musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Terry Callier

One of the many sad losses in the music world this past year was the passing of Terry Callier on October 28. Callier was a tremendously talented singer, guitarist and songwriter, one who recorded several woefully underappreciated albums in the 1970s, totally disappeared in the 80s, and then made an unexpected comeback in the 90s.

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Part of the reason for Terry Callier’s lack of success was that his sound was not so easy to categorize. He stared out as a folk singer with a heavy blues foundation, but later garnished his songs with jazz, soul, and pop flavorings. While the songs on Callier’s albums covered a variety of styles, what held it all together and elevated each tune to a higher plateau was Callier’s magnificent voice, one that ranged from achingly lonesome to soul-stirring, depending on the mood of the song. Lyrically, Callier’s songs touched on familiar themes of love and loss, but also politics, war, and racial equality. These were not your typical light, fluffy pop tunes. Phrases such as “contemplative”, “romantic” and “sophisticated” have been used to describe Callier’s music. Others have tossed around terms like “quietly soulful” and “classical folk.” See what I mean? It’s damn hard to categorize Terry Callier. Just listen to the songs and savor them.  

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His 1969 debut album for Vanguard, The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier, was a blend of acoustic blues and folk. It was a mellow, understated album, but also quite hypnotic — just Callier singing and playing acoustic guitar, accompanied by a bass player. But it impressed enough listeners that Callier made a bit of a name for himself and was later able to continue his recording career in the 70s, releasing delightful and genre-bending (if not blending) albums like What Color is Love, Fire on Ice, and Occasional Rain. That latter one was perhaps my favorite Terry Callier album, one that included the mesmerizing song “Ordinary Joe.”

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Alas, none of Callier’s albums sold very well, and by 1983 he pretty much retired from the music business and started working as a computer programmer to support his daughter. But in the early-90s he experienced an unlikely resurgence in popularity after club DJ’s in the UK starting spinning his old records again. After a few guest appearances on recordings by Massive Attack and Beth Orton, Callier was inspired to stage a comeback of his own, and in 1998 he released the critically acclaimed Timepeace album. After another album, Lifetime in 1999, he released Speak Your Peace in 2002, an album that included a thrilling duet with Paul Weller on the song “Brother to Brother.”

 Terry Callier has sadly passed away, but most of his albums are still in print, waiting to be discovered by discerning fans of quality music, whether your preference is jazz, pop, or soul.

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