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Soul Survivor

Orlando Terrell's latest disc, Sexy Smile, is available exclusively at Wax Trax.
Anthony Camera

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."

As miraculous as it was that Terrell survived the accident, the way in which he came out of his coma was even more so. "When my mom was pregnant with me, she used to listen to this song by this one dude a lot -- ŒMe and Mrs. Jones,' by Billy Paul," he says, speaking of the 1972 Philly soul classic. "When I was in the hospital, that song came on the radio. That's when I woke up out of the coma. Then the doctors told her, ŒIf you take him home now, he won't make it through the night.' But she took me home, and here I am. I had to go through therapy -- you know, learn to walk, talk and crawl all over again."

What followed was years of developmental and educational difficulties. In 1982, when Terrell was twelve, he and his family moved to Denver, and he attended high school at both East and South, squeaking by with a D average. But it was at school that he discovered the liberating power of playing music. "I used to walk down the halls singing. People in the classroom used to laugh," he remembers. "I started out with these two other dudes who called ourselves a band. We'd all be up in the music room rehearsing. I played the piano and sang. It just came natural, messing around with the keyboards. But we all went our separate ways; I'm the only one still doing it."

Around the same time, the teenage Terrell got the idea of recording demos of his music and trying to get a record contract. His methodology, though, was a bit less conventional than that of your typical aspiring songwriter. "You know that Weather Channel, where they just show the temperatures and play music?" he asks. "It was like jazz. I used to hold up the tape recorder to the TV and sing over it, make up my own lyrics as I go, just off the top of my head. I had this song called ŒMoney': ŒYou gotta get money any way you can.'"

But money wasn't flowing in from Terrell's music. His demos resulted in nothing but a stack of rejection letters from Motown and Arista. So upon completing a couple of semesters of music classes at Colorado Community College, he decided to start making and selling his own tapes. After creating drum and synth loops and then superimposing them on his multi-track keyboard, he would play the resultant instrumental songs while freestyling over the top of them; a Walkman with a built-in microphone captured the performances. He put out his first cassette, the out-of-print Come On Baby, in 1995 and sold copies in the parking lot of the Safeway at 20th and Washington. His second album, 1999's Special Edition, marked Terrell's transition from analog to digital; his subsequent release, 2001's Open Up Your Soul, was produced after his acquisition of a CD burner. And although Terrell long ago gave up hawking his music on the street, you won't find it at Virgin Megastore or Amazon.com; he sells it exclusively at Wax Trax, and only a handful of each homemade disc exists -- including copies of his brand-new release, Sexy Smile.

Besides being the most current representation of Terrell's aesthetic, Sexy Smile just might be his opus. The allusion to the Beach Boys' epic Smiley Smile is surely unintentional, but not unwarranted: Terrell, like Brian Wilson, is a producer and performer of erratic, often disjointed textures and atmospheres that stretch the pop idiom to the point of breaking, all the while infusing it with a haunting, nearly surreal loneliness. "Be By U" is a dark, sultry, squealing jam laden with lyrics like, "Can't you feel/The level of love/It's time to reveal/What are you thinking of/I want to be the one/To rescue you/I'll be your warrior/In the heat of the night/Trust me, okay?" His voice falls somewhere between Prince's cool, liquid falsetto and the fevered raving of Can's Malcolm Mooney. An instrumental track with the apropos title "Music" sounds like the Neptunes mixing the Notwist and Autechre at the bottom of an ocean of codeine. "It True" could be Captain Beefheart's Magic Band as interpreted by Dr. Dre, and "Kids Songs" is a brief a cappella featuring Terrell's children on backup vocals, calling to mind Stevie Wonder's creepy sample of his baby girl crying at the end of "Isn't She Lovely."

"I'll be recording in the bathroom, 'cause in the bathroom you can hear all the echoes and stuff, and my kids will come in, saying, ŒDaddy, put us on one of your CDs!'" elaborates Terrell, who has partial custody of his two boys and three daughters, ranging in age from one to fourteen. "When they were babies, I said I'd be happy if they grew up and we started singing together like Eddie and Gerald Levert, like that album they made together, Father and Son." And although Terrell has never been married, the ideal of romance remains the core of his creative -- as well as his personal -- credo.

"I sing about... love," he confesses, his voice dropping to an almost religious hush. "A lot of people ask me, ŒWhy do you just sing about love?' And I say, ŒLove is important. If you don't have it, you go crazy. Being alone is like being in jail. You need to get out.'"

"But," he adds, "I also sing about other things. For instance, I sing about how you try to help a person, and they steady try to do you wrong."

At the top of Terrell's list of wrongdoers is the world-famous, bazillion-selling hip-hop act Outkast. He alleges that the group's label, Arista, took his demo tapes, sent him rejection letters and then passed the tapes along to Outkast members Big Boi and Andre 3000, who then used Terrell's music as the template for their 2000 smash album Stankonia. Indeed, Terrell -- a card-carrying ASCAP member -- even tried to sue Outkast that year for copyright infringement.

"They ripped me off," he states flatly. "They took the music and made it similar. So I went to a lawyer and tried to sue them, but they never responded back. Then I finally got in touch with Arista Records and said, ŒWell, you know you've got a lawsuit against you?' and they were like, ŒWhere?' And I said, ŒIn Denver.' Then they filed to get it dismissed. The judge, he gave me ten days to find a lawyer to rewrite the lawsuit, 'cause I wrote it myself. So I went to a lawyer, and he said he'd take the case on a contingency basis. But he backed out at the last minute; he said the music was similar, but not similar enough. The case was thrown out of court."

Terrell, 33 years old and currently unemployed, now channels most of his passion and ambition into writing and recording new songs. And although playing live shows is the cornerstone of music promotion, he's only performed in front of people a couple of times in his life -- the most memorable being a talent show he participated in while visiting Grand Rapids at age eighteen. "They started throwing stuff at me," he admits with a raucous laugh. "So I just start dunking and dodging and shit. I didn't have a band or anything; it was just me. I had one of my songs all recorded on tape, and I just sung along. But I didn't get mad at the people who were throwing stuff, 'cause by the end, they had all walked off. The song was called ŒI Need You Here.'"

Such setbacks are enough to send rock stars into hissy fits or entire emo bands into a fetal position. But Terrell is a survivor, and -- outsider or not -- his music is the most soulful, honest, unique and untainted outpouring of a human heart that one could ever hope to hear. "I keep all these," he says, digging through a duffel bag full of form rejection letters on record-label stationery. "I just keep them, 'cause any response is a good response. I got to try to get a record deal before I stop breathing. I'll just keep selling tapes, and hopefully somebody will say, ŒHey, this guy's all right. I want to see what he's all about.'

"You just have to remember that nothing could happen without God first," he concludes without a trace of defeat or despair. "You just feel it. When it's that time, love will make it happen."


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