musical career as luckless, he disagrees: "People say, 'You were overlooked.' I say, 'No, I got what I deserved.'" Yet, in the past few years, he has, finally, experienced some blissful serendipity.
Terry Callier was born in May, 1945, in the Northside of Chicago. Music swiftly embedded itself at the core of his life. His mother loved jazz singers such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald but it was his childhood friend, Minton, who introduced him to Charlie Parker at the age of nine: "When the record was over, he said, 'What do you think about that?' And I remember saying, 'Gee, he must be really crazy to play that horn like that.' And little did I know but that was true." Years later, he wrote what is considered his definitive song, "Dancing Girl", a haunting elegy about that tortured, driven genius.
As a teenager, Terry Callier formed amateur doo-wop groups, but he had some daunting competition: "In this very small area, no more than four blocks by five blocks, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Otis Lavelle and other people lived there ... I watched the incarnation of all these groups, from The Roosters to The Impressions."
On a visit to Chess Records in South Michigan Avenue in 1963, Terry Callier persuaded the company to release his first single. The following year, he was introduced to Samuel Charters, a producer from Prestige Records, at the nightclub, Mother Blues. Samuel Charters offered to release an album of his and Terry Callier eagerly agreed. On a Saturday afternoon in 1964, they recorded his stunning debut album, The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier. Although predominantly a folk recording, it was infused with elements of jazz and soul music. John Coltrane's use of two bass players on his album, Ole, inspired Terry Callier to do the same on this album. The only other instrument used is Terry Callier's acoustic guitar and it is from this lean background that his extraordinary, rich and gentle voice builds.
The power of this recording led to a surreal event. The producer was so moved by the music that he disappeared to Mexico with the master tapes: "All I know was that I had recorded something for Prestige and it wasn't released. About a year and a half later, I met with Samuel and I asked him what happened. He told me that he had gone to Mexico in a province where there were a lot of Indians and he just listened to the tapes and did mushrooms, I guess." The album was eventually released in 1968 and, although it has since been reissued, it sold only a small amount. Terry Callier learnt of its release when his brother saw a copy in a second- hand book shop.
Terry Callier spent the second half of the 1960s performing in both Chicago and New York. In 1971, he wrote "The Love We Had Stays on My Mind" for The Dells. Its success led to a recording contract with Cadet Records. He recorded three albums for them, guided by producer Charles Stepney. The records were critically acclaimed but commercial success eluded him. In 1977, he signed a recording contract with Elektra Records and released two albums which refused to compromise with the disco trends of the time. Don Mizell, who believed in Terry Callier's brilliance, left the company in 1979 and Terry Callier was abandoned by Elektra soon after. He continued to perform until 1984, when he became a computer programmer, a move partly precipitated by a desire to support his daughter, Sundiata.
While he raised his daughter in Chicago, believing his musical career was in the past, British acid jazz DJs such as Gilles Peterson, Eddie Piller and Rues Dewbury began enlightening their audience with the music of Terry Callier. In 1991, Eddie Piller tracked him down in Chicago and encouraged him to perform at the 100 Club. In 1995, with an increasing number of people converted to his understated, but captivating, balance of jazz, folk and soul music, he played at the Jazz Cafe. Moved by the audience's response to his music, he wept on stage.
Two years ago, Gilles Peterson signed him to Talkin' Loud Records. His new songs, like his previous ones, are multi-layered and slowly reveal their poetic beauty. His lyrics still speak of the trials of life, social plight and religious redemption, while his voice remains earthy but majestic. He has recently collaborated with Beth Orton and Urban Species and may be working with both A Tribe called Quest and DJ Shadow.
Terry Callier recorded "Look At Me Now" in 1963 at the age of 18. It is about a young man launching himself into the adult world, convinced of his talents. But the music world was very slow to recognise the work of Terry Callier. Yet, today, the lyrics do, at last, have a prophetic quality to them: "I'm going to make it some day, I'm going to make it somehow, Then I'll be able to say, 'People, look at me now, look at me now.'"
'Time Peace', the new album by Terry Callier, is released on 2 February by Talkin' Loud Records.
On a hero:
"When he's singing to you, it's as if he's singing to you and you alone. He's an incredible performer. He puts pure emotion into words." Bob Jones, Kiss FM DJ
"I heard the record by him called What Color Is Love? one night and it completely and utterly blew my mind. I hadn't heard anything quite like that ever in my life. It was just on a different level." Gilles Peterson, DJ and head of Talkin' Loud Records