Out Where the Planets Are
Terry Callier is a man lost to mainstream music history, best known for his 70’s folk-jazz albums on Cadet. When the astonishing singer-songwriter was taking us way out there, with a heavenly rendition of ‘Dancing Girl’ at the Jazz Cafe recently, a beatific smile on his upturned face, eyes closed in reverie, it was impossible to believe that in two mornings’ time he was expected back at a desk job. For in his native Chicago, Terry Callier is just another computer programmer. His performance and this fact brought the audience close to tears.
I met the humblingly polite man before his last sold-out concert and asked if he was surprised by this popularity. His response was thoughtful and measured.
“Not as surprised as when we came to the 100 Club in ’91. The incredible amount of love coming from these people for this music then, had to be seen to be believed. But this experience is, if possible, even better. It’s like living in a dream because the music has done exactly what it was supposed to do, the people are responsive and warm and into it – to an extreme degree.” He laughs, and I think of the incongruous shout “Terry, Terry” ringing round the venue.
How does he explain this extreme reaction to his music?
“I think that music at the best of times goes outside the composer and performer and reaches places inside the listener. It’s like some transfer of waves from heart to heart. Certain cultures still believe that this is not only the best way to communicate, but the only real way to build anything lasting with another human being. At the best of times a song transcends my experience and reaches into other people’s lives, and concerns, and makes them live. When it does that, the music means someone else can feel – I can feel it and someone, other then I can feel it.”
And why has it happened here?
“It’s not a phenomenon that starts with me. Marion Andrew’s career didn’t take off till she came to England, Josephine Baker, going back to Louis Armstrong, if you please. I can’t tell you why artists of that stature had to come to Europe to he appreciated. That’s the way it’s always been.”
He confides that one of the problems with the music, when it was originally released, was one of labeling. Not knowing what to call it, the record business lumped his music in with jazz vocalists, which he says he wouldn’t have presumed to do himself.
“What it really is is a combination of jazz, blues, folk and everything else I listened to since I’ve been able to hear – it is all those things.”
So why does it appeal to us in the 80’s and 90’s?
“A lot of people say it’s because it was ahead of its time. But I don’t think that’s true per se. I just think people didn’t have time to listen to that then.”
He suggests that we’ve learnt to listen to music in a more eclectic way and are more open-minded to different sounds. “This is another generation. They’re doing things differently. People want to dance and boogie, but they also want to listen from time-to-time. And when they choose to listen to the music, it transcends barriers, races, labels, especially it transcends popular music tastes, so people can go back, or forward, to whatever it is that speaks to them. ”
It’s such an emotional, cathartic experience listening to some of Terry Callier’s songs, that I prompt him to explain how they developed.
“It’s always been a problem with me knowing who, where, and what this music is because it doesn’t come from me, so much as through me. Some things, like ‘What Color Is Love?’ came together in one afternoon, but with a song like ‘Ordinary Joe’, from the time I first started humming, until it was finally a whole song, was five years.”
But though he claims they come from elsewhere, tunes such as ‘African Violet’ or ‘Martin St. Martin’ do tackle real issues, like poverty, injustice and slavery. Or in perhaps his most beautiful song, ‘Dancing Girl’, he was trying to show, musically, how hard things were for women (and prostitution) in the city, and how hard things were for musicians in the city: “Bird is blowing in his room and baby sister hits the streets about nine.” But the pattern for the words was all I could use because of the way the song was structured. I have to work with songs as they’re presented to me and not only that, I have to wait for them.”
He is adamant that while waiting for new material to develop, he still enjoys playing the old tunes.
“They still have meaning for me. I can remember the first time a lot of these things happened. The experiences that lead to some of these pieces are still pretty vivid and become more so each time we play them.”
Terry Callier still thinks of himself as a musician, even after years not making a living from it. And he has particular musical regrets; one is losing his collaborator/arranger on the Cadet albums, Charles Stepney.
“He was aware of what I was trying to do and everything he did was to enhance that. Most of ‘Ordinary Rain’ was no more than 8-9 people -guitar, bass, drums, with a bit of organ and a touch of synthesizer (a lot of things that sounded like synthesizer were actually Minnie Ripperton). For ‘What Color Is Love?’ we had a bigger vision, so consequently some tunes had as many as 25-30 other musicians. People thought it odd, but that’s what we felt those pieces called for. Yes it was very hard to lose that gentleman. Because he could hear what I was trying to do and was prepared to follow it.”
Do you need someone like that to be able to work? I ask.
“`Everyone does. Everyone needs a guide for a while…someone they can lean on in the beginning, that’s for sure.” I’m sure a great many more people would see Terry Callier as such a mentor were he better known. How does that sound to him?
“l’ve heard some people say things like that. Gee. I don’t think you can really choose to do that – you’re chosen.”
After emotional ovations from those who had chosen him that night, Terry Callier left the stage. He was due to reach Chicago around 5pm next day to be back in front of the computer Friday morning at 7.30. He’s stoical.
“I can’t really complain, it’s put myself and my daughter through school (I went back to school to take a degree). I would rather be playing music, but what’s important isn’t always what you want, and what you want isn’t always what’s important. Isn’t that the truth?”
I wish it weren’t.
Susy Marriott for ukvibe issue 14 1995
ukvibe caught up with Terry on his return visit to perform at Russ Dewbury’s Jazz Bop (Forum Kentish Town) and took the opportunity to hand him a copy of the magazine with his feature.