Terry Callier: Songwriter and singer whose folk and soul blend influenced British artists

He said when working with Beth Orton that music cut across age and race barriers

Pierre Perrone
Wednesday 31 October 2012 01:00 GMT
Callier, whose music had timeless appeal, on stage during the 40th Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006
Callier, whose music had timeless appeal, on stage during the 40th Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006

The Chicago Sun-Times, hometown paper of the singer-songwriter Terry Callier, described him as "largely overlooked". Yet the unique, affecting blend of folk, jazz and soul he developed between the mid-1960s and the late '70s influenced generations of British musicians, including Paul Weller, Massive Attack and Beth Orton (who all collaborated with him) and inspired the retro-sound of Michael Kiwanuka, a Mercury Music Prize-nominee.

Callier worked for most of the 1980s as a computer programmer at the University of Chicago. After Acid Jazz DJs Eddie Piller and Gilles Peterson rediscovered and championed him, he began to perform in the UK and the rest of Europe, and eventually returned to recording in the '90s, his intensity undimmed.

He had grown up in the same Chicago neighbourhood as Major Lance, Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield, who were a few years older but still befriended him; like them, he sang doo-wop at high school and on street corners, and stepped up from background to lead. He began to realise the importance of composing original material and of finding his own voice to stand out from the crowd. In 1962, he auditioned for local label Chess and recorded the single "Look At Me Now", a soul stomper he had co-written. He was all set to join a Chess tour headlined by Muddy Waters and Etta James when his mother sent him back to school.

Callier went to college, yet soon picked up an acoustic guitar and played coffee houses in Chicago and beyond. "When I ran away from home and went to New York, the first four people I met there were Fred Neil, Josh White Junior, David Crosby and Dino Valenti, who was later in the psychedelic band Quicksilver Messenger Service," Callier told me in 1999. "Fred had this big baritone voice but he had more feeling in his stuff than most of the folk singers and groups."

Callier also discovered the music of free jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and began blending folk and jazz to create The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier, as his pioneering debut for Prestige Records was called. Although the album was cut in 1965, it was only released in 1968 after a bizarre episode when Prestige owner Samuel Charters disappeared with the tapes for a couple of years, leaving the folk-jazz crossover field open for Richie Havens. The Chicago psychedelic-folk group HP Lovecraft opened their second album with Callier covers, "Spin, Spin, Spin" and "It's About Time", and he became known as a songwriter. In 1970 he joined the Chicago Songwriters Workshop set up by Butler and, with Larry Wade, co-wrote the gorgeous ballad "The Love We Had Stays On My Mind" for the Chess vocal group The Dells.

In 1972, he signed to the Chess subsidiary Cadet and made the albums Occasional Rain, What Color Is Love and I Just Can't Help Myself, with the orchestral soul producer Charles Stepney. Despite support slots, Callier failed to establish himself in a thoughtful soul marketplace dominated by Bill Withers. In 1977 he moved to the Elektra label for the lushly orchestrated albums Fire On Ice and Turn You To Love, which included his 1979 US R&B chart entry "Sign Of The Times", again co-written with Wade.

In 1983, after a divorce, he won custody of his teenage daughter and started work at the University of Chicago, while studying for a degree in sociology. Even after the renewed interest in his music that followed the 1990 reissue of his 1982 "I Don't Want To See Myself (Without You)" single, Callier continued as a computer programmer and used his holidays for his European tours.

In 1997 he recorded two tracks, a version of the Fred Neil standard "Dolphins" and his own composition "Lean On Me", with Orton for her Best Bit EP, which reached the UK Top 40. "Beth tried to back out of working with me, but I said to her that there's a time and place for everything and there's a time for this – now! People look at us and they see a black American guy and a young English woman and they feel there's not much common ground unless it's something romantic, lust in the dust. But for people to connect on a higher vibe is more difficult, because we are so blinded by the brightness of the world, and spiritual things look dim from here – when it's actually the reverse. The music cuts across age, race and the normal barriers that we've been brainwashed into believing have significance."

They became friends, and he appeared on Central Reservation, Orton's second album, in 1999. By then Callier had made the charts with the newly recorded albums TimePeace, which received the UN Time For Peace award in 1998, and LifeTime, with Orton guesting on "Love Can Do". He headlined sizeable venues such as London's Shepherds Bush Empire; his visible profile in Europe lost him his computing job, but he made the most of the renewed interest, went on lengthier tours, and did more collaborations, notably with 4Hero ("The Day Of The Greys", 2001), Weller ("Brother To Brother", 2002) and Massive Attack (the eerie "Live With Me", 2006, and the Hidden Conversations album, 2009).

Illness slowed him down, yet the inclusion of "You're Goin' Miss Your Candyman", from his 1972 album What Color His Love, on the soundtrack of the film Intouchables last year demonstrated the timeless appeal of his music, and the lyric's sentiment fitted the message of tolerance in the French comedy-drama.

I often think back to Callier's lack of bitterness and his words, as uplifting as his music. "Artists of all kinds, everywhere around the planet, have to start pointing out our essential humanity and the things that relate us to one another. If we don't start doing that, then we don't have any excuses for what happens in the world. The planet may be able to hang together but it won't let us hang on to it."

Terence Callier, singer, songwriter and guitarist: born Chicago 24 May 1945; married (marriage dissolved, one daughter); died Chicago 27 October 2012

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