Terry Callier – Reluctant Musician
By Mark Ruffin, Jazz Editor
Five years ago, in the U.S., you couldn’t find an album by Terry Callier on vinyl, let alone cd and that was fine with Terry Callier, he could take it or leave it. Since that time there’s been two import releases and an unearthed concert from the early 80’s. And next month Verve Record releases TimePeace, the first album of new material from Terry Callier in almost 20 years, and Terry Callier could take it or leave it.
Call him the reluctant musician, but success in the entertainment business is not a high priority even though the singer/songwriter is on the verge of a major breakthrough. He feels he had his shot in the 70’s when he had a number of national and regional hits on the Elektra and Chess labels . Stardom didn’t happen and his daughter needed him, so the man retired in 1983. The problem was the record companies kept calling. Club owners in Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington D.C. and his hometown of Chicago kept trying to coax him out, sometimes successfully.
Reticence be damned, whatever force it is that works to shape a musician’s career literally continued on without him. He was sampled on a huge pop hit in England. The English label This Is Acid Jazz, unearthed a rare Callier single and legally sold tens of thousands of copies. A specialty European label was brought down by a huge American corporation when it illegally released old Terry Callier masters. Then English club owners started trying to coax him to perform. When he accepted, a v.p. of a major American record label was in the audience the night of his performance. That label, Verve, signed him, only to fight with him because Callier still had other priorities in life.
Like Chicagoan Chuck Mitchell, the Verve v.p. who saw him in London, this writer grew up knowing all about Terry Callier. To us, it was nothing to see his name on Lincoln Park bills with Pete Seeger, downtown gigs with Gil Scott-Heron and on the south side working with soul crooner Jerry Butler. He wrote The Love We Had Stays On My Mind, one of the biggest hits by the Dells. He was a celebrity at every folk club in town and you’ve never heard Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll until you hear his mid ’70’s version. He also was very popular in other cities as Terry’s other new album “T.C. in D.C.” on Premonition Records attests to.
Without lifting a finger to help his cause, Terry Callier, or that force, has engineered an amazing comeback from an amazingly diverse musician. That comeback culminates with a new album that features the rhythms of folk, r&b, rock, even county and of course jazz. The legendary sax man Pharoah Sanders joins Caller on one track..
Interestingly, this interview was recorded earlier this year when Terry really didn’t know if he was going to have an album on Verve. The contract was signed, tunes recorded. The two just didn’t see eye to eye and Terry, frankly didn’t care..
JazzUSA ‘Zine: What do you think of the current unique situation you find yourself in, being on the verge of the kind of music comebacks that most acts from the 70’s would die to have.
TC: It’s a gift from God, I never really had to scuffle in the classical sense. I went from living at home to playing in New York, then had to come back home and home was there. I got myself together, got into music full-time. I did that for maybe 12 or 15 years. All I did was music. When I got custody of my daughter, I had to switch gears again. And it wasn’t a problem because there were things that she needed, support that she needed from me. She may have gotten it anywhere but she really needed it from me. So it was no problem to step out of music for a minute and it wasn’t the first time. The first time I saw Coltrane live, the next day I went out and started looking for a job, because number one, that quartet scared me with John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. I had never seen people literally hurl themselves into music that way. It was an emotional experience. I knew that I didn’t tend to do what they were doing but I knew that even in relative stuff, I wasn’t into my music like they were into their’s. I also realized that if you weren’t that much into it, then you were just threading water, not wasting time but just threading water. When my daughter told me that she wanted to go to school in Chicago, the first thing I did was go to Control Data Institute, which had a computer programming course. I went through that and thought that I would be able to find a programmer position but I was just a little bit too late, a day late and a dollar short. This was in ’83. If I had gone to Control Data in maybe ’79 or ’80, I could have stepped right from that instruction program into a pretty decent position. But in ’83, things were tightening up. By then almost all the companies wanted their people to have some kind of degree. So I managed to get a position at the University of Chicago as a temporary employee in January of ’84 and I worked there for a year.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: What was the job you held at U of C?
TC: It was called data coding. I thought it was going to be kind of an automated position. Later on it was but initially it was working with paper and pencil, correcting surveys conducted by the National Pen And Research Center which was an still is part of the University of Chicago. Then they asked me if I would accept a staff position in February 1985 and I said yes because that meant benefits, paid vacations and certain other advantages. So I took the position and I’ve been there ever since.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: You said your daughter chose Chicago, did she have a choice?
TC: Yeah, she was living with her mom in San Diego. We separated when she was about five. I was really way off into music at that time and I thought that letting her stay with her mother was a good thing because that would allow me to work on the music while she had a safe and sound shelter.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: It is really against our editorial policy to pry into an artist personal life, but even you can see how your daughter is part of this story. How old was she when you got custody?
TC: She was 12, just going in to high school and she had been in Chicago all that summer. Then as the summer ended, she started moping around until she finally came up to me and said ‘Daddy I don’t want to go back to San Diego.’ I told her she didn’t have to.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: And her mom was cool with that?
TC: I never did press her on that. She said she didn’t want to go back and I didn’t want to press her on that. She and her mom have a very cool relationship I know, and they had a good relationship then. It’s just that something wasn’t right for her.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Or maybe something was right with her father.
TC: That could be too.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: What did her mother do for a living at the time?
TC: A teacher. She’s from D.C. but I met her in Chicago.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: How did you let the world know you quit the music business and how did you do it? As passionate as you are, how could you just walk away?
TC: I didn’t, because there was no way to say goodbye. I believe that everything happens for a reason and at the time the most important thing for me was to make sure was that my daughter got through her adolescent years in reasonable shape because a lot of people run aground emotionally and physically and psychologically during that time. It’s a very sensitive time. It was a different kind of music. I look at sending her through life as kind of a symphony. I don’t know if it wasn’t for my own good, because a lot of musicians run aground when they’re at the stage where I was, where you’re almost making it. So that may have been God’s way of moving me out of harm’s way. It might have been a test. At that point, not only do you have to take the bitter with the sweet, but you have to be wise enough to know where your priorities really are. Like me being out of music wasn’t important as me taking care of this child.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: What’s her name?
TC: Sundiata. She’s 25 and doing student teaching now.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: So when you walked away, did musicians call?
TC: For a while. That may have lasted about six months. But after it kept being no, people eventually stopped calling.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Did any record companies call?
TC: Warner Brothers called about two or three times, but they had already shot me some grease so I really wasn’t interested.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Did Warner call or did Elektra call?.
TC: I did two two albums for Elektra, but this was someone else from within Warners.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: And you ignore them.
TC: Big time.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Tell me if any of this is wrong; You chilled from the business, in the meantime that unscrupulous record company in England called Charley start bootlegging all the Chess/Cadet stuff.
TC: That’s a little bit out of sequence. What happened was that towards the end of 1989, I got a call from a guy named Eddie Pilar and he asked me if I had the rights and the master tapes to the stuff I did just before I backed out. I had done a twelve inch for a little company in Indiana ran by Jim Porter called Erect Records. Not much happened with it except I sold ten or twelve copies and I got a little airplay in Chicago, but nothing happened that made me change my mind when I wanted to get out. So Eddie Pilar calls from England and says he owned a label called This Is Acid Jazz and that I had a composition that they’ve been playing on the dance circuit and that people really like it and that he would like to use it.
JazzUSA ‘Zine:What was the name of it?
TC: One side was I Can’t See Myself Without You and the other side was If I Could Make You Change Your Mind. So I told him I didn’t know where Jim Porter was and I still don’t. So they submitted their contract and there wasn’t any up front money but it was decent enough. They seemed to have and outlet for distribution, so I said oh fine. So they released this thing in the spring of 1990 and it jumped off like gangbusters in England. So by the time I around February of ’91 they were calling me asking me if I wanted to come over and do some gigs. So I said that sounds nice, but I have to bring my daughter with me. So we went over to England and we played at a place called the Jazz 100 Club. We played at a huge outdoor festival and a few other things. The response was incredible. My daughter didn’t want to leave. But it wasn’t set up for us to stay there, so we came back home to the States and Sunni kept going to school and I kept going to NPRC everyday. Then I guess in 1992, I started getting calls from other people in England about coming over to do gigs and other things. So my daughter and I have been over there about four or five times in the last four years and they set up a band over there and these guys know the music and play like demons. We were just there this past August but I never tried to actively get back into it.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Did all that activity in England excite you?
TC: It’s hard to describe. Music has a place in my heart, but it’s not the supreme thing. If things had happened a bit different maybe I’d feel different.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: So what’s the thing about Charly Records.
TC: Okay, so I guess in 1992, the other tune began to pick up so much airplay that people started looking around for other stuff. So about the third time that I went over the U.K., people were telling me they had rumors that some of the Chess stuff was going to be re-released. Charly music is a company over there that specialized in older music and anthologies. But, from what I understand, they ran a little afoul with this one because MCA actually owns those tapes, so they sued them and made it kind of unpleasant for Charly Records. Plus for me they owe me writer’s royalties and I’m still trying to collect that. It was out almost a whole year before I knew it. The next time I went over there, some friends said they had copies and sure enough, there it was Terry Callier On Cadet. I was just as surprised, as my friends were when it came out. They had it out on the market for two years before MCA sued them.
JazzUSA ‘Zine:Did you try any legal action?
TC: No,(laughing) I didn’t care.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Did you get royalties from This Is Acid Jazz?
TC: Oh yeah, they were totally straight. As a matter of fact I thought we were going to do something over here because the tune did so well and they gave me so much money, not millions, but relatively speaking. I had submitted a budget and they just let it drop. So did I. I didn’t care. I thought for sure we had an understanding, but when they stopped calling, so did I.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Again not to get personal, but was it in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
TC: I’ll tell you. It was about ten (laughing) I figured if they gave me ten, they owed me forty. I didn’t get too deep off into it, because I thought we were going to do some more work together. Then when it turned out that that wasn’t what they were interested in, I just let it go.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: What was your motivation to do more work with them, were you just going to milk that cow for as much as you can get? Or were you actually excited about doing it?
TC: At that time, I was about as excited as I get over the music industry. I had some new things in mind and I had some things I wanted to do and I thought we could have put together a very interesting package of new material and a couple of other things I wanted to do.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: So what did the British acid-jazz label Talkin’ Loud have to do with any of this?
TC: Now that’s a whole other issue. The time before last when we went over to England, we had been talking to Chuck Mitchell at Verve Records. As a youngster in Chicago, he used to come by this club called the Barbarossa when I was just playing with a percussionist and he remembered a lot of the stuff that I used to do. He’s v.p. and a ceo over at Verve. He came over because the people at Talkin’ Loud were interested in doing something. So Chuck Mitchell came over to a place called the Brand where the band was playing. He caught a pretty fair show. We didn’t have our usual saxophone/flute man. We had a sax player who was good, and a flute player who was good. But the reed player that we usually use is outstanding. When Chuck saw us he said, look, you’re an American artist and you should be signed to an American record company. That’s how I happened to sign with Verve. Now the original deal was that Verve was going to handle the release and distribution in North and South America, and Talkin’ Loud was going to do Europe and the rest of the world. But then he said that there had been a lot of disagreements about what music is going to be on the album. What type of tunes it was going to be and the general philosophy of the tune.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Do you mean between you and them or between Talkin’ Loud and Verve?
TC: I mean between me and them, between them and Talkin’ Loud and between me and Talkin’ Loud and Verve. I did a four song demo for them before I signed the contract and they said well we want to hear some more material so I didn’t see too much wrong with that. So I used the musicians that I normally use in Chicago. We recorded nine or ten things.
JazzUSA ‘Zine:Who paid for it?
TC: Verve. No I take that back. I paid for the first one because at that time it was just a speculation. But they paid for a pretty decent ten song demo. Then they started going into the commercial versus artistic merit bag. One of the guys from Talkin’ Loud objected to one of the songs because he said it was too country. Well it was a country song. In addition to that, there’s a couple of things that were fairly straight to the point. (laughs)
JazzUSA ‘Zine: I know how you can be.
TC: So Chuck Mitchell wasn’t very happy with those songs. So out of the thirteen songs that we’d done for them, he decided eight of them were worth doing. I figured if he got the call on eight, I should get the call on the other four or five. For a while he didn’t call me back and it was okay too. In the meantime, I was getting more closely associated with the Chicago musicians. I went by the bass player’s house one day and he had something for me to listen to. He put it into the cassette and I said it sounded familiar. It turned out that this was a concert that we did back in 1983 and I was amazed on two counts. One that I had no idea that he saving this kind of stuff, because he had never mentioned it. And then two, I was amazed at how tight we were as a group. There’s just three of us, the bassist Eric Hochberg and Penn McGhee doing percussion and vocals. I was floored by the intensity and the communication and the freedom of the thing. He told me that he was going to try to get it released and I told him to go ahead. I was just marking time with Verve, I didn’t know what was on their mind. I thought they were trying to wait me out, and it might have worked had I not had a job. But by the same token, if my daughter’s next tuition payment, or my next rent payment was dependent on my signing with Verve, I’d would have been back at Verve quickly. That why I say God is in all this because I didn’t have to jump when they wanted me to.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: If the contract was signed with Verve, weren’t you worry about legal action with that release?
TC: No, because it came out in 83 and I didn’t sign anything. That album is a presentation of the bass player’s production company. I’d listened to it, but I didn’t add anything to it. I could have if we wanted to play it that way. We could have made it sound really good. We could have done some cheating if that’s what we really wanted to do. But I’m not into that because I believe that even though people don’t play straight with you, you should still be straight.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: How do you view all of this, as a comeback? Are you officially out of retirement?
TC: Since I walked out of the music business, I have not been knocking on too many doors trying to get back in. So it’s as much a surprise to me as it is to anybody, except that if God has planned something for you, you can run from that thing for a long as you have breath and in the end it will still be there for you.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Well why do you keep running from it?
TC: I’m not running from it. I’m just not running towards it. I’m through with that.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Isn’t ironic that it seems to be running towards you now?
TC: That’s what it says in the Koran and a lot of scriptures. If God intends something good for you, nobody can keep it from you, and if God intends for you not to have something, there’s nothing you can do to get it. That’s the way I look at music. If God has intended this for me, it doesn’t matter what I do, it’s going to be what it’s going to be. There are things I can do to inhibit it, like going around spitting on people, that might impede it a bit.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: How has Terry Callier’s music evolved since the last time you made an album in the U.S.?
TC: One of the songs on the demo called Changing Of The Guard is one of the ones that Chuck doesn’t particularly favor. (EDITOR NOTE:It didn’t make the album) and the chorus goes Lord ain’t it hard at the changing of the guard when you realize something isn’t quite right but you throw it out your mind because you just don’t have the time and it gets you and hits you like a bullet in the night. And there’s another song that goes. And there’s another song called Step Into The Night (ditto) that’s about a friend of mine. I’ve never done an album about people. I take that back, I guess Occasional Rain was as much about people I knew as this new stuff is. The problem I have with writing is I just can’t sit down and say, okay I’m going to right a song. It’s going to be about this. This is going to be the title. This is going to be the chorus. This stuff just comes to me out of the air and I have to wait on it. That’s one of the signs that something’s about happen. When it starts falling on me pretty regularly, I know that something’s up. Sure enough when this last batch of things fell on me, it wasn’t but a minute after that, that I signed with Verve.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Does your music still have political overtones?
TC: (He laughs) Some of it I think is more than Verve thinks is necessary.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Again here Terry, stop me if I’m wrong. You were part of the great Don Mizell purge at Elektra in the 70’s and you were at the tail end, being there when Patrice Rushen got cut and Lenny White got cut. It was right when things were about to happen for the jazz department at that company.
TC: You’re right, except Patrice was the last to get cut. I was the first.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Did that piss you off? I mean you still had some hope then.
TC: I did after a fashion because what happened was we did Fire On Ice and they thought it was too political. They even thought that Holding On (To Your Love) was too political. That album also had African Violet and Martin St. Martin on it and it was just strong medicine. So when time came to work on Turn You To Love, Don Mizell said “it would be if you could give us something for radio.” And I said yes that’s true. I thought that some of the things on Fire On Ice were good enough for radio. He said “We played it for some fm disc jockeys and they said that it was too political. Too strong.” And I said why didn’t you play it for some black fm disc jockeys? And he said it was black fm disc jockeys that said that. So I said, okay cool. That didn’t dim my focus, but it let me know if I was on the right track. So we started recording Turn You To Love. My partner Larry Wade and I had been working on a song call A Sign Of The Times. We did the best job we thought we could with it and they through it out there and it entered the Billboard charts at number 75, and I thought yes Lord here we go. Frankie Crocker was using it as a theme song in New York and it was the first time in a long time I heard myself on the radio, even in my hometown of Chicago.. I thought that that was going to be the start of something big and I don’t know if they were going to drop Don Mizell’s people regardless of the potential they had, they didn’t do any promotion.
JazzUSA ‘Zine:Did that you make you mad?
TC: No, because I could tell that things there were kind of winding down. That was like the last hurrah, the bright flash before things go dim.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Did it help in the decision to get out of the music business?
TC:, No, because if it had jumped off strong enough, I’d probably would have tried to make other arrangements for my daughter. Now this was 79 or 80 and I didn’t get custody of my daughter until ’83. If it had jumped off, that would have made that decision harder for me to make.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: You were also at Chess when that corporation went wacky, at it’s last hurrah.
TC: That’s true, but that was a little less painful because I was working with Charles Stepney. He was a very creative, very supportive, very technically accomplished pianist, and of course the world knows about him and Earth Wind and Fire.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: So not only are you having political battles with Verve, you have to worry about them trying to market you. Back in the Elektra years you were a folk singer, an r&b ballad singer, a progressive jazz singer, people didn’t know where to put Terry Callier.
TC: That’s still part of the problem because Verve’s idea is that I should be doing the smoother more ballad type things. And sure that is part of it but I sure couldn’t make that a big focus. Like Miles Davis use to say, ‘that ain’t none of me.’
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Wouldn’t hitting the big time be nice?
TC: It wouldn’t be anywhere near as important as if my mom was still alive. She passed in January of this year. It would be nice because I could do more for my daughter. If it broke as big as the Beatles tomorrow, it still wouldn’t mean as much because my mom’s not here.
Terry Callier Discography The New Folk Sound-Prestige 1969 Occasional Rain-Cadet 1971 What Color Is Love-Cadet 1972 I Just Can't Help Myself-Cadet 1974 Fire On Ice-Elektra 1978 Turn Me To Love-Elektra 1979 I Don't Wanna See Myself Without You/If I Can Just Change Your Mind-Erect 1983 This Is Acid Jazz 1991 On Cadet-Charly 1992 T.C. In D.C.-Premonition 1997 Time Peace-Verve January 1998