Chicago musician Terry Callier was a star pupil at Jerry Butler’s Songwriters Workshop.
A soulful version of New York’s Brill Building, the workshop ran from 1970 to 1977 on South Michigan Avenue in the now re-emerging Motor Row/Record Row district.
Callier’s searing pastel of folk, soul and jazz is a major influence on singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka who appears Sept. 26 at the Park West in Chicago. Bahamas is one of the opening acts which makes for a colorful evening of sweet soul music.
“I’m aware of Terry,” Kiwaunka said last week in a conversation from France. “Those nuances, colors, times and chords inspire me so much I want to make a mish-mash of all that. I knew Terry’s first album very well…….”
……..That would be “The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier,” recorded in 1964 at Webb Recording in Chicago and re-released in 2003 on Fantasy.
And real songcrafting is a key to Callier’s work.
The connection with Butler was true and strong. Callier was born in 1945 in the Cabrini-Green housing neighborhood and was a childhood friend of area resident Curtis Mayfield who had joined Butler in the early versions of the Impressions.
Callier and Mayfield were cut from the same musical cloth, although Callier used traditional folk idioms in place of Mayfield’s gospel.
“Terry Callier and I were in grade school together,” Butler recalled earlier this week. “When he started at the Village Gate (in New York) and the Gate of Horn (in Chicago), we were about the same age. He was doing the folk thing and I was doing the doo-wop with Curtis.”
After Vee-Jay records went bankrupt in 1966 Butler signed with Mercury Records where he had his biggest successes with 1969’s “Only The Strong Survive” and 1968’s “Hey Western Union Man.” “We formed Ice Man Music, a publishing house,” said Butler, nicknamed “The Ice Man.” ” Right after I finished the ‘Ice Man Cometh’ album with (Kenny) Gamble and (Leon) Huff (in November, 1968), they decided they were going to start their own label.”
Butler was still under contract with Mercury.
“I knew I couldn’t write enough good songs in a year to make up four albums, which is what the Mercury contract called for,” he said. “So I got the idea to start the workshop. We wanted to turn the workshop into a mini-Motown for Chicago. We got the publishing end of it right but never could get the music right in terms of records and distribution. I called Terry as one of the first guys because I knew what a great songwriter he was. He and Larry Wade came over to the workshop. I wanted to take guys who were professional writers but who for some reason had never been recognized because they had to do other jobs. Terry was driving a cab at the time, trying to put his daughter through school at the University of Chicago. Then he became a computer analyst.
“He was always the egghead kind of guy,” Butler said with a generous laugh. “One of the smartest people I ever met.”
Callier wrote material for Chess and its subsidiary Cadet label. The workshop was at 1402 S. Michigan. Butler said the old building had been used by a record distributor.
“We took the top floor and turned it into a mini studio with the help of North American Philips,” he said of the electronics company and record label. “They gave us the funding to put it together.” While at Vee-Jay in 1962 Butler had a hit with Brill Building songwriters Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “Make It Easy On Yourself.”
Jerry Buter’s Songwriting Workshop is an unheralded chapter of Chicago music history.
For example, the workshop delivered hit singles from Oscar Brown, Jr. and the Dells. Butler produced Brown’s 1974 album “Fresh,” that featured workshop material.
The workhop ignited the ascent of Natalie Cole. Workshop songwriters Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy wrote the songs on her smash 1975 debut “Inseparable.” The songs were intended for Aretha Franklin, who was not recording at the time. Jackson is the step brother of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Yancy had been a keyboardist for the late gospel icons Jessy Dixon and Rev. James Cleveland.
Jackson and Yancy wrote Cole’s cresting 1975 hit “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love).”
“We were very successful,” Butler said. “Her first couple of albums were done with songs written in the workship. There was (the 1971 Dells hit) ‘The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)’ which was written by Terry Callier and Larry Wade. The Dells did a whole album of Terry and Larry’s songs. I recorded a couple of Terry’s songs but I felt I never did justice to them. Not only was he a great writer, he was a very emotional singer. And so deep in his thinking. One of my favorite songs of his was ‘Ordinary Joe’ (recorded in 1972 for Cadet).”
The Ice Man recorded “Ordinary Joe” on his 1970 “You and Me” album.
And Butler began to sing:
“I saw a sparrow get get high/wasting his time in the sky
He thinks it’s easy to fly/He’s just a little bit freer than I.”
Buter laughed. And he said, “Man, he had a way with words.”
Like most other Chicagoans, Butler has lost track of Callier.
“I haven’t talked to him in eight, nine years,” he said. “I have no idea of his whereabouts.”
Callier retired from music between 1982 and 1996 to study computer programming. He got a job at the University of Chicago and took evening classes to obtain a sociology degree. In the late 1980s his music emerged in the Acid Jazz movement in Kiwanuka’s U.K. and as recent as 2009 Callier released “Hidden Conversations” on the English label Mr. Bongo Records.
Despite several calls to other Chicago jazz-soul sources, Callier could not be located for comment. The trail dried up around 2002 after Callier completed a Monday night residency subbing for Patricia Barber at the Green Mill in Chicago. Club owner Dave Jemillo thinks Callier moved to Europe.
But Callier’s esoteric nature blossoms in Kiwaunka’s fertile soul.
“I think about paint and color a lot in music,” he said. “In the way an orchestra can sound, you can make a guitar sound like that with chords and a rhythm. It creates a mood. If you want to have something in a high register that is quite pretty sounding and my voice is in a low register, so something like a flute enhances that. That’s why I like jazz. Instrumental music relies on color and textures to create interest.”