Terry Callier with Emeline Michel performing as part of the Omiala Festival of New Black CUlture at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Saturday (July 24). Free. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
Musicians have always had to listen to their parents' lectures on the importance of getting an education to fall back on should their dream of fame and fortune turn into a nightmare. Chicago soul-folk innovator Terry Callier is no exception.
When his song Look At Me Now - recorded at his first Charles Stepney-produced session for the Chess label - started getting played on Chicago's influential WVON, the shy teen was asked to join the Moonglows, Etta James, Little Milton and Fontella Bass on the Chess Revue tour.
Just imagine how envious his basketball buddies Curtis Mayfield and Major Lance would've been back in 62, before any of them were known outside of the Cabrini housing project.
"My mom came into my room, where I was packing my suitcase, and asked, 'Where do you think you're going?'" Callier recalls with a chuckle. "When I told her I was going out on the road with the Chess Revue, she said, 'No, you're not. You're staying right here and finishing high school.' It was hard to take, but down deep I knew she was right."
The crestfallen young Callier grudging acceded to his mother's demands and passed up the tour that could've made him an overnight sensation. He completed his studies, and he's glad his mom intervened.
Although chart-topping success has eluded Callier, after being knocked flat by John Coltrane (see sidebar), he went on to record a series of musically adventurous and spiritually moving albums, fusing gospel fervour, bluesy grit and a jazz-inspired sense of spontaneity with traditional American music. In the process, he created an entirely new soul-folk hybrid.
Unfortunately for Callier's bank account, his sound was about 30 years ahead of its time and wouldn't come into vogue until contemporary artists like Beck, Beth Orton and Ben Harper capitalized on it. Orton's collaboration with Callier on her Best Bit EP stands as her finest work.
So while Callier's three classic Cadet albums (73's Occasional Rain, 74's What Color Is Love? and 75's I Just Can't Help Myself) are coveted by rare groove collectors and still command top dollar on eBay, the fact that his emotionally charged songs never quite fit existing radio play list conventions - too rootsy for R&B and too jazzy for folk - has kept him from rising above the level of cult artist.
Yet he seems not the slightest bit bitter about being less rich and famous than many of the artists he's inspired. He's taken the advice of his producer and mentor, Charles Stepney, and made the choice to follow his heart rather than popular trends, and he's sticking by it.
"Charles always seemed to know what it took to make a song work and had the creativity to do it on the spot. We were working on Occasional Rain when I got a call from him at 10:30 one morning saying, 'Why don't you come by the studio? I've got something I want you to hear.'
"I walked in to find 25 musicians from the Chicago Symphony - violinists, cellists, guys with French horns, trombones, woodwinds, everything - and he says, 'All right, let's record Dancing Girl, What Color Is Love? and You Don't Care.'
"I'm, like, 'Hang on, I thought you wanted me to listen , not sing. And he replied, 'Trust me, you'll be listening very closely to all of these musicians.' So I started into the melody of You Don't Care on guitar, and when those strings came up behind me, it sounded so beautiful I wanted to cry. We got it all down in one take.
"Besides being a great producer, arranger and pianist, Charles was a wonderful teacher. He impressed upon me that when making a record, it's important to make reference to whatever music is happening at the time, yet the key thing is to put enough of yourself into the songs so they won't make you flinch 20 years later."
After Callier was summarily dropped by Elektra in the house-cleaning following the firing of label honcho Don Mizell in 79, those recording opportunities became exceedingly rare.
With his subsequent indie release I Don't Want To See Myself (Without You) as a parting shot, Callier left the music business behind and spent the 80s at the University of Chicago working as a computer programmer for the National Opinion Research Center and continuing his studies to earn his B.A. in sociology. His mother couldn't have been happier. And then London came calling.
"There I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang. It was Eddie Pillar from Acid Jazz Records in England, and he wanted to put out I Don't Want To See Myself, saying that he thought it would expose me to a larger audience. I didn't care about that. I was so entrenched in my new life, music was the last thing on my mind. But I said, 'Sure, whatever, send me the papers.'
"The next thing I know, I'm going to England to do a concert at the Jazz 100 Club and then a weekend festival in Great Yarmouth. The reception I got absolutely stunned me. I had no idea anyone knew my stuff."
The following year, there was a 10-date European tour booked for Callier with a full band - complete with horns and backing vocalists - ready and waiting in England. This was getting serious, but he managed to use his holiday time and sick days to play shows and record albums without forfeiting his day job.
Amazingly enough, none of Callier's co-workers suspected he was leading a double life. And they likely never would have found out if his comeback album, TimePeace (Verve), hadn't won him the prestigious 1998 United Nations Time For Peace award for outstanding artistic achievement contributing to world peace.
"I had to go to New York for the reception ceremony, and when I got back to work everybody knew about it. The story was in all the papers."
Within a matter of months, Callier's position at the university was terminated and after 13 years of service he was given just four hours to clean out his desk and hand in his keys. Any other single parent in his situation would've been devastated. But Callier, fortunately, has his music to fall back on.
He's currently completing the final mixes on a new work, Lookin' Out (Universal), which he'll be previewing at a long-overdue local appearance at Harbourfront Centre Saturday.
As a follow-up to the apocalyptic Speak Your Peace (Mr. Bongo) disc, Callier swaps social commentary for personal revelation on Lookin' Out, which is largely a salute to his inspirations, highlighted by intriguing updates of the Beatles' And I Love Her as well as Dino Valente's What About Me? He has never stopped being a music fan.
"A couple of years ago I went to a Janis Ian concert, and Richie Havens did a version of What About Me? It brought back so many memories. The very first time I went to New York City, I met Dino.
"It never fails to amaze me how much in life turns on just a hair. Something happens by chance and a whole new vista opens up before your eyes."
Chasin' the Trane
To suggest that the John Coltrane Quartet changed Terry Callier's life wouldn't be an overstatement. Experiencing the tenor titan up close in 61 - a time when Coltrane was freely moving further out, with longer incendiary solos - had a brain-scattering effect on the 16-year-old Callier, causing the street-corner harmonizer to rethink his whole approach to music.
When Sam Charters informed Callier that the recording budget for his Prestige label debut, The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier, would only allow for two sidemen, he chose two bassists because Coltrane had been so effectively using Art Davis and Reggie Workman in tandem. Here's how he tells the story.
I'd heard the stuff Coltrane had done with Miles Davis and his first Atlantic album, so when it was announced that the John Coltrane Quartet would be playing at McKee's Disc Jockey Lounge on the South Side, I was really excited to see him play. Even though the show was to start at 9:30 pm, I got there by 8 and heard some hammering coming from inside. When I stuck my head inside the door to see what they were fixing, there was Elvin Jones onstage nailing his drum kit to the floor. I thought, "What kind of music is this gonna be?"
Right at 9:30, Coltrane appeared with the band, and with no introduction they just started playing. I'd never seen anyone throw themselves into the music with such intensity. The way they were attacking was really kinda scary. I didn't know what might happen - to them or me - but eventually I started seeing the good, the bad, the ugly the beautiful, the sacred and the profane in it all. Something palpable was happening. I had to go back for more.
On the last night of their five-night stand, they started into Impressions at around 1:30 am. It felt like everyone in the room knew something special was about to happen. Well, by 3 am they were still playing Impressions and no one was leaving. They were still going further out by 4. When Coltrane went back into the melody at 4:45, the place just went nuts.
It must've been after 5 when the show ended, because the sun was rising when the doors opened. People ran out into the street yelling about love, peace and freedom, and I was shouting right along with them. Words can't describe all that was going through my mind, but I felt like I'd been transformed.