Tom Terrell, 57; Journalist Was Music Industry Fixture, Scholar

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tom Terrell, a versatile music journalist, promoter and DJ, who was among the first industry insiders to focus attention on reggae and world music, died Nov. 29 of prostate cancer at the Community Hospice of Washington. He was 57 and lived in the District.

Mr. Terrell, who was ubiquitous in Washington music circles in the 1970s and 1980s, seemed to know everyone and to be ahead of every trend. After beginning his journalistic career at Howard University, he worked as a disc jockey at local stations and wrote about music for the Unicorn Times, the Washington City Paper and other publications.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was the house DJ at d.c. space and the 9:30 Club, spinning an eclectic selection of records reflecting his interest in soul, jazz, New Wave, reggae and African music. After 16 years in New York, he returned to Washington in 2006 as an international music program director for XM Satellite Radio. He also wrote for Vibe, Essence, JazzTimes, the Village Voice and MTV magazine and, for the past three years, was a frequent commentator on music for National Public Radio.

During his years in Washington, Mr. Terrell produced the first U.S. concert of the British reggae group Steel Pulse in 1981 at the 9:30 Club.

"The band hired me to road manage their 'True Democracy' North American tour" in 1982, Mr. Terrell said in an NPR commentary in 2005. "I called it 'the heart attack tour.' It was total madness, Toronto to Tempe, 35 shows in 42 days. But every night on stage, the power, the joy, the sheer spirituality of those 'True Democracy' songs would just lift you up. With this band, political consciousness and musical ecstasy were one and the same."

When Mr. Terrell went with Steel Pulse to Nigeria, he and other members of the entourage were stranded for a month after their passports and some of their equipment were stolen.

Mr. Terrell, whose buoyant enthusiasm led to many friendships in the music business, had a gift for discovering artists and musical developments.

"He somehow managed to hear of people long before anyone else did," said Bill Warrell, who hired Mr. Terrell as the first DJ at d.c. space in 1977. "He did everything, he knew everybody. He introduced so many of us to each other. That was his magic."

Mr. Terrell's journalism was often a spirited blend of autobiography and musicology, leavened with slang, profanity and the knowledge of every trend in popular music for the past half-century. He wrote about virtually every form of music from Africa and the Americas, and in an NPR commentary last December he found himself praising an artist he never expected to like: Frank Sinatra.

"When I was younger, I couldn't understand why my father, the hippest black man I've ever known, dug him so much," he said. "Now, when I listen to Sinatra and the Count Basie Orchestra swinging to heaven with 'Fly Me to the Moon,' I know."

Thomas Gerald Terrell was born July 16, 1950, in Summit, N.J., and developed an early interest in music because of his father, an amateur singer. When Mr. Terrell was young, he and his sisters could sing the complex Lambert, Hendricks and Ross jazz standard "Twisted."

At Howard University, he was a photographer, writer and editor for the Hilltop, the campus newspaper, and for the Bison, the university yearbook. He was also renowned for his rent parties, at which he entertained hundreds of guests with selections from record albums that covered an entire wall.

From 1975 to 1990, Mr. Terrell had a series of programs on WPFW-FM, WHFS-FM and the University of Maryland's WMUC-FM. His "Sunday Reggae Splashdown" on WHFS was one of the Washington area's first radio shows devoted to reggae.

Between his DJ work and writing, he promoted concerts for artists as diverse as Cab Calloway, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Mali's Salif Keita. After moving to New York in 1990, he worked in marketing for Island Records, Gee Street Records and Verve, wrote for magazines and served as the DJ for jazz giant Ornette Coleman's 70th birthday party.

Back in Washington, one of his final projects was to write liner notes and record video interviews for a six-CD box set of Miles Davis's "On the Corner" recordings of the early 1970s, released in October.

Mr. Terrell maintained that music could be a beneficial force in the world, uniting people across racial, social and geographical boundaries.

"He loved bringing new music to people," said his sister Bevadine Z. Terrell of Washington. "He loved bringing people together, not just African Americans, but white people, Asian people, African people. He was open to all types of music."

In addition to his sister, survivors include his mother, Zoma Terrell of South Plainfield, N.J.; and two other sisters, Michelle S. Terrell-Long of Washington and Mona D. Terrell of Piscataway, N.J.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company