For many years, I’ve championed the music of Terry Callier. I’ve often described Terry Callier as one of music’s best kept secrets. That’s despite enjoying a recording career which saw him releasing ten studio albums. Sadly, Terry Callier is better known in the UK than America. Indeed, Terry Callier only ever enjoyed one hit single in America. This was Sign Of The Time, a track from Terry’s 1978 album Fire On Ice, which will be rereleased by WEA Japan on 4th February 2014.

Sign Of The Times was used by disc jockey Frankie Crocker as the theme tune on his radio program. Such was the popularity of the track, that Elektra released it as a single. It reached number seventy-eight in the US R&B Charts, and saw Terry invited to perform at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival. Sadly, that was Terry’s only chart success in his home country. However, Sign Of The Times was Terry’s only American hit single. However, there’s more to Fire On Ice than one track. You’ll realise that when I tell you about Fire On Ice. Before that, I’ll tell you about Terry’s career.

Terry Callier was born in Chicago, in 1945, growing up in the North Side of Chicago. Among his friends, were other giants of soul music, including Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and Major Lance. Soon, Terry was singing in neighborhood doo wop group. Then, aged just seventeen, Terry auditioned for Chess Records, recording his debut single Look At Me Now. After that, Terry started playing folk clubs and coffee houses, before falling under the spell of legendary jazz musician John Coltrane’s music. 

By 1964, Samuel Charters of Prestige Records met Terry. Samuel was so impressed by Terry’s music and talent, that he encouraged Terry to record an album. Terry headed into the recording studio and recorded what became The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier. Aged nineteen Terry had recorded his debut album and it was ready for release. Then disaster struck. For some inexplicable reason Samuel Charters, decided to take the tapes of the album to the Mexican desert. This delayed the release of the album until 1968. When The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier was belatedly released, music had changed. Sadly, it failed to give Terry the commercial breakthrough his talent deserved. The next time Terry released his second album, it a new decade had dawned.

It was at Cadet Records, a subsidiary of Chess Records that Terry Callier released a trio of minor classics. For fans of Terry Callier, these three albums are quite simply, amongst Terry Callier’s finest work. The first of these albums were Occasional Rain was released in 1972, which featured the classic tracks Ordinary Joe and the elegant, beautiful and moving title-track Occasional Rain. Sadly, commercial success eluded Terry. What Color Is Love followed in 1973 and saw Terry at his very best. Dancing Girl, Just As Long As We’re In Love and the seminal title-track What Color Is Love. Still the commercial success and critical acclaim the Terry’s music deserved, eluded him. When the last of this trio of albums, I Just Can’t Help Myself, released in 1974 and failed to catch the public’s attention, Terry’s career at Cadet was over. These three albums remained hidden gems, cherished by a small band of dedicated followers of Terry’s music. It would be over twenty-five years later, that they were rediscovered by a new generation of music lovers.

After being dropped by Cadet Records, Terry Callier signed for Elektra four years later. He recorded two albums for Elektra. Fire On Ice, released in 1978, was the first of these two albums. Fire On Ice featured nine tracks and Terry wrote Be A Believer, Butterfly, I Been Doin’ Alright (Everything’s Gonna Be Alright) and African Violet. Terry and Larry Wade penned Holding On (To Your Love), Street Fever, Disco In The Sky and Martin St. Martin. Larry also wrote Love Two Love. These tracks were recorded by an all-star band of session musicians.

Accompanying Terry was a band that featured some of the top session players of the seventies. This included bassist Scott Edwards, drummers James Gadson and Paul N. Humphrey, plus guitarists Philip Upchurch, Danny Leake, Charles Fearing and W. Ross Trout. They were joined by keyboardist Reginald Burke, percussionists Derf Reklaw and Morris Jennings plus Michael Boddicker on synths. Minnie Ripperton, Cynthia White, Ellis Willis, Jyean Bell and Sidney Barnes sang backing vocals. The finishing touches were the string and horn sections. Once Fire On Ice was recorded, it was released in 1978.

On the release of Fire On Ice, it was well received by critics. It was a case of deja vu. Fire On Ice failed to chart. It neither troubled the US Billboard 200 nor US R&B Charts. At least it reached number thirty-seven in the US Jazz Charts. Sign Of The Times reached number seventy eight in the  charts. That was  a small crumb or comfort. Fire On Ice deserved to fare better. You’ll realise why, when I tell you about Fire On Ice.

Fire and Ice opens with Be A Believer. It has lovely, positive lyrics. The track opens gently, with acoustic guitar and subtle strings sweeping, before Terry’s vocal enters. It’s strong and confident, as he sings about how belief can help you achieve what we want from life and overcome the obstacles that we face each day. Believe, and “most things in your life (will work out”). Meanwhile, the arrangement is unfolding and growing. The rhythm section and  guitars combine to up the tempo, producing a much fuller sounding arrangement. Backing vocalists accompany Terry, their voices uniting joyously, matching the positivity and joy of Terry’s vocal, before horns interject beautifully, adding to the joyful, uptempo sound. A saxophone solo drifts over the top of the arrangement adding the finishing touches to a quite brilliant track, one that’s a paean to belief and faith, that’s catchy, hook laden and utterly joyous.

Holding On (To Your Love) is a track that also featured on Terry’s 1999 album Lifetime.  A guitar plays the introduction, with a buzzing bass, slow drums and keyboards quickly joining in.  The tempo is slow, space is left within the arrangement, allowing the music to breathe. When Terry sings the lyrics about love, his voice is gentle and thoughtful. Lush strings sweep behind him, while guitars, rhythm section, keyboards and horns combine. Again, swooning and joyous backing vocalists unite. They’re the perfect accompaniment to Terry’s vocal which is now louder and full of passion. As the song progresses, both Terry’s vocal and the arrangement just gets so much better. The arrangement features some great interplay between the rhythm section, guitars and horns, when Terry’s vocal drops out. However, one thing that really makes this such a great song are the lyrics. They’re some of the best on the album. Terry delivers them beautifully, with a combination of tenderness, passion and power. Together with a rich, joyful sounding arrangement, it’s the highlight of Fire On Ice.

When Street Fever opens, the track has a very different sound to the two preceding tracks. The track is fusion of styles and influences, with soul, funk and rock all influencing the sound. When the track opens, guitars chime and soar, repetitively, before heading off in the direction of funk with a sprinkling of rock, with Terry’s voice louder, nearly roaring, against a backdrop of dramatic, slightly dark and angry guitars and rhythm section. However, quickly, the track changes turning into a much more soulful, sweeping sound, only to return to whence it came. This veering between two styles works, and is an interesting and intriguing contrast. Terry’s almost snarling vocal is a departure from what we’ve come to expect. Here his frustration and maybe even anger, suits the lyrics. They’re about a woman whose addicted to drugs, and whose life is quickly is unravelling. Although very different from other tracks on the album, this rockier delivery of the lyrics, and faster, dramatic arrangement, works really well and suits the story behind the lyrics. 

Butterfly is a lovely, slow and tender song, with a much more understated and lush arrangement. The arrangement floats into being. A synth, acoustic guitar and piano combine before Terry’s tender and considered vocal enters. He sings the song thoughtfully, as the arrangement meanders slowly along, with splashes of piano, lush, subtle strings, a gentle bass and chiming guitars. Subtle, brief bursts of rasping horns, interject while gently, reverberating strings slowly unwind, accompanying Terry as the song ends. This is quite simply a beautiful song, full of symbolism, about someone who like a butterfly, needs to spread their wings and fly away from the city. 

Like other tracks on this album, I’ve Been Doin’ Alright (Part II) (Everything’s Gonna Be Alright) opens with the familiar sound of Terry gently strumming his trusty acoustic guitar. After that, the rhythm section, distant strings, brief bursts of horns, guitars and piano all join in, accompanying Terry. His voice soars high, soulfully, as a deeply melodic arrangement unfolds. Backing vocalists sweetly sing, while a piano, bursts of horns, driving rhythm section and chiming guitars combine masterfully, creating an arrangement that swings along, with a fuller, hugely melodic and catchy sound. This is the perfect backdrop for Terry’s vocal, which is emotive, full of passion, yet considered, as he confidently predicts things will turn out fine. Both this swinging, uplifting arrangement and Terry’s quite beautiful vocal combine to make this a joyous sounding, catchy track.

When I see the word disco in a track by an artist like Terry Callier, I always fear the worst. This time, I needn’t have worried. Back in 1977, many artists like Terry were suffering because of the popularity of disco. Some artists went disco, but thankfully, Terry resisted the temptation. Instead, he purloined the word disco for the track’s title. A combination of gently plucked acoustic guitar, rasping, soaring horn open the track before Terry sings, his vocal starting off quietly, before quickly growing stronger and louder. Meanwhile, a fast, funky rhythm  section and lush strings combine as the tempo quickens. Backing vocalist interject, their voices soaring high, in contrast to Terry’s  vocal, while the arrangement’s tempo changes. Unlike other artists who used the word disco to gain the attraction of record buyers, Terry has pulled it off. Although it isn’t vintage Terry Callier, it’s far from being a poor track. 

African Violet is the polar opposite of Disco In the Sky, and is a much more thoughtful track, with a spiritual sound. Acoustic guitar, woodwind, and percussion combine subtly before Terry’s equally subtle and gentle vocal enters. The tempo is slow, the arrangement meandering along, when Terry’s voice drops deeper, only to quickly grows in strength, as does the arrangement. It grows to a dramatic sound, with grand, sweeping strings, percussion, rhythm section and chiming, shimmering guitars combining. A horn sweetly and melodically, sweeps over the arrangement, while a dark, moody bass and keyboards accompany Terry’s powerful and passionate vocal. He delivers moving lyrics, about the hardships and injustices suffered by both the African and Afro-American people throughout history. Like Holding On (To Your Love), African Violet features some of the best lyrics on the album.

A  lush sounding arrangement opens Love Two Love, which features Minnie Riperton on backing vocals, singing quite beautifully. The track opens with the lushest of strings, and Minnie’s voice soaring sweetly, before a tender and thoughtful vocal from Terry enters. He’s accompanied by the rhythm section, chiming guitars and keyboards, which together with the strings, combine beautifully, producing a faster arrangement. It’s one of the best sounding arrangements on the album, made all the better by Terry’s considered and emotive delivery of the lyrics about love and being in love. Here, the addition of Minnie on backing vocals is a masterstroke, her unmistakable voice gracing the track wonderfully, helping make this such a beautiful sounding track.

Fire On Ice closes with Martin St Martin, a tribute to  Dr. Martin Luther King. Fittingly, the track has a dramatic, sometimes almost grandiose sound, thanks to the addition of a choir. This seems a fitting. Bells chime as the track opens, before the young choir enter, singing angelically. It’s only when guitars combine with the bells and choir, that Terry’s vocal enters. His vocal is slow at first, full of passion and emotion, but quickly, accompanied by the rhythm section, grand sweeping strings and guitars Terry’s voice quickens. Throughout the track, the tempo, like the drama, rises and falls. Peaks and troughs of powerful music unfold, as Terry sings some beautiful, thoughtful and powerful lyrics. This seems like a fitting and perfect way to end the album, with powerful, waves of sweeping, joyful music unfolding, giving thanks to Dr. King.

For many years I’ve loved the music on Fire and Ice. The music Terry recorded on Elektra was quite different from the music he recorded on Cadet. Many people believe his Cadet years produced some of his best work, but the two albums he produced for Elektra are very different in sound and style, and have much to commend them. On Fire and Ice, Terry delivers nine songs with his usual combination of thoughtfulness, emotion and passion. He brings the lyrics to life, through the emotion he expounds, choosing the perfect delivery for each song. Some songs see him sing gently and thoughtfully, others powerfully with passion. Regardless of the style he uses, you can always be assured he gives everything he has on each song.

Fire and Ice features nine songs written by Terry or with Larry Wade. Terry and Larry were a potent songwriting partnership. Proof of this is Holding On (To Your Love), Street Fever and the hugely powerful Martin St. Martin. Of the songs Terry wrote himself, Be A Believer, Butterfly and African Violet demonstrate Terry’s huge talents as a songwriter. These three songs feature some beautiful, thoughtful and intelligent lyrics. Terry was joined on the album by a number of well known artists.

Among the guest artists on Fire On Ice are Minnie Riperton. Her backing vocals on Love Two Love play a huge part in the track’s success. Apart from Minnie, Cynthia Wright, Philip Upchurch, Eddie Harris and Larry Wade are just a few of the guest artists. All of them play their part in helping Terry to record an album that sees him pick up where he left of on 1974s I Just Can’t Help Myself. Four years later, Terry was back with a band. Fire On Ice, which will be rereleased by WEA Japan on 4th February 2014, was a welcome addition to his back-catalogue. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that Fire On Ice is a hidden gem of an album. The same can be said of the albums be released at Cadet.

The three albums Terry Callier released on Cadet Records include some of the best music Terry released. These three Cadet albums, Occasional Rain, What Color Is Love and  I Just Can’t Help Myself are Terry Callier at his best. Fire On Ice saw Terry return to the studio after a four year absence. He still had the ability to write songs featuring lyrics that were either beautiful or full of social comment. This he continued to do throughout his career. Following the release of the followup to Fire On Ice, Turn You To Love, Terry took a sabbatical from music and didn’t release another album for twenty years.

Although Terry Callier continued to tour until 1983, he didn’t release any further studio albums. It was that year that he was given custody of his daughter. Determined to bring his daughter up properly, Terry retired from music. He took classes in computer programming and got a job at the University of Chicago. In his spare time, he studied for a degree in sociology. During this period, only one album was released, TC In DC, a live album recorded in Washington in 1982, before his retirement. It was released in 1996.

In the late 1980s’ UK DJs started playing Terry Callier’s music in clubs. This led to Acid Jazz Records releasing I Don’t Want To See Myself (Without You), a track Callier recorded in 1983. From then on, Terry made trips to the UK to play concerts during his holidays from work.

After a prolonged absence for music, Terry Callier began to make a comeback in the late 1990s. He recorded a track with Beth Orton on her Best Bit EP, which was later on her Trailer Park album. Then in 1998, he recorded Timepeace, which was the album that marked the second coming of Terry Callier. It seemed Terry hadn’t lost any of his talent as a songwriter or singer. Soon, a new generation of music lovers discovered Terry’s music. His Cadet and Elektra albums became prized possessions of this new generation of music lovers. Rounding off Terry Caliier’s comeback, Timepeace received an award from the United Nations for outstanding artistic achievement and his contribution towards world peace.

Following 1998s Timepeace, Terry released Lifetime in 1999. Lifefime was vintage Terry Callier. It was as if after all these years away from music, he was on a creative roll. Somehow, Terry managed to surpass thee quality of Timepeace. Lifetime seemed to feature one great track after another. This included When My Lady Danced, Sunset Boulevard, When The Music Is Gone, Nobody But Yourself and the title-track Lifetime. Terry it seemed, was back for good. Sadly, Terry Callier would only release three further studio albums.

At the dawn of the new millennia, Terry Callier signed to a new label Mr. Bongo Records. For Mr. Bongo Records, Terry would release three further studio albums, plus two live albums, 2001s Alive and 2008s Welcome Home. The three studio albums started with 2002s Speak Your Peace, followed by 2004s Lookin’ Out and what proved to be Terry Callier’s swan-song, Hidden Conversations, released in 2009. Following the release of Hidden Conversations, nothing further was heard from Terry Callier. What many people didn’t realize, that Terry was bravely battling cancer.

Three years after the release of what was Terry Callier’s final studio album Hidden Conversations, Terry Callier lost his brave battle with throat cancer. Music lost one of the most talented singer and songwriter of his generation. Sadly, music was a much poorer place for Terry’s passing. Not only was Terry Callier a hugely talented singer and songwriter, but a man who was truly humble and unassuming. He leaves behind a back-catalogue of some stunning music. For anyone whose yet to discover Terry’s music, his three Cadet albums Occasional Rain, What Color Is Love and Just As Long As We’re In Love are a good place to start. Add to this, his two Elektra albums Fire On Ice and Turn You To Love and then finally, the best albums from Terry Caliier’s second coming, Timepeace and Lifetime. These seven albums will allow you to hear what is, quite simply, the best music of Terry Callier’s near fifty-year career.  Standout Tracks: Be A Believer, Holding On (To Your Love), African Violet and Love To Love.


1 Comment

  1. I saw him at Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street, maybe three years ago(?). You capture the artist well in your piece above, a highly underrated man.

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