Terry Callier interview

April 2002


His new LP, Hidden Conversations, is out on Monday, which is all the excuse I need to republish this feature, which ran in The Times Magazine. It was available on timesonline, but didn't survive the site redesign a few years back. I don't have any photos: there wasn't a photographer with me in Chicago on this job, unfortunately, and the piece was illustrated with a portrait and some archive shots - hence the new album sleeve above. The record is cracking, as always, and highly recommended.

Terry was a fantastic interviewee, which I hope comes across here. All the warmth and wisdom you hear in the music is there in person. There's plenty of great material in the transcript that I couldn't squeeze in to the piece - maybe I'll get some of that added here eventually. 


It's just another rainy night in April, and the Green Mill, a bar on Chicago's north side, is hosting its regular Monday resident. Opening with a song called Ordinary Joe, it's clear from the moment his rich, warm voice enunciates its first syllables that he is anything but.

Terry Callier, the lost genius of Chicago soul, and arguably one of the finest singer-songwriters even this most storied of cities has produced, has made the Green Mill his base of operations this year. It's the first time in a decade that he's had a regular gig in his hometown, and he has assembled a band of superlative musicians who give his unique amalgamation of soul, jazz, folk and blues a sophisticated yet relaxed setting.

"This gig's become quite important to me," Callier says as we chat between sets. "In fact, it's become very important."

Callier was a regular on Chicago stages back in the '60s and early '70s, when he made a string of albums that, while largely ignored at the time, have become cult classics, admired anew years later. In the '80s his singular voice was missing from the city's clubs and bars, but in 1998, when he was made redundant from his day job of 14 years, programming computers at the University of Chicago, Callier began singing for his living once again. Yet there is no desperation to the man or his music; no hint that he might now very much need the success that has eluded him for forty years. "I avoid second and third takes when I'm in the studio," he says earlier, explaining his working methods. "I try to do it first time like my life depends on it. Because, in a way, it does."

Gil Scott Heron thinks that everyone should own a Terry Callier album. Paul Weller regards him so highly he was "delighted" to have the chance to co-write a song with him. "I'd put Terry in the same sort of class as John Lucien or Richie Havens," the Modfather said recently, "in terms of the emotional feeling I get from his music." Brits Gilles Peterson, Beth Orton and 4 Hero have worked with him, and his 1997 comeback release was voted Album Of The Year by the United Nations Time And Peace Commission. Yet Callier remains a musical prophet who still goes largely without honour in his native land, and his Green Mill residency finds him going back to basics as once again, in his humble, polite manner, he tries to get his impeccable music to the audience it deserves. 

Callier was born in Chicago in 1945, and grew up in the Cabrini district on the city's north side, surrounded by music and musicians. As a teenager he counted among his friends and neighbours the legendary jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, Curtis Mayfield and his Impressions cohort Jerry Butler. Inspired by The Impressions' success while all were still at school, Callier signed a deal with Chicago's famous blues imprint, Chess, and released a single, Look At Me Now, aged 16. This first attempt at a career in music was derailed when his mother came home and found him packing his bags to go on tour; instead, he was made to finish High School. "I can't tell you how disappointed I was," he smiles, as we talk over spicy Korean food the afternoon before his Green Mill show. "In retrospect, though, I didn't have any business being on the road at 16. But for about a month my mother and I didn't speak."

While his formative experiences were in pop and gospel music, Callier began to lean towards jazz in his later teens. John Coltrane made a huge impression on him, becoming the biggest single influence on Callier's musical career. Though after he first saw the saxophonist live at a south side club, Callier's response was to give up music.

"I saw his quartet in '64 at a place called McKee's Disc Jockey Lounge," Callier remembers. "I wondered what I was in for when I arrived early and found Ervin Jones nailing his drum kit to the floor. They came on, tuned up a little bit and started playing with the intensity most people save for the last number on the last night. You could taste it: the good, the bad, the ugly - heaven, hell, whatever's in between, this world and the next world - all of that was in this first song. So when they left town, I started looking for a job, because it dawned on me right away that if I didn't have some of this kind of dignity and intensity and commitment in my own presentation then I should be doing something else. I didn't play in public again for almost a year."

When he did return to live performance, Callier had taken Coltrane's many lessons to heart. He was spotted by Samuel Charters, a producer from Prestige Records, who signed him up for an album. But the record, The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier, took almost three years to come out after Charters took the master tapes with him when he went travelling round the world. Callier married, had a daughter in 1969, and made a living from playing gigs as and when they were available.

"And that was pretty much the story of it until 1970," he recalls, "when a friend told me Jerry Butler wanted me to join this group of writers he was putting together. We were paid a salary, and our job was just to write songs and learn about the music business. That was incredible."

In 1971, Callier was contacted by Charles Stepney, the producer and arranger at Chess who had recorded Look At Me Now, who was then looking for songs for The Dells. Stepney asked Callier if he would like to record some of his own material, and over the next few years the singer and his mentor created the three LPs that built Callier's reputation: Occasional Rain, What Color Is Love and I Just Can't Help Myself, released on Chess's Cadet subsidiary.

By now, Callier had devoured music of every shade and hue, and his work was at a pitch few songwriters have ever matched. As well as learning first-hand from Mayfield and Butler, growing up in the considerable shadows of Chess-signed Chicago blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and absorbing the lessons given by Coltrane, Callier also studied Bob Dylan.

"He was the one that showed us that your personal ruminations and experiences, if put in a vibrant enough context, were as valuable as anything else on this earth, and maybe even more so," Callier opines. "People had been saying 'I love you, you love me, we will be together, 1, 2, 3'. But you start talking about 'There must be some kind of way out of here/Said the Joker to the Thief...' Well! Now we're getting down! We're talking about neuroses, psychoses, and so many other -oses!"

Boasting songs like the jaunty, euphoric folk-pop of Ordinary Joe and the epic widescreen masterpiece Dancing Girl, Callier's Cadet albums still sound unique today. Fusing elements of all the musics he had learned from with an all-encompassing humanism at their lyrical cores, they deserved to make their creator a household name, yet remain among 20th century music's best kept secrets. The public never embraced Callier's records in significant numbers, and following I Just Can't Help Myself's 1975 release Cadet dropped him from their roster. His marriage ended in divorce, his daughter going to live with her mother, and in 1976 Stepney died, robbing Callier of his most intuitive collaborator. His musical star briefly came back into the ascendant at the end of the decade, as he cut another two albums for Elektra. But by the dawn of the '80s Callier was back in Chicago, and back in obscurity.

"Then in '83 my daughter came to stay with me for the summer, as she always did," Callier takes up his story. "But she told me she wanted to stay in Chicago and go to secondary school here. I realised I wouldn't be able to make enough money to take care of her if I stayed in music, so I started studying computer programming. In 1984 I started working as a temporary employee at the University of Chicago, and the following year they offered me a staff position with paid vacations, health benefits and everything a single parent needs."

Music became Callier's sideline for the next fourteen years. Gigging only occasionally and recording even less, he nevertheless continued to write. It was during this time that a seed was planted that would bear fruit years later. An early '80s release for the tiny Erect label, I Don't Wanna See Myself Without You, found its way onto the playlists of DJs in Britain such as Gilles Peterson and Russ Dewbury. In 1990, Eddie Piller, head of London's Acid Jazz label, which launched the career of Jamiroquai, tracked Callier down and told him his forgotten record was the toast of London's trendy soul-jazz scene. Not only that, but those Cadet albums were now collectors' items.

"I was stunned," Callier admits. "They were telling me that people were spending sixty, seventy, eighty, a hundred pounds? I said, 'You're kidding me!' I had no idea. I was very happy programming computers."

Dewbury brought Callier to play at his Brighton club, and so in the early '90s the Chicago man's career was reborn on the south coast of Britain. As word of his spellbinding music spread he became a more frequent visitor to the UK, playing strings of sell-out dates at the Jazz Cafe in London that passed almost into legend for the intensity of his performances and the almost religious reverence in which he was held by an ever-growing audience. Peterson signed him to his Talkin' Loud label, and Callier went back in to the studio to make his first album in almost 20 years.

Timepeace, released in 1997, is a record that Callier feels "caught me almost exactly where I was emotionally, musically and physically." He followed it with Lifetime, and his Cadet albums were re-issued on CD to considerable critical acclaim. But once again he fell foul of music business politics when Talkin' Loud's parent company, Polygram, was merged with Universal; promotion on both new records was halted, and his deal was not renewed. Into the breach stepped Brighton-based independent Mr Bongo, who had provided equipment to record one of the Jazz Cafe dates for a projected live LP. They released the resultant Alive! last year, and have bankrolled Callier's eighth studio album, Speak Your Peace, which includes the single Brother to Brother, written with and featuring Weller.

These days Callier maintains the sort of routine that would make a prize fighter wince. He rises before dawn, meditates for 30 minutes then heads to the gym for four hours. On Fridays he attends a mosque, and with his mind, soul and body in trim, spends the rest of his time writing and rehearsing. He needs to be in peak condition for his next project: a collaboration with Londoners 4 Hero on a song cycle that, ambitiously, intends to tell the story of the human race. "It's going to take a little while to finish," Callier deadpans. "Unless I move to London..."

He leaves the thought hanging. But it would certainly make sense. While his weekly Monday gigs are slowly winning him back an audience, it seems deeply unjust that a performer of Callier's class and importance should still be struggling to earn recognition after all these years. "It's possible," he sighs, clearly unsettled by the prospect of emigrating, but seemingly resigned to at least seriously consider it. "Whether it's London or Paris or Brighton or wherever, there's a definite possibility that I will have to leave here."

Back at the Green Mill, you can see why. Callier works the room between sets, sharing a joke with old friends, pausing a while to speak with new ones. He is at home, and among people who love him, but there are still far too few of them. And while us Europeans may be the beneficiaries, if Terry Callier does turn his back the Windy City, he will leave it a colder, greyer, darker place.

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