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Soul Survivor

Through injury, adversity and obscurity, Orlando Terrell struggles to keep his music alive.

You may already know Orlando Terrell. Tall and bald-headed, he used to walk all over downtown Denver towing three or four of his kids in a single-file line like ducklings while balancing a huge electronic keyboard on his shoulder. Occasionally you'd see him at Wax Trax Records, parleying playfully with the counter staff while putting copies of his latest disc on consignment. He's hard to miss: His laugh is warm, goofy and ubiquitous, and a wide-eyed smile is usually in full bloom across his face.

Nothing about Terrell's appearance, however, can prepare you for his music. Armed with only a Radio Shack synthesizer, a handheld tape recorder and a CD burner, he's released four albums' worth of his own material since 1995, and it's as mind-bogglingly bizarre as it is pure, even spiritual. It's the type of stuff that gets called, for lack of a better or more humane term, "outsider music." Whether born of mere eccentricity, like that of the Shaggs or Tiny Tim, or true mental illness, like that of Frank Zappa's Wildman Fisher or the late Wesley Willis, outsider music is made by artists who hold zealously true to their idiosyncratic vision of what the world ought to sound like -- often in the face of failure, ridicule or plain indifference. In fact, most outsider artists can't even fathom that there is anything extraordinary about what they do. They're just trying to write songs like the ones they hear on the radio; they simply want to make it big, just like everybody else.

But Terrell isn't interested in any kind of label people might want to slap on him or his work.

"Music is music," he says, sitting attentively across a coffee table in the living room of his modest Capitol Hill apartment. "I really don't have a type for it. Whether it's rap, pop, jazz, R&B -- it don't matter."

Still, Terrell won't deny that his roots are stuck in the fertile earth of R&B and soul. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1970, he grew up just a couple hours north of Detroit, the birthplace of Motown. "I used to listen to this song all the time when I was a kid -- ŒI Wish It Would Rain,' by the Temptations," remembers Terrell. "My mom had it on a slow-jams collection. And my grandfather could sing; he said he used to be a blues singer."

According to Terrell, the musical branch of his family tree also contains some bona fide R&B royalty: David Ruffin of the Temptations and his lesser-known older brother Jimmy, also a recording artist for Motown during the label's '60s heyday. "We're cousins on my mother's side, on her dad's side," Terrell explains. "My mom is cousins with the Ruffins. My grandfather and their grandfather was cousins. Jimmy and David were my grandpa's cousins."

As oblique as that genealogy may be, the name Terrell certainly pops up throughout Motown history. Tammi Terrell, the chanteuse who started her career in James Brown's Famous Flames, duetted with Marvin Gaye on such Motown hits as "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing." Coincidentally, she was also briefly engaged to David Ruffin, though the two never had a child together. And singer Jean Terrell -- no relation to Tammi -- replaced Diana Ross in the Supremes in 1970.

Orlando Terrell, though, has a more immediate way of demonstrating his family's R&B pedigree. "Isaiah!" he yells down the hall of his apartment. He's answered by the sound of little boys giggling from behind a closed door. "My son looks just like Jimmy Ruffin. Isaiah, come here!"

After a shy peek around the corner, the younger Terrell walks out into the living room. His father picks up a copy of a Jimmy Ruffin greatest-hits CD from the coffee table and holds the cover next to his son's face; the boy rolls his eyes back in exasperation. "See? He looks just like Jimmy," Terrell asserts. The resemblance is tenuous at best, though there's definitely a little something around the eyes, maybe in the set of the chin. Isaiah then bounces back to his room, giggling some more. "You know," Terrell utters sagely, "they say distant cousins, they come out looking the same."

Terrell also claims kinship to the members of the '80s chart-topping act DeBarge, a group of Motown siblings that hail from his home town of Grand Rapids. Still, he personally doesn't recall much of his early life in Michigan. "It was all right, but you couldn't really get ahead there," is the only memory he has to offer -- and for good reason. "When I was four, I got hit by a car," he says simply and without emotion. "My sister and I was outside playing kickball, and from what I hear, she came running around telling my older brother that I got hit by a car. My grandfather said that when it hit me, it dragged me for a while, then it knocked me on the curb. I was in a coma for six weeks; I had a broken collarbone, broken jawbone, broken hipbone. I had teeth that were knocked out, and I had a real bad concussion."

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