Terry Callier, soulful Chicago singer-songwriter, is dead at 67

Terry Callier is seen performing on stage during the 40th Montreux Jazz Festival at the Stravinski Hall in Montreux, Switzerland, in July 2006.
(Sandro Campardo / European Pressphoto Agency)

Some musicians are famous for 15 minutes. Others stay famous (and rich) for 50 years.

Then there are those like Terry Callier, the Chicago soul and bluesman who died Saturday at 67 of cancer.

Possessed with a sweetly disarming baritone voice that shone through songs like “Ordinary Joe” and “Dancing Girl,” and a wealth of conceptual ambition, Callier and his hard-to-classify music never quite found their audience in the 1960s and ‘70s, at least not on the level attained by funky friends like Curtis Mayfield. His music, thoughtful, earnest and frequently wrapped in graceful, shimmering orchestrations, didn’t fit neatly into any narrow marketing niche.

But in the late 1990s Callier finally got his due when he was rediscovered in Britain by acid-jazz aficionados and brought to London to perform. He ended up tapping a gusher of inspired new material, starting with his 1998 release “TimePeace,” and collaborating with Paul Weller and Beth Orton, among others.


It was a suprising twist to a career that had begun in the early 1960s, when Callier started cutting discs with Chess Records while still in high school, before attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. According to some sources, he was raised in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, and his childhood friends included Mayfield and Jerry Butler of the Impressions.

The singer-songwriter-guitarist spent several years knocking around Chicago coffeehouses, under the sway of John Coltrane and Bob Dylan. Critics and audiences wondered whether he was a folkie, a jazz cat or a classic Chicago blues belter. In retrospect, his closest musical kin may be other multi-talent blues-based artists like Richie Havens.

Callier stayed busy recording through the late ‘70s, but by the early ‘80s he’d dropped out of music to become a computer programmer. That set the stage for his late-career comeback, almost as startling a reversal of fortune as that of Sixto “Searching For Sugarman” Rodriguez.

It was a hard-earned, well-deserved finale for an artist who always insisted on forging and following his own way.


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