Terry Callier reassessed, plus a couple of Wings, Neil Young, and more.
Terry Callier ★★★★ The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier CRAFT RECORDINGS. CD/DL/LP ★★★★★ What Color Is Love VERVE/UME. LP
BOB DYLAN once spoke of “artists with the willpower not to conform to anybody’s reality but their own.” In the art of 20th century pop music, some nonconforming practitioners have succeeded commercially – The Beatles, Aretha Franklin and Dylan himself immediately come to mind. Others were also singular, but for various reasons aren’t household names. Van Dyke Parks, NRBQ and Alex Chilton developed small fan-bases and are often benignly referred to as cult artists. Terry Callier belongs on the latter list. The Chicago-born and bred singer/guitarist’s history is as eclectic as his artistry. His hometown pals included Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler of The Impressions and jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, and he honed his vocal chops singing in local doo wop groups. A college dorm mate hipped him to folk music and he began gigging in coffee houses, making him a member of a small but talented group: African-American folk musicians who were contemporaries of Dylan and Joan Baez during the ’60s folk explosion. Others included Richie Havens, Odetta, Len Chandler, Jackie Washington, Julius Lester and Josh White Jr. His first album, The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier, was recorded in 1964, but not released until 1968 because its renowned producer, Samuel Charters, disappeared with the tapes for a few years while he hung out with the Yaqui Indians in Mexico. (It was the ’60s and he was “doing his own thing”.) This unfortunately hampered Callier’s career, because by 1968 “the new folk sound” was no longer new: acoustic became electric and singers were increasingly writing their own songs and ceased covering Child ballads and other traditional material that had been passed down through generations. This oversight by late-’60s audiences and critics was not only Callier’s loss, but theirs as well. The New Folk Sound… is as fresh and different in 2019 as it was in 1968. (Or 1964, for that matter.) While most of the tracks are traditional folk songs, Callier added inventive, contemporary chord changes and melodies. He altered public domain chestnuts like 900 Miles, Jack O’Diamonds and Oh Dear, What Can The Matter Be (also known as Johnny’s So Long At The Fair), rendering some almost unrecognisable. Cotton Eyed Joe – usually an upbeat fiddle tune meant for dancing – became a poignant ballad. The handful of then-current compositions on The New Folk Sound… were written/co-written by jazz poet Kent Foreman or folkie Travis Edmonson of Bud & Travis. (The lyrics of Golden Apples Of The Sun are from a Yeats poem.) Callier was a nimble finger-picking guitarist and, turned on by jazz giant John Coltrane’s doubling of instruments, was solely accompanied here by two bassists playing simultaneously. On Spin, Spin, Spin, Callier and the two bassists create a novel polyrhythm with each playing in different time signatures. His debut album also introduced his phenomenal singing voice. No twee folknik, Trane’s influence extends to his high-powered vocal delivery. Even when he’s intentionally under-singing a ballad, he’s full-throated. His blue-noted and soulful secular-gospel phrasing is often reminiscent of Charlie Rich. Callier’s lonesome longing and perfect vibrato in Golden Apples Of The Sun in particular sounds like the Silver Fox. After The New Folk Sound… fizzled in the marketplace, Callier continued gigging and, despite having had no originals on his debut, wrote songs for Jerry Butler’s publishing outfit. After The Dells recorded his The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind), he signed as an artist to Chess subsidiary Cadet Records. His second of three Cadet LPs was 1973’s pop-soul What Color Is Love, produced by Charles Stepney (best know for his work with Earth, Wind & Fire, Minnie Riperton). Any obvious connection to folk music was gone, but like many ’60s folkies, by the early ’70s Callier could be more accurately called a singer-songwriter, albeit one with more in common with Marvin Gaye than James Taylor. The album is a socially conscious conceptual suite similar to Gaye’s What’s Going On, all written/ co-written by Callier. Songs such as Just As Long As We’re In Love and I’d Rather Be With You express the album’s simple theme that the ability to give and receive love are key to overcoming mankind’s myriad problems. And while Callier is mostly referring to romantic love, in Ho Tsing Mee (A Song Of The Sun) he makes the case for universal love, presented as an impassioned plea to God for deliverance. In the nine years since he’d recorded his debut, his voice had gained range and his phrasing became more experimental. (It also lost any resemblance to Charlie Rich – or anyone else.) Stepney’s production includes jazz and classical elements, such as horns that alternate between subtle and blaring, as well as sweeping orchestral flourishes. Many of the sidemen are studio legends, notably guitarist Phil Upchurch, saxophonist Don Myrick and bassist Louis Satterfield. (The latter’s contributions are virtuosic without ever getting in Callier’s way.) The sum total of its pieces makes What Color Is Love a masterpiece that got away and Callier an overlooked artist. He enjoyed periodic rediscoveries during his career while dropping out of – and back into – the music business (see Back Story). Sadly, he died too soon at the age of 67 in 2012. These two reissues are reminders that Terry Callier not only deserved more attention during his lifetime, but that we’re lucky we have these records at all to inform us of that now.
“Producer Samuel Charters disappeared with the tapes for a few years while he hung out in New Mexico.”