TERRY CALLIER / “What Colour Is Love”
People hear in this music the things they are most familiar with. Folk music fans hear the folk part of it, jazz fans are drawn to the improvised quality and soul fans can feel what's happening. I'm not sure what label to put on the music -- it's what I do and it's been influenced by every type of music I've ever listened to. I think all artists (writers, directors, painters, musicians, film-makers, whatever) have a responsibility to try and move society to a higher vibe. I think that we haven't lived up to the task, not necessarily because we don't or didn't want to but because the entertainment industry isn't interested in messages as such -- they are only concerned with what is selling. In addition, the industry has control over what is presented as commercial and if they want a certain type of music to be popular they increase its exposure and if there's a certain type of music they want to suppress, they have no problem doing that. —Terry CallierIf the course of life was left to America, most serious artists would be dead, ignored or corrupted. As you listen to Terry Callier’s music, meditate on the fact that were it not for music lovers in England, we probably would not have the majority of Terry’s recordings available to us and for sure we would not have any post-eighties recordings at all. Since the Imus affair, there has been a lot of talk about hip hop lyrics with an emphasis on the alleged irresponsibility of rappers who write and recite what are deemed to be denigrating lyrics. Without excusing or overlooking the responsibility of individual artists, the question must be raised: why are the major record companies putting these records out? We know the answer (because the music industry is about making money and not primarily about making music) but do not be fooled, they don’t have to sell aural dope to make money. Part of the reason for pushing the music that is pushed is because such music is not only entertaining, but also because the music is politically backwards. The majority of today's popular music keeps its audience in ignorance. We are not inspired to think or examine our conditions. The radio and MTV are an anesthesia designed to keep us passive. Terry’s music is as strong as it is precisely because Terry does not depend on his music to make money and thus is never tempted to record music to satisfy “the company.” When you’re not trying to be a star, you can let your light shine any which kind of way you want to, whenever and wherever you want to. This body of music represents the life views of a musician who was definitely influenced by the uncompromising creations of John Coltrane whom Callier saw when Callier was 19.
He was playing at a little club called McKees, and I got there early to see Elvin Jones nailing his drum kit to the floor. Then the quartet rocks on stage, and I wasn't prepared for the intensity with which these guys threw themselves into the music - I had never seen men do that before in my life and it frightened me. It made me realise that everything in life was in this music: the beautiful and the ugly, the godly and ungodly. Not everybody wants to touch those places because there are things we have to forget in order to live with ourselves, and that music didn't let you have any secrets. —Terry CallierAt that moment Terry recognized how serious he would have to be to truly create music at the Coltrane level.
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 treading water, not wasting time but just treading water. —Terry CallierAlthough Callier’s music does not “sound” like Coltrane’s music, Callier’s music is actually Coltrane-like in the sense that Callier is totally serious about the music he makes. Terry started off singing doo-wop. He made a name for himself on the folk song circuit in New York between his high school and college years. After returning home to Chicago, Terry joined up with the Chicago soul scene. Terry wrote a big hit for the Dells, “The Love We Had Stays on My Mind.” He was deeply influenced by Coltrane specifically and jazz in general. Upon assuming his fatherhood responsibilities, Terry quit making music for almost a decade and then, based on an invitation from overseas, resumed stronger than ever. But it was neither a simple nor an easy journey to his present status as an artistically respected elder of serious music. At every juncture of Callier’s long career he faced major roadblocks, beginning when he was still in high school and his mother would not allow him to go on a Chess Records summer tour. What was supposed to be his first album was almost lost when the producer, Sam Charters, took the master tapes with him on a three year spiritual englighment hiatus in the desert! Although recorded in July 1964, The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier wasn’t released until 1968. By then there was no interest in marketing the album. Subsequently he signed to Elektra records and what seemed to be a big break morphed into a big bust.
We did Fire On Ice (1978) and [Elektra] 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 (1979), 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. —Terry CallierThen there was the 8-year break (1983 to 1991) Callier took when he received custody of his daughter Sundiata. In the early nineties when Terry signed a one-off record deal with Verve for a “come back” recording it was put on hold because Verve wanted a more commercial release. By the way, once that album was finally released, Timepeace, went on to win a coveted award from the United Nations. Invariably people talk about the spiritual qualities of Terry Callier’s music. That quality is hard won, a distillation of a lifetime of climbing mountain after mountain after mountain and never quite getting to the sea commercially, but soaring out past the stars artistically. As a vocalist his voice is not as flexible as it was during his younger years but on the other hand there is an aching charm to his weathered baritone. Terry Callier's voice is a fount of deep feelings and utter sincerity that instantly attracts listeners. He frequently cuts loose with bop and modal scats, singing improvised melodies and even incorporating quotes from other songs much as bebop musicians frequently did during their solos. I tried to cover the entire spectrum of Callier's recorded music. If you are interested in building your own Callier collection, I suggest you start with Life Lessons The Best Of Terry Callier, a comprehensive 2CD set. Of the folk-oriented work, I strongly recommend TC In DC, a trio (with Eric Hochberg - bass and Penn McGee - percussion and vocals) live set recorded in 1982 but not released until 1996. Of the recent work, Timepeace (1998) is a must. The title cut features Pharoah Sanders on saxophone. All of his albums have at least two or three very strong tracks and though What Color Is Love (1973) is considered an early classic, I generally prefer his later work, especially Alive (2001) which features vocalist Veronica Cowper. The Live In Berlin DVD is very good musically and excellent as a visual and aural documentation of this important musician. Our featured cut, Terry's signature song, “What Colour Is Love” is from the DVD. —Kalamu ya Salaam That voice I remember the first time I heard Terry sing. It was a near-"Maggot Brain" experience for me. A real "what was that I just heard?!" moment. The song was Terry's near-accapella cover of "The Love Theme From 'Spartacus.'" I was tractor-trailering around L.A., doing deliveries and one of the DJs on KCRW put it on. I remember sitting there in the alley, listening to that voice, thinking, "Who the hell is this?!" Since then, I've heard a lot of Terry Callier's work, but a lot of the music Kalamu is dropping this week is new to me. I'm digging just about all of it, but I have to mention three songs in particular: "Dancing Girl," "What Colour Is Love" and "Ordinary Joe." I'm a big, big Gil Scott-Heron fan, as most of y'all probably know. For me, no one else captures the gentle awefulness, the subtle joy, the multi-faceted realness of day-to-day life the way Gil does. But when I'm listening to the Terry Callier songs I mentioned, I realize Gil has some company. One of Terry's strengths is the way he reveals the extraordinary in the ordinary. I'm not suprised at all to learn that this fantastic artist put his gifts aside for a decade to raise his daughter. It's just that type of apparent contradiction (a gifted artist letting go of his art to be an 'average' guy, a Dad) that Terry's art exemplifies. Another thing I like about Terry is that he works with young artists. I don't mean that he hires young cats to play in his band (I don't know if he does or doesn't). What I mean is, he's willing to get out there and collaborate with other musicians - people who may not even be coming from exactly where he's coming from. One of my favorite Terry Callier cuts is a tune named "In A Heartbeat" that he did with the Swedish neo-swing dou Koop. Compared to Terry's other work, it's kind of out of left field, but as you might expect, Terry maintains his same depth and sincerity, even as he layers that rich voice of his over sampled 21st century grooves. Man, we've got to stop somewhere. Mtume, I didn't include "Ordinary Joe," because we included it last year in a Joe Bataan feature about "ordinary" folk. I started to include that Koop song but then I decided to stick with cuts from Terry's own albums. And as I told you, I ripped the DVD version of "What Colour Is Love" because while I wanted to include the song, I didn't want to be repetitive even though it's Terry's signature song. There are at least two great versions of "Dancing Girl" and even though we have to stop somewhere, I'm going to include it in the mix. I think I'll use the early version with strings but then the live version with Veronia Cowper is really sweet... man, this could go on forever. —Kalamu ya Salaam P.S. I decided on the early version of "Dancing Girl" taken from the classic What Color Is Love album. P.P.S. ...but I can't stop. Mtume, your comparison to Gil Scott-Heron and your noting the "ordinary" quality of Terry's work is absolutely right. Below is an excerpt from an interview done in a British political publication, Socialist Review. I might as well give the last word to Terry.
Many of your songs deal with everyday life and working people. Yes there are more of us than them. There are more people who are non-rich than who have money and power. More wealth is held by an increasingly small number of individuals. I write about what I see and from where I stand, and naturally it is about people who you would meet in everyday life because I am one of those. Why did you re-record the classic Curtis Mayfield song, 'People Get Ready'? The area where I grew up is the near north side of Chicago. It was home to some great musicians including Jerry Butler, Ramsey Lewis and Curtis Mayfield. Curtis gained international acclaim before I was out of high school and he was singing about my community! The inspiration was all around. Older guys were into jazz; our parents were into the big band sounds of Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Young people were interested in doo wop [vocal groups]. Curtis was my inspiration. I hope some of the spirit of his music comes out through me. Why has Chicago produced some of the most radical black music? Chicago is a great city, but it is also the most segregated city in the US. That is not by accident, that is by design. As beautiful as it is in the summer with the lake and the parks, there is still in the background a lot of racial tension. Latinos stay to themselves and the white Anglo Saxon Protestants definitely try to keep to themselves. More or less out of necessity Afro-Americans are forced to stay to themselves. One of the hardest things to break down in America is racism. I read a book about the Southern coal miners' unions in the 1920s. They were integrated, not by accident or in a perfunctory way, but because black and white miners were working under the same galling conditions. Just about the time the union was going to make a push to improve the conditions for all miners, the Ku Klux Klan and the employers set the colour thing up and enforced division. There is no need for racial segregation. That is what I try to deal with in my music. I want all races to live together in peace. I really supported the recent UPS strike. I thought it was going to have the same outcome as the air traffic controllers' strike. Most of those men and women lost their jobs. Some of them still have not found work. But the UPS strike was well organised. The members stood together - it was fantastic. What do you think about the situation in the Gulf? I'm very worried. I am not a politician. I am not a weapons specialist. I don't believe anybody truly knows what weapons Saddam has. But I do remember that the west gave him a lot of arms, because they sought him as an ally in the ever turbulent Middle East, and that's the truth. Saddam is refusing to go down the path the US wants. This does not make the US happy, so consequently it has to do something about it! People say that it is about patriotism. I don't think there is anything patriotic or honourable in bombing these people. Who are your musical influences? If we took time to list everybody we would be here for a long time. I was into rhythm and blues but got into folk music while I was at college. I worked in a coffee house and played the standard folk repertoire until I saw John Coltrane in 1964. I watched two Coltrane sets a night for five days. I stopped playing music for about six months. I didn't want to be Coltrane, but I did want to bring some of Coltrane's dignity and spirituality to my music. So from 1965 until 1979 I brought out six albums and wrote material for Jerry Butler and the Dells. What music are you listening to at the moment? I have never stopped listening to music. Charles Stepney, the producer on my Cadet recordings, said, 'You should listen to what is happening in music, but when you get into the studio you should use the truest material you have that will reflect you.' Charles said, if you do this, time will not affect it. Right now a lot of people are using my material. I have recorded with Beth Orton, Urban Species and I might hook up with DJ Shadow. I would like to say what I think is the most important thing is that we as human beings have more in common than we do differences. It's time to say that straight out. —Issue 217 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1998
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