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’.
Over the years, I got to see firsthand what a true renaissance man he was. He did it all and could hold discourse on all manner of things. In turn, he touched so many folks with his kindness, advice, recommendations, and just plain Terrell-ness that I know I’ll be getting e-mails for years to come about something the man did or said that has finally panned out for them. For me, his Terrell-ness also means his ability to pull out a jam that no one else has heard yet. Tom attacked my jadedness with the wonderful, eye-opening sensation that there was still an uncharted future.
—Brian M. Bacchus, producer/a&r, SoulFeast
Tom, whom I also knew as “Scooter”— I don’t know why—would leave whatever he was working on till the last minute. He stored everything in his head; it seemed he’d never make it, and then he’d blurt it out on the keyboard in a brilliant rush of words and color. Tom knew who he was. I suggested one day that he write something less free-form and more biographical. He said, with perfect logic: “You called me for this job, didn’t you?”
It was years into our friendship before I knew that Tom was a photographer, when he told me in an offhand way that the Parliament project at hand could use some new photos and that he just might have something. In he’d walk, wearing beautiful Alain Mikli glasses—how did he find those?—and out of an old bag would tumble prints from the old-school gods.
Tom coined a singular music-industry phrase: As someone more than happy to take free goods, he called himself a “promosexual.” I still laugh when a visitor grabs a few freebies. I can see Tom, smiling. — Harry Weinger, producer, Universal
When Tom heard, a couple of years ago, that I was putting together a photo exhibit marking the 25th anniversary of VP Records, he showed me a great shot he’d taken at London’s Notting Hill Carnival in 1985. A DJ is set up on the sidewalk, and a couple of young kids, a boy and a girl, are dancing to the music on top of a car. It’s priceless: all you need to know about how people of African heritage manage to add color and rhythm to their lives in Old Blighty. Of course, it’s not out of the question to see that photo as a self-portrait of Tom himself. He was a DJ. He was a dancer. He was also a writer, photographer, promo man, and consummate hipster.
Ultimately, Tom Terrell always reminded me of Charlie Parker, who was once asked about his religious affiliation and replied: “I am a devout Musician.” The same can be said of Tom, too. (And I have no idea whether he ever played a lick on an actual musical instrument.) Tom Terrific was a devout Musician, and he was beloved for his devotion. I have always been proud to call him my friend. — Bill Adler, writer/gallerist, Eyejammie
A little over a year ago, our band Harriet Tubman played a short set at a beautiful benefit night for Tom at the Canal Room in NYC. It was an honor, in my heart, that Tom had specifically requested that Harriet Tubman perform. We composed a song dedicated to him—something original, from our hearts to his. It was and is titled “Afro Sheen.” Inspired by a day of listening to the “Queen of the Hammond B-3 Organ,” Twinkie Clark and the Clark Sisters, it is the “good news” of our Urban Gospel. It is Brooklyn, it is Deadwood Dick, it is romance, it is mean, it is Colored, it is high-steppin’, it is testifyin’ and death-defyin’! We gave it to Tom in performance at the benefit, in love and respect and Bruthahood. That was a beautiful night for everyone. There was so much love in the room! So much tireless support from his peeps.
In a life, love defines us. Nothing else. As we define him by the love he gave and received, Terrell was/is a great man. Thank you, Tom, for coming and being with us. Thanks for letting your little light shine, shine, shine. . . . —Brandon Ross, musician
Hey, Tom. To the point: I knew I couldn’t hang with you the first time Don Palmer took me by your apartment on First Ave. Your house was messier than mine, and I was trying to get away from all those things you were into . . . too “Beat” for me. But I am your friend ’cause, as your Aunt Shirley said, we could share some food. Plus that lady in your house was a total distraction. I could see we had the same kind of indulgences. Then, over the years, I’d meet the writer, the photographer, the bohemian poet-soothsayer at gatherings or en route to wherever it was that we were going. And still going. Through V’man and ‘Becca, we crossed and crossed again. We went to see Louis Armstrong, and through his glory I saw you glow with the same kind of fascination and enthusiasm that I have for the mentor of all music that is to represent us in our residence and our voyage. You knew then! . . . And through his voice, I knew too. His voice touched you. So for me, Louis Armstrong is our connecting rod. He is our “BubbleMan”. . . . By the way, thank you for the picture, it is my favorite. You touch, too, and you carry the message well. And you seem to have given us all something to do. —Butch Morris, musician
Dear Tom: Man, I’m sitting here listening to Bootsy’s Christmas Is 4 Ever
and wondering what to get you this year. A couple of weeks ago, you asked for the Fred Astaire DVD box. I thought that was some funny shit, but then again, you were the only person I knew who could wax on about Wishbone Ash. Anyway, you’re going to miss the rum, whiskey, and brandy eggnog this year, and the Memorial Day barbecue, when you would deign to eat some pork while making everyone look ‘cue-fabulous in your photos. So the next ‘cue will be the 1st Annual Terrell. . . . I write this knowing that you were a goofy, totally irresponsible sage. You’d cuss me out for banging your bell at 2 a.m., but we’d sit for hours listening, talking, pondering. Generosity. Love. You helped me keep it together when two of my friends died. We sat and talked about your dad when you learned that he had died. I had to ask his name. “Tom,” you said. And we shared fried chicken in the VFW hall basement after that rainy morning.
Family and a story. Two things you really knew. But who else would know, as we could do that so-cool hip Negro thing to our own laughter. Hey man, I am pissed you can’t see the tree right now. It would appeal to that rich, romantic streak that fed your soul. I’m remembering all that blather about bad pop music, the Tad Low talk show, and (oh, hell) terrible adult films. But we would talk, and you were rarely without words. News, sports, pre-postmodernism, my cooking but not yours. Well, I already bought you a garbage can as a Brooklyn housewarming gift. Introduced you sorta to some of your past gal pals. Gave you my locktician, though the frugal Terrell found her expensive. So what’s left? Memories. I will keep those as the greatest gift from you and for you. I’ll let others tell about your career, and just leave with what you knew best: “When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” —Don Palmer, writer, chef, world traveler, arts administrator
See, all my life, vocalists have given me faith, hope, and charity, caressed me, comforted me, taught me, guided me, carried me, nurtured me, encouraged me, loved me, forgave me, sheltered me, touched me, influenced me, and reached me in the darkest hours far heavily than family, friends, and lovers ever have or could. When I was a baby, my Moms told me the only thing that would stop me bawling was Johnny Ace’s “The Clock” and “Pledging My Love.” David Ruffin proved to me that wearing thick black eyeglass frames was cool, not corny. Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and the Staple Singers taught me smart was the real hip, black was always beautiful, funk is spiritual, and to always love myself for myself. —Tom Terrell, writer, promoter, DJ, devout musicologist, friend