Front Man on the Side
When Terry Callier started working on Timepeace, his first new record in 15 years, "everyone" told him he should quit his job--advice many a younger musician would've leapt at. But Callier--who at age 53 makes his first-ever Chicago Jazz Festival appearance Sunday at noon on the Jazz on Jackson stage--knew better. "I said no," he says, perched on a stool in the employee lounge of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, where he continues to work as a computer programmer. In the early 60s and late 70s the Chicago singer-songwriter's career had been jump-started three times by promising record deals. Each one filled his head with visions of success, and each one petered out disappointingly. By the time he signed his latest contract, with Verve, in 1995, he was wary--and rightfully so.
Callier's job, which he's held since 1985, has paid for his college education (he earned a sociology degree from North Park College in 1988) as well as that of his daughter, Sundiata. His commercial musical successes--his song "The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)" was a big hit for the Dells in 1971, and his 1979 disco single "Sign of the Times" was popular in New York--have been much less consistently remunerative. And as he points out, Verve's own future is up in the air--once Universal completes its takeover of Polygram, which distributes the jazz label, the ax could fall anywhere.
Callier grew up in what would become Cabrini-Green, where his neighbors included Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Major Lance, and Ramsey Lewis. Starting in grammar school he sang in a series of doo-wop groups, and in 1961, just before heading off to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study chemical engineering, he signed to Chess Records as a solo artist. He recorded half a dozen tunes, but one single, "Look at Me Now," was the entire legacy of his first record deal.
At school a dorm neighbor introduced him to the acoustic guitar--until then Callier had played only piano--and by summer vacation he was immersed in the burgeoning folk scene. Back at home, he procured a steady gig at the Fickle Pickle, a small club near State and Division managed by Mike Bloomfield (and later immortalized in a Big Joe Williams tune). "When it came time to go back to school I was playing five nights a week," he says. "I had a bar tab, I was making what seemed like excellent money for what I was doing, and I was having a great time."
Callier spent the next year honing his style and playing the dozen or so venues that had cropped up around Chicago to meet the new demand for folk music. But in 1964 his world was turned upside down again, when he saw the John Coltrane Quartet perform at McKie's Disc Jockey Lounge, at 63rd and Cottage Grove. "They made me uncomfortable," he says. "I wanted to leave, but I forced myself to sit there, and then I started noticing the patterns." Callier didn't perform again for eight months, because "it occurred to me that if I wasn't going to have some of that intensity in my own approach I might as well do something else."
Indeed, on his debut album, The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier (Prestige)--cut in 1965 but not released until '68--Callier brought Coltrane's smoldering soul to folk standards like "900 Miles." The album also featured a pair of bassists, a nod to Coltrane's occasional use of both Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman during his legendary 1961 Village Vanguard stint. But the seed Coltrane planted didn't truly blossom until the early 70s. At the start of the decade Callier--newly married to Sundiata's mother, though they would split up in '74--was hired by the Songwriters Workshop, a Brill Building-style R & B songwriting house organized by Jerry Butler, who was by then a successful solo artist. The job let Callier be more selective about gigs, and it was through the workshop that the Dells recorded his tune.
In 1972 Charles Stepney, who'd signed Callier to Chess a decade earlier, brought him back on the Cadet subsidiary, where between '73 and '75 he released his three greatest albums: Occasional Rain, What Color Is Love, and I Just Can't Help Myself. The last two in particular are brilliant syntheses of sumptuous R & B arrangements, keening jazz horns, elongated folk-rock structures, odd tempo shifts, and highly personal narratives, all delivered with Callier's trademark cool passion. But despite critical acclaim none of the albums sold well, and Callier was dropped in 1976--the same year the Songwriters Workshop closed down.
A few years later producer Don Mizell signed Callier to Elektra. The slick disco sound of the two mediocre albums Callier made for the label attests to his mishandling there; by the end of the decade he was dropped again. He gigged around the midwest for a while after that, but when Sundiata--who'd been raised mostly by her mother in San Diego--asked if she could go to high school in Chicago, he got serious about making a living. He cut one last single, the self-financed "I Don't Want to See Myself (Without You)," in 1983, moved in with his mother and daughter in Uptown, and took classes at the Control Data Institute, which led to his current job.
Almost a decade later, he got a call from Eddie Pillar of the British label Acid Jazz. Callier's last single had belatedly become a surprise club hit and he wanted to reissue it. The 1991 rerelease set in motion a veritable Callier renaissance--he played in England regularly for the next four years, and in 1995 the British Verve affiliate Talkin' Loud asked him to make a record. (Verve put out Timepeace in the U.S. in January). Although the album lacks the orchestral splendor of the best Cadet material--which has yet to be reissued domestically--Callier's voice sounds great, and his interaction with Coltrane compatriot Pharoah Sanders on the title track is inspired. Callier has also collaborated with young admirer Beth Orton, whose EP Best Bit features him on two songs. He recently recorded demos for a second Verve album, and the label has asked him to submit songs for consideration by new label mate Al Jarreau as well.
Still, Callier has no plans to leave the nine-to-five grind behind. "I was happiest when I was doing music full-time," he admits. "But I'm happy now because I haven't had to dilute anything, because I'm not dependent on music to make a living."
Longtime Reader contributor Neil Tesser is promoting his new jazz history and album guide, The Playboy Guide to Jazz (Plume), with several appearances at and around this weekend's Jazz Fest. On Friday he'll discuss the book at the Chicago Cultural Center from 1:15 to 2 PM; on both Saturday and Sunday starting at 3 PM he'll autograph copies at the Tower Records booth in Grant Park; and on Sunday night he'll attend an official release party at HotHouse.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Terry Callier photo by James Fraher.