Tom Terrell, 1951–2007

Friends and colleagues remember one of the music biz's few universally beloved men

Music—as art form, as healing force, as communal enterprise—unequivocally 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 damned—music journalists—is 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 photographer—some 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.


I will miss the sunshine of his spirit, his smile and laughter, the generosity of his heart, his love, respect, and appreciation of music, performers, all creative artists. I will miss his voice and passion in his craft. Whenever I would see Tom, he was so concerned and supportive about what you were doing artistically. He was an artist's best friend. If he believed in you, you had an ally for life. Every artist cannot exist without this type of support and love. He set a great example of community for artists to follow. "How can I help you?" was a question Tom was always asking. My greatest hope is that his spirit will eternally live on in peace . . . that the love, joy, and light that he so generously gave to others will continue on as the strongest vibration throughout this world and the work of all the artists he supported. —Stephanie McKay, musician
No one loved music and musicians like Tom.

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


Like the older sibling I always wanted and the mentor I arrogantly thought I didn't need, I met Tom Terrell in the spring of 1994. It was the day after Kurt Cobain's suicide, and we sat in some long-gone restaurant downing margaritas and talking mad junk. "Funny motherfucker," I thought, as we joked like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx. For years afterwards, we spent many nights in his Brooklyn brownstone apartment talking about hot music and cool movies, beautiful women and the ugliness of the world. Schooling me on everything from Miles's electric funk to the history of James Bond flicks to the four-color universe of comic-book artist Steve Ditko, Tom had an enthusiasm for all things pop. Yet, beyond the sounds that streamed from his stereo, my fellow Cancerian was a sensitive cat who radiated light even on the darkest of days and was always willing to help out. Let me not even start on the number of times I crashed on his couch, ate at his table, or borrowed 20 bucks. In our small universe of music folks, where friendships are often fleeting, Tom proved to be as true blue as an old Madonna song. —Michael Gonzales, writer
I was sullen and maybe even cranky when T got on the F train back to Brooklyn a few years ago—after a day at work, hiding out in the pages of a magazine for a while was cool with me. But we hadn't seen each other in a minute, and he wasn't one who could turn off the investigative aspects of his social side: When he asked you how you were doing, he truly wanted to know how you were doing. I grunted back a few responses to his typically chipper vibe and felt guilty regarding the imbalance—I don't consider myself a prick-face. It didn't take long: A couple of wisecracks, a bit of music banter (for some reason, compliments about pianist Rodney Kendrick come to mind), and injections of his energy combined with that infectious cackle started to crush the orneriness. Bumping into a pal is such a common deal—it would seem impossible that 15 minutes with a dude could flip the script, mood-wise. But even a thickhead like me noticed that I was a different person when I hit the sidewalk. And by "different," I mean better—back to the real me. On that day—on many days—T dealt in elation. God's work, really. —Jim Macnie, writer
Throughout the 15 or so years I knew Tom, he was many things. A gentleman. A world-class flirt. A total pain in the ass, smart, and perpetually, almost comically late. Above all, Tom was music. It's a cliché, but it was true: He lived and breathed music. Any kind of music—just like the O'Jays. This was a guy you could talk to about any genre, and if he wasn't totally hip to something, he'd ask about it with genuine interest. I spoke to Tom a few times shortly before he passed. By the sound of his voice, it was clear that he was fighting, but his mind was on point. It was a brief conversation—not our last, thank God. He was tired and I was near tears, and so we just chatted—but at some point, when you get two critics together . . . He asked if I'd heard the new Levon Helm; he'd read that it was good. I hadn't yet—it was on the "listen to" pile. After a minute or so, I could tell he was fading, so we said goodbye, and when I put the phone down, I was like: "Damn! Tom's dying and he's asking about Levon Helm?" But you know what? That made sense. —Amy Linden, writer
'Jazz hands!" Accompanied by the requisite fluttering ruffle of fingers and round face: That was Tom's standard quip to cheer a melancholy moment or just get a guaranteed giggle as he walked out the door, always schlepping a Jah-heavy load of cameras, books, and music. Tom's hands were as eloquent as his grin, his fingers a blur as he riffled through records seeking that audio sweet spot or raced across the keyboard, hunting the perfect, ripe word to drop into our consciousness. With his enthusiasm, warmth, instant wit, and classy taste, Li'l Tommy Tee (his radio name on his influential '80s D.C. show, Café C'est What) made eclectic organic. Tom got us all doing it 'round his hospital bed, so whether you knew him or not—and don't worry about looking silly, Tom sure wouldn't—altogether now: jazz hands! —Vivien Goldman, writer
I was partially responsible for luring Tom away from D.C. back around '89 or '90, but met him several years before when I was a promotion man for PolyGram records. I first got wind of the brother, though, back in the early '80s, talking on 8th Street with Greg Tate and Lewis "Flip" Barnes. That's when I first heard of the famous D.C. house parties that he used to throw with his reel-to-reel playing on the top floor, and him running up and down the stairs, keeping the party movin' and groovin'.
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