There is conjecture that if blues historian Samuel Charters hadn’t absconded with the master tapes to Terry Callier’s hauntingly beautiful eponymous debut (recorded in Chicago in the summer of 1964 when the guitarist was 19) and stalled its release for several years, Callier would have been much better known. With a baritone vibrato not unlike Elvis Presley, imparting the timbre and gravitas of Nina Simone, Callier, raised in the projects of Chicago’s Cabrini Green, was more celebrated in England and Europe in the later years of his life.
In a laudable effort to redress that domestic neglect and honor his high school friend, jazz radio personality and author Al Carter-Bey (check his 2015 memoir about Gene Ammons, It Was Jug That I Dug), determined to have the street near Callier’s onetime home at 848 N. Mohawk St, in Chicago, given an honorary marker. It was decided to name the 300-400 block of West Elm as “Terry Callier Way,” because this is where Carter-Bey hosts a summer jazz series, plus Seward Park was the auspicious location where Callier and such icons as Curtis Mayfield, Ramsey Lewis, Jerry Butler and Maurice White had practiced their craft.
The indefatigable Carter-Bey had secured the naming of a strip of S. Prairie Avenue for Dinah Washington in 2014, but the city had since tightened its rein on such street memorials to a maximum of two per year. A champion for his 27th Ward, Alderman Walter Butler Jr. sympathized with Carter-Bey’s quest but nevertheless set him to task to gather signatures from the neighborhood to see if Callier’s name sufficiently resonated. Carter-Bey gathered more than 300 endorsees and the deal was set.
On June 16 at 11 a.m., amid scattered showers and sunshine, an impassioned group of old colleagues of Callier’s and his family members, including younger brother Michael, daughter Sunny and grandson Evan, gathered at Seward Park to reminisce about the man whose soulful personality had been such an influence on their own outlook and development.
After Carter-Bey introduced proceedings and a rousing, hip invocation from immaculately attired pastor Randall K. Blakey of LaSalle Street Church, judge Bennie E. Martin jumped from his seat, anxious to tell us tales of “Tevito,” as he used to call Callier, in their youth together.
Martin discussed basketball games they would have that included Major Lance, Butler and Mayfield, who no one wanted to guard because of the scatter of his hair dye; how Callier wore a trench coat and scarf year round; how he got into disputes at the University of Chicago because he knew more than his math professor; and how Martin used to go hear him perform at the Cafe Enrico on Rush Street and found him “significant in the future of his identity” with such picaresque, locally flavored songs as “Trance On Sedgwick Street” (the latter indicative of Callier’s association with wordsmith Gil Scott Heron, in whose band he once toured).
Martin had trained as a librarian before studying law and recalled that the lyrics from Callier’s “Ordinary Joe”—“I’ve seen a sparrow get high/And waste his time in the sky/He thinks it’s easy to fly/He’s just little bit freer than I”—were included in a library textbook. It resonated with him how potent were the words of his childhood friend.
DJ and producer Dave Freeman then took to the microphone and recalled how you could hear the soul in Callier’s voice in pretty much every note, how he made you feel the music like a Donny Hathaway or a Stevie Wonder and how Callier’s output reminded him of what Frank Sinatra said about quality over quantity.
Speaker David Bey called Callier “the lyricist personified” and recited his favorite words from “Butterfly”: “Butterfly/Flutter by my window/Butterfly, go gently round my door/Well it seems to me life used to shine so brightly/I spread my wings politely/Reaching for the sky.” Bey fondly remembered Callier sets at such colorfully named, long-gone venues as The Fickle Pickle, The Earl of Old Town and the Yellow Unicorn.
There were plenty recollections about what a stand-up guy Callier was, but Carter-Bey laughingly recalled who it was who put tacks on Mrs. Wilkinson’s seat at the nearby Jenner Elementary.
Ward 27’s comparatively youthful alderman Walter Burnett Jr. was less playful as he discussed the checkered legacy of his jurisdiction. “I grew up in row houses too,” he said, “and the media has focused on the negative legacy of Cabrini Green rather than the many positive legacies.” Burnett emphasized “Lyricists in the projects were writing rap before rap existed. The kind of lyrical rap that you could actually play off—actually get a girlfriend and push up on someone!”
Burnett touched on the history of black musicians’ hardscrabble hustle and how they were routinely cheated in the business. But, said Burnett, “They still made hits and stayed together. Music connects everyone from rich to poor, black to white and Hispanic.”
Burnett confessed that the city gets many requests for honorary signs for “everybody—mobsters, gangbangers to homeless guys on the corner.” But he said Carter-Bey did a great job raising awareness about the legacy of Callier.
Another person crucially involved with the vicinity of Seward Park was 76-year-old architect Charles Smith, who designed the facility and many of the surrounding buildings and infrastructure and had watched the neighborhood change through thick and thin.
Terry Callier (Photo: Michael Jackson)
At that point, a large gathering of Callier’s relatives, all wearing custom t-shirts emblazoned with his image, grouped for a family photo. Carter-Bey insisted they wait until they had heard from all speakers, introducing one of Callier’s seminal creative partners, Larry Wade. Wade and Callier had met at Larry Butler’s songwriting workshop in the late ’60s/early ’70s and worked for labels Chess and Cadet. A highpoint was their penning of “The Love We Had Stays in My Mind,” which was a hit for the Dells in 1972.
The charismatic Wade, sporting crucifix earrings and a white Kangol cap, proudly proffered a reissued CD of the Dells’ Cadet material called Freedom Means, for which he had written liners and provided a rare photograph of him and Callier together. “Terry was one of the most iconic human beings that ever graced the stage and played an instrument,” said Wade. “He was an astounding mentor, I am still mourning his loss but happy that I graced that area in space with him.”
The least anecdotal speaker was Callier’s younger sibling Michael who, perhaps in the quintessential spirit of his late brother, whose 1998 album Timepeace won an award from the United Nations, spoke of the need for peace in an era when “we’d rather despise than love each other.”
The family resemblance and vibe between Michael and Terry was evident from the image of his brother on Michael’s t-shirt, a still-waters-run-deep aura and a similar belief in God (Michael is an associate minister at the West Center of Truth).
Others who had closely worked with Callier in attendance included bassist Eric Hochberg (inspired by John Coltrane, Callier had deployed two double bassists to back him on his debut). Hochberg played with Callier on and off between 1972 and 2005. “His deep baritone voice drew you in to everything he did,” Hochberg recalled. “In his simple yet profound manner, he was inspirational every night.” Hochberg co-produced and arranged the cut I Don’t Want To See Myself Without You in 1982, which eventually became popular in the U.K. years later when Eddie Piller from Acid Jazz Records reissued it.
Though Callier’s albums on Prestige, Cadet and Elektra failed to sell well in the U.S., late in his career his unique mélange of folk, jazz and soul caught fire in England. When I mentioned the street naming to Mark Edwards, a top jazz pianist in the U.K., he recalled the experience of working a hundred or so shows with Callier all over Europe during this period: “Working with Terry was unlike any other artist I have worked with in a 30-year career. The feeling he gave to his audience was a kind of childlike wonder and gratitude. He couldn’t quite believe that he had such a devoted following at a time in life when he must have thought his musical career was resigned to relative obscurity.”
Edwards had worked with Paul Weller, who also collaborated with Callier on the single “Brother To Brother,” and British hip-hop group Urban Species sampled from Callier’s 1973 “You Gonna Miss Your Candyman.” Callier also contributed to folktonica artist Beth Orton’s Best Bit EP in 1972, and collaborated with trip-hop duo Massive Attack and built a cult following across the pond.
“I have never seen the kind of love with which people received him wherever we played,” remembers Edwards. “He was greeted as some kind of apostle, sent to minister the message of brotherly love to post acid jazz hipsters.” Whether in a remote town in Germany or Italy, the gigs always sold out, according to Edwards, and devotees knew every word of every song, receiving him like a long-awaited guru.
“He would put them into a trance with his Sufi mantras about Yahweh over a gentle E minor riff for 15 mins—such as in ‘Lazarus Man’—and then whip them into a frenzy with the 70’s Disco passion of ‘I Don’t Wanna See Myself’.” Edwards’ memories pour out of him as he starts talking about Callier: “He told stories, and he asked people to love each other, in a totally non-cheesy and natural way, and we all believed the world could be a better place. I’m actually really moved just thinking about it now. The reception was always phenomenal ... for every single song. We barely ever rehearsed, he was always just so happy with what the band played; didn’t feel the need to give any directions. He seemed to love every minute of every gig and gave all the glory to his God. I have honestly never experienced anything like it.”
As his grandson Evan posed with the Callier’s guitar under the recently unsheathed street sign adjacent to Seward Park at 375 West Elm Street (northwest section of Elm and Sedgwick), I chatted with Hillel Frankel, who was Callier’s lawyer for years and flew in from Nashville for the occasion. “He was a very calm and beautiful person but did realize he’d been exploited in the past and wanted to get paid for his music,” recalled Frankel.
Having never hit pay dirt despite his talents as writer and performer, Callier quit music in 1983 and became a computer programmer at the University of Chicago (gaining a degree in Sociology by night). He had gained custody of his daughter and felt a steadier income was crucial to satisfactory parenting. Callier’s sense of social responsibility comes across in no uncertain terms in some of his lyrics, notably “Traitor To The Race” from Timepeace (the CD features U.S. jazz masters Pharoah Sanders, John Moulder and Howard Levy, as well as British musicians), which repudiates inner city brother-on-brother killing, the disrespecting of women and neglect of children.
His upbringing in a tough, relegated quarter of Chicago’s near Northside, located with cruel irony behind the affluent “Gold Coast” shaped his own personal struggle, which he transcended. Those in attendance at this proud and heartwarming testimonial potently communicated what Carter-Bey dubbed, via Callier-speak, “Ordinary Joy”—an infectious sense of solidarity fostered by the light of an extraordinary man from the neighborhood. DB