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Terry Callier dies at 67; vocalist, musician

The Chicago native captivated a cult following with the imploring, incantatory quality of his vocals and his knack for mixing elements of African chant, blues melody, jazz and folk.

November 03, 2012|Times staff and wire reports
  • Terry Callier performs at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 2006.
Terry Callier performs at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in… (Sandro Campardo, European…)

Terry Callier, a singer-songwriter who captivated a cult following with his quietly hypnotic baritone voice and hard-to-classify music that combined elements of folk, blues and jazz, died of cancer Oct. 27 at a hospital in Chicago. He was 67.

Callier never achieved tremendous commercial success during his peak in the 1960s and '70s or in a 1990s comeback flash. But the imploring, incantatory quality of his vocals distinguished him from his peers, as did his knack for mixing elements of African chant, blues melody, jazz improvisation and folk instrumentation.

Born in Chicago on May 24, 1945, Callier was signed to Chess Records before he had graduated from high school. His first full-length album was released in 1968, a collection of covers aptly named "The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier." The recordings he made in the '70s with producer Charles Stepney on Cadet — such as "Occasional Rain" (1972) and "What Color Is Love" (1973) — bristled with social commentary and unusual instrumental effects. But they didn't fit any particular radio format.

Callier credited the Near North Side neighborhood he grew up in for providing an introduction to an amalgam of sounds.

"That neighborhood was home to Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Ramsey Lewis and a host of other people who were extremely talented," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1998.

"There was a fieldhouse over on Orleans near Division, and it had a series of meeting rooms, some of them with pianos, and they had great acoustics, so there would be four or five different vocal groups rehearsing," he added. "And on any summer night you could walk by and hear fantastic music — these guys could blow, and there were girl groups that sounded like angels.

"So I learned early on to listen to everything — classical music and ethnic music from Africa and Middle East, and it all comes out in your work."

But the thrilling eclecticism of his approach, as well as executive turnover at various record labels, ultimately prevented him from reaching the wide audience that might have appreciated his art.

In 1983 Callier walked away from the music business, enrolled in computer classes and began working at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. By 1988, he had completed a degree in sociology at North Park College and realigned his life.

But when British acid jazz groups in the early 1990s began sampling his work, which commanded attention among European connoisseurs, Callier's fortunes were revived.

He returned to the music business with the release of the 1998 album "TimePeace," which generated critical accolades.

"In truth, little has changed in Callier's approach," wrote Richard Harrington in the Washington Post in 2000. "His often-hushed vocals tend toward the cool and understated, his mostly-acoustic backing to the spare and supple, his lyrics to the metaphysical and, on occasion, socially conscious."

But Callier's comeback only went so far. He collaborated with Paul Weller, Beth Orton, Massive Attack and other pop music acts and toured Europe regularly until he was diagnosed with cancer 18 months ago, said his daughter, Sunny. She survives him, as do a son, a brother and a grandson.

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