SUNDAY, October 28, was a rather sad day for American music, with news that Terry Callier had passed away. Now, a lot of people ― specially in India ― may not have heard him, unless they’ve caught some of his later work that did the rounds on the London underground scene from the late 90s onwards. So for those who’ve missed his brilliance, let’s begin with a few basic introductions.
To start with, Callier was a Chicago-bred soul singer-songwriter-guitarist whose music also embraced the jazz, blues and folk spectrums. Secondly, he was rather under-rated, probably because he never got into marketing himself. Thirdly, after doing a string of albums in the 70s, he gave up music for nearly 18 years to study and pursue computer programming and look after his family, only return by guesting with acts like Massive Attack, Beth Orton, Paul Weller and Koop.
The most important thing about him, of course, is that he possessed one of the most haunting and soulful voices, something that gripped you with its sheer panache, perfection and phrasing. Even in terms of lyrics, the songs were way above par, dealing with romance, peace, unity and even revolt. A true musician, in every sense.
If one has to really get onto Callier’s music, where does one begin? Sadly, one may not find his records in Indian stores. Luckily, YouTube contains a wealth of his material. One can spend hours admiring him.
The trick, of course, is to start with the right songs. And here, we’d like to recommend them, based on your age. The reason is that Callier had two distinct sets of audiences ― one which was exposed to his earlier soul and folk songs, and the other which heard him in collaboration with modern-day trip-hop, electronica and club artistes.
So if you’re over 35, the best bet would be to begin with ‘What Color Is Love’, a breathtakingly beautiful and charmingly-orchestrated love song. Check out the lines: “Is it wrong or is it right, is it black or is it white, what color is love?” You could follow that up with ‘Dancing Girl’, a nine-minute romantic masterpiece which travels in different tempi, beginning with the lines “I saw a dream last night, bright as a falling star.”
Then, you could get into the blues-rock beauty of ‘You Goin’ to Miss Your Candyman’, with its smooth guitars and keyboards. Up next could be his version of the Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’, followed by blues ballads ‘Blues for Billie Holiday’ and ‘Paris Blues’, and the Bob Dylan-styled protest classic ‘Fix the Blame’. These songs are good enough to get you hooked.
Now, if you’re under 35, the ideal recommendations would be ‘Live With Me’, with British trip-hop group Massive Attack, and ‘Lean On Me’ with Brit ‘folktronica’ singer Beth Orton. Other beginners would include the peppy ‘In a Heartbeat’ with Swedish electronic jazz duo Koop, and the wonderfully-written and moving ‘Brother to Brother’, with well-known 90s singer-songwriter Paul Weller. London club favourites 4Hero have used his voice on their mixes of ‘The Day of the Greys’ and the mood-enhancing ‘Love Theme from Spartacus’.
Having gone through the basics, whichever age you are, you can try some of his other gems. There are the funk-driven ‘Sign of the Times’, the beautifully-rendered ‘Butterfly’, the very old folk-blues songs ‘Work Song’, ‘I’m a Drifter’ and ‘Be My Woman’, one of his late 90s songs ‘Time Peace’, the saxophone-driven ‘Nobody But Yourself To Blame’, the jazz piece ‘Tokyo Moon’, the club-friendly ‘Wings’ and all-time favourites like ‘Ordinary Joe’, ‘Jazz My Rhythm N’ Blues’, ‘Spin Spin Spin’, ‘Lazarus Man’ and ‘900 Miles’. Many, many more.
Callier had once rendered a jazz-soul song called ‘When The Music is Gone’, which talks of how life would be without music. The lyrics go: “What can we lean on when the music is gone, I don’t know… The song will be truth, peace, freedom and justice, the song will be love… What can we depend on when the music is gone, we don’t know, so we can’t let it die.”
What an apt way to sum up your own approach to life, Terry Callier. Hope your music spreads as far and wide as it deserves to.