Callier is cool, never too precious. He neither attempts a totalizing theory of Blackness nor an experiment in daily abjection; his goal is songwriting that moves the listener through the world. This was not, however, a humanist project, and sometimes the stolidity of white culture comes out in flashes of relief: The draining “Man,” the preening “money makers”—trouble on the street below. But Callier doesn’t cheapen his people’s experiences of racism or poverty. Instead, his music seeks to surround them like a shield.
After Callier was dropped from Cadet, ostensibly due to poor sales, producer Don Mizell signed him to Elektra, who attempted to slot him into the “disco-loverman” formation, releasing Fire on Ice (1978) and Turn You to Love (1979). Again, the mislabeling hindered his career, and in 1983, when Callier’s daughter Sundiata told him she wanted to live in Chicago, he retired from music, got a job as a computer programmer at the University of Chicago, and focused on raising his daughter. Callier’s collaborations were riddled with premature deaths: Stepney at 45, Riperton at 31. Callier persisted until he died of throat cancer in 2012.
It is a little disorienting to read posthumous essays that emphasize the “discovery” of Callier’s talents, projecting him as unsung hero. It is meant respectfully, and I am not sure I achieve anything different here in attempting to impart that Callier was extraordinary and deserving of all that love. Besides fame, had found different meanings through his art: a respected singer-songwriter in the eyes of his contemporaries and, in a testament to his own experimentation, an influence on a wide spectrum of musical lineages, including early American grunge, British trip hop, and Japanese lo-fi instrumentalism.
His friends and family called it an “ordinary joy,” the way that man lit up a room, the childlike wonder he inspired among his friends and peers. That light was reciprocated: In 2017, after a community petition, Chicago inaugurated Terry Callier Way on a stretch near Seward Park in Cabrini-Green. It’s a small memorial to a Chicago man whose primary tension was between his people and the world outside. On “I’d Rather Be With You”, a warm and generous song from his third album, he sings of indispensability, of the sacrifices he would be willing to make to be with someone: “I could take my guitar/And hit the road, try to be a star/That sort of thing/Just don’t appeal to me.” Sometimes love owns us.