1. Segue No. 1 – Go Ahead On
2. Ordinary Joe
3. Golden Circle
4. Segue No. 5 – Go Head On
5. Trance On Sedgewick Street
6. Do You Finally Need A Friend
7. Segue No. 4 – Go Head On
8. Sweet Edie. D
9. Occasional Rain
10. Segue No. 2 – Go Head On
11. Blues For Marcus
12. Lean On Me
13. Last Segue – Go Head On
Bass – Sydney Simms
Contralto Vocals – Shirley Wahls
Drums – Robert Crowder
Engineer – Gary Starr
Guitar – Terry Callier
Harpsichord, Organ, Producer – Charles Stepney
Piano – Leonard Pirani
Soprano Vocals – Kitty Haywood, Minnie Riperton
Recorded at: Ter-Mar Recording Studios, Chicago, Illinois.
This Sunday past I heard from a friend that Terry Callier had passed away at his home in Chicago. I don’t know why or how when some performer’s leave us, they leave behind a bigger sense of loss than others. Maybe it’s because with Terry there was always the feeling that he still had a lot more to say, and maybe the assumption that he would just keep on saying it at his own leisurely pace. The news is too sudden for me to digest fully.
Whenever a person hears a Terry Callier record, they ask themselves how it is that they had never heard him before that moment. Of course there are plenty of artists who never got their due during their lifetime, but it is hard to fathom how Terry’s early records could have been eclipsed by so much pedestrian music of lesser quality at the time. At least his story had happier ending, with his work finding recognition many years later and drawing him out of musical retirement to make a handful of satisfying records. Not to diminish his second flowering, but his albums on the Cadet label will always be the ones many of us cherish the most. There just hasn’t been anything quite like them before or since.
Although I have tended to favor “What Color Is Love”, probably because ‘Dancing Girl’ was the first of his songs I ever heard, the album Occasional Rain (which preceded it, but only slightly) is really every bit it’s equal, and set the tone for the rest of his career. How could any artist put out two records of this astounding caliber in the same year? This one has almost a concept-record feel to it due to the songs being strung together by acoustic guitar/vocal segments of folk blues (“Go Head On”) that recall Terry’s coffee-house days (captured on the album “The New Folk Sound…”) His voice still has the heavy vibrato, a common enough trait among folk singers of the 60s, but the similarilty pretty much begins and ends there. The Cadet recordings show the flowering of Callier’s participation in Jerry Butler’s songwriting workshop in Chicago. The song “Do You Finally Need A Friend” actually debuted the previous year on the fantastic “Jerry Butler Sings Assorted Songs With The Aid of Assorted Friends and Relatives” (Mercury ST-61320) on which he also appears uncredited along with Curtis Mayfield. Butler also has a writing credit on “What Color Is Love” and workshop members Larry Wade and Charles Jones contribute to that album as well as this one.
Looking at those album credits I got to thinking that we should just be grateful we had Terry Callier walking amongst us mere mortals for as long as we did. Jumping out off the page were two names of his colleagues who left us far, far too young. Keyboardist, producer and arranger Charles Stepney, who would later work with Earth Wind & Fire on their most interesting records and was also a founding member of The Rotary Connection, died in his 30’s from a heart attack. And then there is fellow Rotary alumnus Minnie Riperton, who I had never really noticed in the credits until Sunday, and who sings beautifully as always in Stepney’s choral arrangements. She died in her 30’s from breast cancer. Another Rotary Connection member, Shirley Wahls, also sings on the record. Phil Upchurch, one of Cadet’s ubiquitous session players, is absent from this session but would play on Terry’s two following efforts with great results.
Stepney deserves massive amounts of credit for the power of this album and Terry’s other Cadet recordings. And he has received that credit, especially from Terry himself. If you need convincing, you can check out earlier versions of some of these songs on the collection “First Light.” Those versions are impressive because they show the intensity of Callier’s songwriting and highlight (by virtue of his absence) just how much Stepney helped him realize his musical vision. “Occasional Rain” is the most ‘produced’ of his three Cadet albums, but that isn’t a negative in this case because these are artists on the same wavelength. (Contrast this with the desultory rerecordings of some of these songs on the Electra release “Turn You To Love.”) The psychedelic baroque-pop of Ordinary Joe probably has Stepney’s “producer’s stamp” most clearly on it, opening the record with strong stylistic overtones of Rotary Connection and mixed as if it could be a huge hit. But this was no ordinary song, and too extraordinary and unclassifiable for mass consumption even in an era of relative experimentation in popular music. Groovy harpsichord and some churchy organ; that infectiously catchy melody – how could this song NOT be huge in a fair world? Maybe it was the brilliant lyrics and vocal delivery that swings from soul, to scat singing, to a blues shout. It was just too real for the radio. As a lyricist-poet Callier had a special talent for oscillating between earthy grit, tender nuance, and cosmic musings, sometimes all in the same song. The intimacy of “Golden Circle,” the darker burned-out realism of “Trance On Sedgewick Avenue” – Terry could make ordinary moments into something transcendent, then turn around and translate the abstract and spiritual into familiar, achingly human terms in the next tune. And it is no hyperbole to call him a genuine poet. You could try just reading the words to “Occasional Rain” to a room full of people and hear their cadence, see how they work as compositions even separated from the music:
There was rain today
And crystal blue was hidden by a cloudy gray
A sudden shower come to chase the sun away
Damn the weatherman
He seems to work against me any way he can
And he’s been dealing tear-drops since the world began
And occasional pain
And blue you, don’t believe I’m talking to you
The light is shining through you- still you will not see
Blue you- think I’m trying to undo you
When I only want to seek the Truth
And speak true
I can’t tell you when
But someday soon we’ll see the sun re-born again
And there’ll be light without as well as light within
And occasional rain
Fucking brilliant, isn’t it?
The record closes with the majestic “Lean On Me” that is arranged like a series of crescendos leading to one massive climax. It is kind of ironic that this record was released the same year as Bill Wither’s massive hit of the same title and of similar sentiments.
Speaking of which, the irony did not escape me of listening to this record over and over while the entire northeastern seaboard of the US was being drenched by a hurricane. It also struck me how listening to Terry Callier is like being sheltered from the storms of the world. His work had a certain warmth in common with other writers from the frigidly cold metropolis of Chicago, placed at the crossroads of Memphis and Detroit, New York and L.A., always a few steps removed the hype and the drama, and always carrying himself with grace.