Cult Chicago-born jazz-folk singer songwriter Terry Callier died in hospital surrounded by his family on Sunday 28 October, after suffering from a long illness, he was aged 67. Never achieving the huge success the quality of his music so deserved, Callier won a loyal following and much critical approval for his debut on Prestige, The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier ,released in 1965, and his initial run of 1970s albums, recorded for Chess records to which he signed aged just 17, which are now rightly regarded as some of his best work. These include Occasional Rain (1972), What Color Is Love (1973), and I Just Can't Help Myself (1974). All feature his wonderfully warm baritone voice hooked to softly strummed acoustic guitar and an obvious love and understanding of jazz harmony and funk rhythms.
In the early-1980s Callier retired from live performances and became a computer programmer to support his young daughter as a single parent, but his music continued to find new fans, especially in the UK, and by the late-1980s British DJs such as Gilles Peterson began rediscovering his music and in turn playing it to a new, younger audience. Such was the demand for a return to the fray, Callier began working on new material in 1996, which was to become his widely acclaimed 1998 album Timepeace – which featured several British jazz musicians including saxophonist Gary Plumley and guitarist Jim Mullen. The album’s sublime blend of stirring lyrics on ‘Lazarus Man’ and powerful soul swing on Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’ emphatically marked his return to top form.
A string of solo albums followed including Lifetime, as well as Speak Your Peace and his final Massive Attack-produced studio album, Hidden Conversations from 2009. While many of these albums never quite hit the highs of Timepeace, Callier was at his best live, his rich and resonant voice and effortlessly warm stage presence making his performances the stuff of legend, especially when the mood took him and his gigs stretched from two to three hours, fans hanging on his every word. Always maintaining a jazz-influenced edge to his music he always brought improvisation into his songs, recasting them anew each night.
Speaking in an interview ten years ago at the Glastonbury festival (where he was performing on the Jazz World Stage that year), he explained the origins of the spiritual side of his music: “Primarily in terms of outward influences there was a time when I was listening to John Coltrane for 12 to 15 hours a day. Looking back now, I would have been better off spending some of that time practicing, but you do what you feel you have to do. The first time I saw him live was with the quartet – McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. When they first started playing it frightened me because from the very first tune they were all over the music. And I wasn't sure what was going to happen to them if this was the intensity with which they began the first number of a five-night stand and I wasn't really sure what was going to happen to me if I stayed there and listened. I might even have left the club but there were so many people outside trying to get in that there was no way to get out, so I just had to make myself comfortable with it. Then gradually it dawned on me that they were playing everything - they were playing heaven and hell, the earth, wind, fire, the spiritual, the not so spiritual, the completely unbelievable… and once that dawned on me I was able to get in to it. The minute I started reading more about him and started listening to his music and, he didn't 'proselytise' – you know he didn't say ‘OK I'm this and I'm that and this is the best way and you should this’ – it was all in the music.”
His funeral will take place in Chicago on Saturday 3 November, while there are plans for a memorial in London.
– Mike Flynn