Listen to this track by lyrical folk-jazz singer-songwriter Terry Callier. It’s “Dancing Girl” the jewel in the crown of his 1973 album What Is The Color of Love?, Callier’s third album after his 1968 debut.
Callier represented a fairly untraveled section of the pop music spectrum, standing somewhere between folk-rock, jazz, and soul music. Gil Scott-Heron, Curtis Mayfield, Roy Ayers, and John Martyn may seem to be comparable artists who take up a similar space along that spectrum. Yet, Callier is a singular voice.
Beyond a cult following, Callier didn’t achieve the visibility of other singer-songwriters of the era. Perhaps this was because his music is not easy to pin down, and therefore not aimed at any one specific audience. What his music does do is to evoke spiritual images, yet remaining rooted firmly in the physical world at the same time, often making direct comment on the poverty and hopelessness to be found in inner city America. And “Dancing Girl” is one of the best examples of this, a portrait of an idealized woman, and yet reaching beyond into something that resembles a spiritual journey.
What is behind this song, and what does it say about its creator?
In some ways, this song is like a suite of three songs in one, with the first section being something of a feminine image of god, or at least something beyond the world. The second verse also hits on something of a divine presence as well; of Charlie Parker (“Bird”), something of a wounded god himself, playing alone in his room and plagued by darkness. The third section is on street level; boogie, bop, or boogaloo, and the image of a society disconnected perhaps from the music to which the Dancing Girl in the opening section dances, yet searching all the same, perfectly embodied in Callier’s wordless scat singing.
The song seems to contain the whole weight of human struggle, and search for beauty and meaning all at once. It is substantial. And yet somehow, the whole thing seems as light as air, too. A song that evokes the image of a divine woman could very easily be ethereal and flaky, yet it’s brought down to earth with the images of a man alone in his room, or a woman in the street. This in turn could have come off as heavy handed. And yet, it doesn’t. Instead, it stays with you, long after it’s over. The balance between earthy realism and spiritual wonder that Callier strikes on this song as a singer, and as a writer, is significant.
Although Callier would record similarly excellent material over the next few years, by the early ’80s, he would retire from music. Being a single parent, he turned to fatherhood and a 9 to 5 life in order to support his role as a dad. As spiritually oriented as his songwriting was, it seems that Callier still had his feet firmly planted in day to day living. Still, he would continue to write, even if he was no longer attached to the music industry.
But, all the while, he had fans in that industry who would eventually seek him out. Soon, Callier would find a new audience in Britain by the 1990s, when the acid jazz and trip-hop scenes, some acts of which would sample his work, would usher him into the spotlight again. He would work with Beth Orton, Massive Attack, and Paul Weller. Callier would put out a comeback record that showed that his instinct and artistic eye for social commentary and spiritual impulses remained intact. That album, Timepeace, was released in 1998 , and Callier would recommit to touring internationally, too.
In October last year, Callier died at the age of 67, leaving behind him a body of work that is characterized by emotional resonance, thematic depth, and a level of pristine beauty that makes trying to categorize the music into something of an empty exercise.
You can find out more about this fascinating musician, check out this Terry Callier retrospective from Pitchfork, including more music.