Singer /songwriter found fame at last

TERRY CALLIER, 1945-2012

From his beginnings in jazz, folk and soul music onwards, the singer and guitarist Terry Callier struggled to find the popular recognition his varied talents deserved. Nonetheless he released a string of enduring and influential albums and, during the 1990s, enjoyed a creative rebirth in the UK when his supple, soulful music was feted by the acid-jazz movement and he collaborated with Beth Orton and Massive Attack.

Terrence Orlando Callier was born on May 24, 1945 in Chicago and raised in the north side of the city. Partly inspired by his mother’s enthusiasm for singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, he sang in amateur doo-wop groups in his teens, and found himself in the midst of a remarkable group of local musicians including Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler and Ramsey Lewis. In his teens, Callier signed with Chicago’s renowned blues label Chess, and he released his debut single, Look at Me Now, in 1963. The following year, he was signed to Prestige Records by the producer Samuel Charters, with whom he cut his first album, The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier. Featuring just an acoustic guitar, two bass players (an idea Callier borrowed from the jazzman John Coltrane) and Callier’s gentle but hugely expressive voice, the album stands today as a minor masterpiece. However, it was not released until 1968 because in the meantime Charters had disappeared to Mexico, taking the master tapes with him.

Callier earned a living by playing gigs in New York and Chicago until he was contacted by Butler in 1970 and recruited to his salaried group of songwriters. “Our job was just to write songs and learn about the music business,” Callier told the journalist Angus Batey. “That was incredible.” The following year, the Chess producer Charles Stepney approached Callier for songs. Callier supplied The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind), which was recorded by the Dells and was successful enough to prompt a recording contract for Callier from the Chess subsidiary Cadet. He made three solo albums under Stepney’s guidance: Occasional Rain, What Color Is Love and I Just Can’t Help Myself; commercial reward did not match their critical acclaim and Cadet ended Callier’s contract.

Hope was rekindled when Elektra Records came calling in 1977, though Callier refused to have any truck with the prevailing disco boom, and his two Elektra albums continued his string of commercial flops. His Elektra mentor, Don Mizell, quit the label in 1979, and Callier was dropped shortly afterwards.

When his daughter, Sundiata, who was living with Callier’s ex-wife, told him she wanted to stay in Chicago to attend school, Callier realised he had to have a steady income. “She needed me and the music business just didn’t seem like a viable option at that point,” he said. He secured a staff job as a computer programmer at the University of Chicago, and relegated music to a mere hobby for the next decade and a half.

However, as the 90s dawned, Callier was amazed to be told that he had become an icon of the British soul-jazz scene, thanks to a single, I Don’t Wanna See Myself (Without You), on an obscure label. This had caught the ear of cutting-edge DJs such as Eddie Piller, who dropped in on Callier in Chicago and invited him to perform at the 100 Club in London. His subsequent string of shows at the Jazz Cafe became legendary for the devotion he aroused in his listeners. Callier sang two songs with Orton on her EP Best Bit and he was signed to Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label, for which he cut the albums Timepeace (featuring Orton) and Lifetime, both suffused with a sense of faith and yearning for redemption. After his record deal collapsed following a round of record company mergers, the independent label Mr Bongo stepped into the breach and released the live album Alive and a studio album, Speak Your Peace, which featured a duet performed and co-written with Paul Weller.

Callier was sacked from his computer programmer’s job and concentrated once more on music, dividing his time between the UK and the US. He recorded six acclaimed albums between 1999 and 2009. The last of these was Hidden Conversations, on which he was joined by Massive Attack, with whom he had collaborated on the single Live With Me, a Top 20 hit in 2006. “You can make accessible music and still sing about love and peace and truth and life and death,” said Callier in 1996. “In the end, those are the only things that matter.” Terry Callier is survived by Sundiata.

Adam Sweeting, Guardian News and Media

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