If influential US singer-songwriter and guitarist JJ Cale’s career was unsung, his songs were not.
JJ Cale’s biggest hit under his own name was Crazy Mama in 1971, but his greatest success was as a provider of rock standards for other artistes. Cale, who died on July 26 of a heart attack aged 74, did not crave the spotlight for himself, but was delighted by the way artistes such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and especially Eric Clapton turned his songs into enduring anthems.
“I’d probably be selling shoes today if it wasn’t for Eric,” said Cale in 2006.
Clapton was first introduced to Cale’s music when he was working with the husband-and-wife duo Delaney & Bonnie. He recorded Cale’s After Midnight for his first solo album, Eric Clapton, in 1970, and it reached No.18 in the US singles chart. The song would become a staple in Clapton’s live shows, and he made a new recording of it, which gained widespead recognition by being used in a 1988 Michelob beer commercial (and some notoriety too, since this coincided with Clapton seeking treatment for alcoholism).
Cale’s song Cocaine also became closely identified with Clapton, who had a US top 30 hit with it in 1980. Other Cale songs covered by Clapton included I’ll Make Love To You Anytime and Low Down, the latter appearing on his 2009 live album with Steve Winwood alongside both Cocaine and After Midnight.
In 2006 Clapton and Cale collaborated on the album The Road To Escondido, a project inspired by Clapton’s admiration for Cale’s low-key expertise as a record-maker.
“I’ve never really succeeded in getting a record to sound like him and that’s what I want,” said Clapton. The album won the duo a Grammy in 2008.
The raucous southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd played their part in advancing Cale’s reputation when they recorded his song Call Me The Breeze for their album Second Helping (1974), a multi-platinum smash. However, Skynyrd’s rollicking, multi-guitar barrage bore little resemblance to Cale’s loose and laid-back original. It was part of the allure of Cale’s music that its superficial simplicity concealed a considerable degree of craftsmanship. As Clapton put it, Cale’s music was “a strange hybrid. It’s not really blues, it’s not really folk or country or rock ’n’ roll. It’s somewhere in the middle.”
John Weldon Cale was born in Oklahoma City, and grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He later styled himself “JJ” to avoid any confusion with John Cale of the Velvet Underground. He graduated from Tulsa Central high school in 1956, then began playing in local country and rockabilly bands. His musical tastes were broad, ranging from western swing to jazz and rhythm and blues, and he cited Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore as a big influence on his own playing. At first, he plied his trade as an itinerant guitar player.
“If a guy came up and said ‘we got a polka band and we’re going to play polkas next Saturday night’ I’d play polkas,” recalled Cale. “I tried to play anything people would hire me to play, because I was a musician.”
Cale was friendly with a fellow Tulsa musician, Leon Russell, and at his behest moved to Los Angeles, where he found regular work. It was there that Cale made his first recordings of his own songs, cutting three singles for the Liberty label, one of which featured After Midnight as a B side. They were not commercially successful, however. Cale subsequently joined a band called the Leathercoated Minds, who in 1967 recorded an album of psychedelic cover versions called A Trip Down The Sunset Strip. Cale later described this as “terrible”.
He returned to Oklahoma, and in 1970 he heard Clapton’s recording of After Midnight, an experience he likened to “discovering oil in your own backyard”. The producer Audie Ashworth invited Cale to Nashville to record an album, which resulted in Naturally (1972). It was released on Russell’s Shelter label, and tracks included Call Me The Breeze and a new version of After Midnight, alongside Crazy Mama, the song that gave Cale his first and only substantial hit as himself, going to No.22 on the US singles chart.
Naturally laid down a template from which Cale would deviate little over a string of reliably addictive albums recorded over the ensuing decades, which included Really (1973), Okie (1974), Troubadour (1976), Travel Log (1990), Guitar Man (1996), To Tulsa And Back (2004) and Roll On (2009). Cale was credited with creating “the Tulsa sound”, though in reality it was uniquely personal to him. It would typically include a sinuous, choogling rhythm and simple melody, sparing embellishments on guitar, pedal steel or keyboards, and lyrics delivered by Cale as though he was having an after-hours chat with a friendly bartender.
Cale would often play most of the instruments himself, experimenting tirelessly with different tones and techniques. He was fascinated with new technology, whether it was digital recording, new types of electric guitar pickups or drum machines, which he presciently used on his first album.
“As the years went by and technology came in, I used a lot of technology,” he said. “I try and manufacture recordings to sound spontaneous. Then, some things are spontaneous.”
Whatever his secret, Cale’s music has proved remarkably durable and influential. Other artistes who covered his songs included the Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and Waylon Jennings, while Neil Young praised Cale’s Crazy Mama in his 2012 memoir Waging Heavy Peace.
“The song is true, simple, and direct, and the delivery is very natural,” Young wrote. “JJ’s guitar playing is a huge influence on me. His touch is unspeakable.”
Cale was more than happy to see what other artistes could make of his music.
“I kind of write songs hoping that musicians will take them and make them better and more accessible,” he said.
He could hardly believe his luck in being able to make a comfortable living writing and recording songs in his own way at his own pace.
“When my songs started raking in some funds I thought, ‘What’s the use of working all the time?’ I believe in no work at all if you can get away with it. I’d recommend writing songs. You get all of the money and none of the bother.”
Earlier this year, the box set Classic Album Selection, featuring five of Cale’s seminal albums, was released. Clapton’s album Old Sock (2013) included a guest appearance by Cale on his own song, Angel. Cale is survived by his wife and regular musical collaborator, Christine Lakeland. – Guardian News & Media 2013