October 31, 2012
Chicago singer-songwriter Terry Callier never received a fraction of the acclaim he deserved, but no one who heard him ever forgot him.
The imploring, incantatory quality of his vocals distinguished him from peers, as did his knack for mixing elements of African chant, blues melody, jazz improvisation and folk instrumentation.
So Callier's death at 67 on Saturday at Saint Joseph Hospital, on North Lake Shore Drive, silenced a quietly hypnotic voice like none other.
Then, again, Callier's art had been silenced in the past, as well, by record executives and radio programmers who didn't know what to do with a talent as uncategorizable as his – and by the singer himself.
His career seemingly had gotten off to a quick start when he was signed to Chess Records before he had graduated from Crane High School and, years later, released his first full-length album, a collection of covers aptly named "The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier" (1968). But though he was beloved in the folk-music clubs that dotted Old Town in the 1960s and '70s, Callier didn't break through as a major national attraction. The recordings he made in the '70s with producer Charles Stepney on Cadet – such as "Occasional Rain" (1972) and "What Color is Love" (1973) – bristled with social commentary and unusual instrumental effects. Unfortunately, they didn't really fit any particular radio format.
How did Callier hit up on this amalgam of sounds?
"Maybe it's because I grew up in the place that's called Cabrini-Green now, but then it was just Cabrini," Callier told me in 1998, when he was attempting a comeback with the sublimely expressive album "TimePeace."
"That neighborhood was home to Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Ramsey Lewis and a host of other people who were extremely talented.
"There was a fieldhouse over on Orleans near Division, and it had a series of meeting rooms, some of them with pianos, and they had great acoustics, so there would be four or five different vocal groups rehearsing," he added. "And on any summer night you could walk by and hear fantastic music – these guys could blow, and there were girl groups that sounded like angels.
"So I learned early on to listen to everything – classical music and ethnic music from Africa and Middle East, and it all comes out in your work."
But the thrilling eclecticism of his approach, as well as executive turnover at various labels, ultimately prevented him from reaching the wide audience that might have appreciated his art.
So in 1983 – divorced and living with his daughter, Sundiata (whom everyone calls Sunny) – Callier walked away from the music business, enrolled in computer classes and began working at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. By 1988, he had completed a degree in sociology at North Park College and realigned his life.
Why the turnabout?
"My daughter was starting high school, and there are certain things a young woman needs," Callier told me.
"There was no way I was going to provide those things unless I went out on the road and stayed there, but then I wouldn't have been around for her.
"I felt I owed her that. When her mom and I originally got divorced, I was younger and dumber and I didn't give much thought to Sundiata's feelings," he continued. "I felt, 'As an artist I'm due this and that,' and all the rest of the load that you carry around with you in your late 20s.
"So this gave me a chance to show her that she was important, and that her dad cared about her.
"It wasn't painful – I just put that other part of my life (music) aside."
Not totally, however. Though Callier didn't have time to pick up a guitar between September of 1985 and May of 1988, when he was going to school and working full time, after that he practiced his art in the bathroom at home: "It sounds good in there," he said.
And when British acid jazz groups in the early 1990s began sampling his work, which always commanded attention among European connoisseurs, at least one record exec saw a chance to revive Callier's fortunes.
"I first heard Terry in 1973, when I was an editor at DownBeat, and I was mesmerized by what he could do on stage," Verve Records' then-president Chuck Mitchell told me as "TimePeace" was being released. "I considered him a major artist."
"Eventually, I moved to New York, Terry disappeared from sight, and I still treasured his recordings.
"And then a colleague of mine called me up and said, 'You'll never guess who I saw … Terry Callier! He's been in Chicago all along, and he's got demos!' "
Mitchell signed Callier, who couldn't believe the turn of events.
"To say the least, I'm surprised, because I thought my time in music was pretty much over," Callier said to me. "I have to admit that I was a little nostalgic about the past, but I didn't really wish for a return to the music business."
Yet Callier did return, generating critical accolades.
"In truth, little has changed in Callier's approach," wrote Richard Harrington in the Washington Post in 2000. "His often-hushed vocals tend toward the cool and understated, his mostly-acoustic backing to the spare and supple, his lyrics to the metaphysical and, on occasion, socially conscious."
But Callier's comeback only went so far, a music industry increasingly obsessed with youth and massive sales not wholly welcoming to an artist of Callier's vintage and sophistication. Even so, while based in the Detroit area during the past few years, he toured Europe regularly until he was diagnosed with cancer 18 months ago, said his daughter. Callier lived with her while receiving treatments here during the past year, the family said in a statement.
Sunny Callier said she hoped to hold a public memorial for her father in the near future.
"He was loved all over the world," said Sunny Callier, who added that her father was surrounded by family when he died. "People are saying it's a loss for everyone."
Everyone who loved music of the most fiercely individual kind.
To read more from Howard Reich, go to chicagotribune.com/reich
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