Few singers described the balance of creativity and despair that gripped the black ghettos of America during the early 1970s more sensitively than Terry Callier, who died last week.
Callier was friends with future soul legends Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler as they grew up in the poor suburbs of Chicago.
As he became a musician Callier wasn’t content to repeat pop-soul formulas and gravitated towards the radical folk scene.
Later he attempted to combine his acoustic guitar with the free jazz style of John Coltrane. His first album, The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier, was released in 1968 and contained both standards and his own compositions.
By 1970 Callier’s talents were sought after by major soul artists, but by then he had fashioned his own distinctive style and was determined to record it.
Three of his 1970s albums—Occasional Rain, What Colour is Love? and I Just Can’t Help Myself—told of his personal loves and losses. But they also told of the despair he saw around him.
His song Dancing Girl is one of his best. It opens as a dream sequence that gradually moves from the heavens to earth. There, a junkie is dying for a fix and a young woman has to sell herself to pay for shoes for her young son.
By the 1980s the soul world had little use for Callier and his social conscience and he faded to obscurity. He retrained as a computer programmer. But in the early 1990s he was rediscovered by soul enthusiasts in London and new material followed.
His 1998 album, Timepiece, contains a beautiful version of Love Theme From Spartacus. In it Callier describes the dying slave leader hearing the sound of a “new freedom song” in the distance.
Callier will have died knowing that his call to a new generation had already received its response.