Look At Him Now
Illinois Entertainer, August 1998
By Todd Shanker

All of us, at one time or another, can feel the presence of the apparitions that foreshadow misfortune and bad luck, even if their ghostlike vagueness makes it impossible for us to actually see them. For over 40 years, Terry Callier has vanquished the always-proximate, ever-hovering blues with a distinctive, cooling freshet of folk, soul, and jazz that has evaded comfortable categorization. This fluid and unbounded spirituality of sound has carried with it-a dubious marketability, which has resulted in many people never hearing Callier’s music. Those that have, however, know the healing powers of his surpassing vocals and nuanced guitar playing. Callier grew up on the near North Side Chicago neighborhood surrounding the Frances Cabrini Homes in the 40’s and 50’s — before the emergence of the menacing high rise extensions, the drably monolithic William Green projects, or the almost exclusive territorial domination of the Gangster Disciples. Back then, it was still a largely Italian neighborhood with much of the action centered around the St. Philip Benizi and St. Dominic churches. But the influx of black families in the late-50’s transformed the neighborhood yet again, just as the Italians had previously supplanted the Swedes and the Swedes had replaced the Germans before them.

From the age of three, Callier would visit his grandmother at the large boarding house she owned and operated on South Indiana Avenue, another neighborhood and environment of substantial character. “She had an old piano there, and I would fool around on it,” Callier recalls. “She rented to a variety of interesting transients -- soldiers, musicians, drifters, anyone who was passing through town or needed a temporary place to stay. The musicians would sit down at the piano with me and give me tips. I sort of put these together into a kind of makeshift musical training at a very young age.” As Callier’s love of music grew into his teen years, he found Cabrini loaded with musical talent -- Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, and Otis Leaville among others. “I started singing as a social outlet. I was very shy and did not have a lot of friends. I found it much easier to put my feelings about a person or about myself into song,” he explains. “But it meant so much for me to see the rise of Jerry and Curtis and so many others. Music was a real option for success.” Callier’s first groups -- The Whippor-Wills, The Serenaders, and later The Saharas-featured the layered harmonies of the doo-wop style vocal arrangements popular at the time. When Callier was 17, he recorded his first single “Look At Me Now” for Chess Records. It was also the first of many stunning collaborations with the great arranger Charles Stepney and the first time Callier heard himself on the radio. “The Chess brothers had the most influential R&B radio station in the country at the time,” says Callier. “Whatever was played on WVON was soon played on other R&B stations all over the United States.”

As the popularity of “Look At Me Now” spread, the Chess brothers set up a tour in which Callier was to perform with high-profile belters from the label like Little Milton and Etta James. “When I told my mother, she was very upset. She insisted I finish high school. Though I was disappointed, I listened to her because I respected her so much.” When he was a freshman at the University of Illinois in Champaign, a friend in the dormitory had a guitar and started showing him some of the basic fingerings. This only intensified Callier’s connection with music, and over the summer, while back in Chicago, Callier started singing and playing in front of audiences more regularly. “It was a little folk club called the Fickle Pickle that used to be over on State and Elm. At the time, my combo had a unique sound because we used two acoustic bassists. I was having so much fun and learning so much that I decided not to go back to school, which again made my mom angry -- but this time she let me make my own decision. I was meeting so many interesting people and really felt it was important for me to start exploring my feelings through music. Plus, I had a bar tab upstairs at the club,” adds Callier with a chuckle. The meditative sonic configurations of the John Coltrane Quartet in the early 60’s became a powerful camarilla for Callier’s approach to music, and influenced him to such a degree that he still speaks of his experience today with charged emotion. “One of the most important events in my life was when I went to see Coltrane’s quartet at a South Side club called McKee’s Disc Jockey Lounge. I knew I was going to be in for something big while I was waiting in line outside. I heard a loud pounding, an insistent hammering, and I thought, ‘What is going on here?’ After I stepped inside, I saw Elvin Jones nailing down his drum kit to the stage! I thought to myself, ‘Why would he have to do that?’ “When the show started I found out,” Callier laughs. “The club was packed to the max, and people rushed toward the stage. Coltrane, Jones, [bassist] Jimmy Garrison, and [pianist] McCoy Tyner played ‘Out Of The Blue,’ but it was very different than it sounded on the album -- much more explosive. To be honest, when I first started to listen, I was afraid. Very afraid. I mean, this was heaven and hell, good and evil, soul and spirit, the sun, the moon, and the stars all rolled into music. It also made me realize that I had no idea of the intensity that could be brought to music. The experience overwhelmed me to the point to where I stopped playing for about nine months so that I could reexamine what I wanted to put into my music and what I wanted to extract from it.” After his Coltrane-inspired retreat, Callier recorded the recently issued Live At Mother Blues 1964 (Premonition). This remarkable recording features Callier lost in a desolate pensiveness that apparently transfixed the “Hootenanny Monday” crowd lucky enough to have witnessed the event. Soon after, Callier met the esteemed Prestige Records producer Samuel Charters. Charters was so impressed with the vibe of Callier's music that he asked him to record immediately. The record, originally titled It’s About Time and eventually called The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier, was far ahead of its time, presaging much of the work of Bob Dylan, but with a private poetic symmetry that was pure Callier. Unfortunately, Charters went on a self-discovery retreat similar to Callier’s post-Coltrane explorations-and took the master tapes with him. “Sam drove down to a Yaqui Indian Pueblo in Mexico and I could not find him for years. Then in late 1967, my brother said he saw my record in the window of a bookshop! I was so excited, but the music on that record wasn't really timely anymore. Dylan had gone electric, psychedelic music was coming on, and my record was pretty much ignored.” In 1970, Jerry Butler formed the Chicago Songwriter’s Workshop and Callier was one of the first invited to take part. “It was wonderful. We could write anywhere we wanted, but we also had a sort of collaborative commune at 1402 South Michigan Avenue. My writing partner then was Larry Wade-and he's still my partner to this day.” Callier and Wade wrote stone-cold soul classics during this period for the Dells (“The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind),” “Freedom Means”), Otis Rush, Garland Green, and Butler’s brother’s group, Billy Butler & Infinity. This led Callier back to Charles Stepney, who was now the head man for Chess’ Cadet label. Stepney was a master arranger and a phenomenon on almost every keyboard instrument, so when he asked Callier if he would be interested in recording together, the guitarist jumped at the opportunity.

Under Stepney’s guidance, Callier recorded three breathtaking albums with the true-blue feel of love’s telepathy: Occasional Rain (’72), What Color Is Love (’73), and Just Can’t Help Myself (’75). “When I recorded What Color Is Love, Charles just told me to stop by the studio at 2250 South Michigan Avenue at 10 a.m. When I arrived, I could hardly believe my eyes. He had a full orchestra there-all members of the Chicago Symphony. We recorded every song in one take. I can’t even tell you what it was like to sing with that kind of instrumental backing. It was incredible…beautiful.” As is the elegant, impassioned, mystical album. Unfortunately, 1975’s Just Can’t Help Myself would be Callier and Stepney’s final collaboration; he unexpectedly passed away at age 45. “It was devastating to me,” Callier says quietly. “He was a great friend.” Adding to Callier’s sadness was the demise of the Songwriter’s Workshop, which was precipitated when Chess (and Cadet) were bought out after Stepney’s death. “Making great music was no longer a priority. Selling music was the key. They wanted product -- something I have never been real successful with.” Nonetheless, Callier’s Cadet records had generated an enormous following in Europe, and led to a new recording contract with Elektra. Releases such as Fire On Ice (’78) and Turn You To Love (’79) stayed true to his earthy yet multifaceted roots at a time when the decadent glitter-ball of disco was sweeping the nation. So despite cracking the pop charts with the superb “Sign Of The Times” (best known as the theme song for legendary WBLS disc jockey Frankie Crocker) and playing to a capacity crowd at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Callier again found himself without a label. In the ’80s, Callier devoted himself to the demands of being a single parent, as he sought and gained custody of his daughter. In between the rigors of fatherhood, steady work as a computer programmer, and night college, Callier still occasionally performed, as is evidenced by the mesmerizing ’82 acoustic date documented on T.C. IN D.C. (Premonition). Callier also recorded a few one-off singles, including the gliding stepper’s anthem, “I Don’t Want To See Myself (Without You),” recorded on the tiny Merrillville, Indiana-based Erect imprint in 1982. Ironically, it was this little single that somehow found its way over to London, where a remixed version became one of the early anthems of the “acid jazz” movement in 1992. After his daughter Sundiata graduated from college, Callier started recording again, this time for Verve. Timepeace (featuring lush collaborations with Pharaoh Sanders and Beth Orton, who Callier recorded an EP with a few years ago), his most recent release Lifetime, and First Light 1969-1971 (Premonition), a top-notch collection of unreleased, pre-Cadet masters, reveal that Callier has as much to offer now as he did at his first four or five creative peaks. He was even awarded a United Nations Medal Of Peace for the characteristically thoughtful Timepeace. Unfortunately, those damn blue demons continue to haunt him. As Callier told me in an interview at his new Evanston home, he recently received word that Verve would not be renewing his recording contract. But spin “Lazarus Man” from Timepeace - or your choice of Callier’s records - and you just know that he’ll beat back those blues once again and his musical soul-roots will only be stronger for the experience.