Written by James Evans for Clash Music:
Terry Callier's incredible voice and eclectic blend of Jazz, Blues and Soul could make audience members pass out, yet he flew under the radar of commercial success for most of his career. Here are ten facts to prove his life was just as unusual as his legacy as a revered, if underrated Soul legend.
1. Callier counted jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis and soul singers Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler as friends while growing up in Chicago’s deprived Cabrini-Green area. He described it as a “dynamite neighbourhood” where people were doo-woping all the time in different groups.
2. Callier spent lunch periods in high school singing in the bathroom because the marble walls created a decent echo. He continued this into adulthood where, in the late-’80s, he would also practice guitar in his bathroom.
3. While singing in a doo-wop group at school, someone stopped him halfway through ‘This Is The Night’ by The Cool Jets, and said: “Why are you trying to sound like somebody else? Just try to sound like you.” He remembered it as the most influential thing anyone had told him.
4. His music career came to a brief halt at sixteen after he was invited to go on an American tour with fellow Chess artists Etta James and Muddy Waters. When his mother came home to find him packing his bags, she refused to let him go because she wanted him to finish high school. For a month, they didn’t speak to one another (other than to say, “Pass the mustard”).
5. Seeing John Coltrane’s live act in 1964 almost made Callier want to give up music entirely. He wasn’t prepared for the intensity with which the band threw themselves into the music and it frightened him. He began looking for a job immediately and didn’t play in public for a year.
6. While Callier’s 1968 debut album, ‘The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier’, only took an afternoon to record, its release was delayed by three years because producer Samuel Charters took the master tapes on a spiritual voyage to the North American desert. Callier only realised it was out when his brother found it on sale in a Chicago antique store.
7. Callier retired from music in 1983 to raise his daughter. He told interviewer Angus Batey in 2002 that when she asked to live with him and go to secondary school in Chicago, he realised he wouldn’t make enough money to take care of her if he stayed in music. So, he landed a job in computer programming at the University of Chicago and pursued a sociology degree in the evenings.
8. Callier continued his day job while his cult status grew in the ’90s. His double life was finally exposed when employers at the University of Chicago found that his major label comeback album, ‘TimePeace’, had won the United Nations ‘Time for Peace’ award. After picking up the award in New York, he came back to work to discover he had been fired.
9. Callier became overwhelmed while playing occasional gigs in Britain to admirers who knew all the words to his songs. He told a New York Times interviewer in 1998 that he would have to stop shows a few times because it was too “over the top emotionally” to continue.
10. His emotive, intense live performances were said to be a spiritual experience that could move people to tears. David Buttle, founder of Mr Bongo records, recalled of his Jazz Café performances in the late-’90s: “Many people passed out, overwhelmed by the light that shone from him.”