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Musicas art form, as healing force, as communal enterpriseunequivocally lost its best friend when Tom Terrell, after an inexorable bout with prostate cancer, made his transition from madcap music-addicted earthling to truly extraterrestrial brother. The world of musicians, music people, and even the damnedmusic journalistsis now significantly smaller, more entropic, more unsound, more unwise and unwitty without Tom around to bind us up, wind us up, crank us up.
I met Tom at Howard University during the 1970s, when D.C. was a post-civil-rights Black Utopia experiencing a golden age of live music and free-form radio a time when the likes of Funkadelic, War, and Mandrill played every other week, and you judged a man by the size of his jazzrockfunkfusionsoul album collection. Tom had amassed more vinyl than anybody then considered humanly possible, from across every genre and from every continent. When punk and reggae hit town big-time in the early '80s, Tom had already figured out what was hip besides the Clash and Bob Marley. You often heard it first on Tom's radio shows: Grace Jones, Black Uhuru, Sly and Robbie, Steel Pulse (whom he booked for their first D.C. show), Dennis Bovell, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Melvin Van Peebles. Tom was often playing the hippest U.K. joints before they'd even turned up in the hippest U.K. magazines. He was also a monster photographersome of the most moving shots you'll ever see of Miles and Marley are in his archives; one day soon there should be, will be, must be an exhibition.
Tom also threw the absolute best D.C. house parties back in the day, affairs eagerly awaited and renowned among men and dogs for their hot fusion of wine, weed, women, and song. Like me, Tom left DJing (and concert production) to scribe in New York: a natural transition, except Tom went on to also do, as he had in D.C., just about every job you could do in the music business without singing, strumming, and dancing. Not just promotion, marketing, and a&r, but tour managing (for Steel Pulse) and rigging lights 50 feet in the air above outdoor stages, too.
Like most of the deep cats I befriended at Howard, Tom and I could see each other once every decade and still pick up where we left off. The last time I did see him in the flesh was April '06, when our fellow alum/main man Lewis "Flip" Barnes and I helped him move all his worldly possessions out of a loft in Newark and head to D.C. for what would be his last two industry gigs, one with the Thievery Corporation, the other with XM Radio. During that time, he also completed his incandescent liner notes for Miles's On the Corner box set.
Just four months later, as that be-atch goddess Fate would have it, Tom and his legion of friends and acolytes learned of his illness. He carried it, as usual, with far more nerve and grace than we did, comforting his community more, as usual, than we could comfort him. There are (surprise, surprise) very few universally beloved figures in the music business, that lower circle of service to genius, hokum, and hype, where all who fit the humbling description of suits, stagehands, publicists, and critics must dwell. Let the following anecdotal evidence show Tom Terrell was the cherished exception who proved the rule: the cat who always brought love and found love in places where love was rarely in the job description.
A writer, but not a critic.
Just one of us, but with a pencil and a camera.
And always a smile.
Miss ya already Tom. Steven Bernstein, musician