IN the words of Neil Young, of all the electric guitar players he had ever heard ‘it’s gotta be Jimi Hendrix and JJ Cale who are the best’. Eric Clapton described Cale as ‘one of the most important artists in the history of rock’ and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits acknowledged him as his major influence. All of which must have been a profound embarrassment to a man who spent most of his career trying to avoid the limelight. ‘I knew that if I became too well known, my life would change drastically,’ Cale once said as the royalties rolled in from other artists’ versions of his songs. ‘On the other hand, getting some money doesn’t change things too much, except you no longer have to go to work.’
John Weldon Cale was born in Oklahoma City on December 5, 1938, and brought up 120 miles away in Tulsa. At the same time as learning the guitar he studied sound engineering and set up a home studio while still living with his parents. He played in honky-tonks behind chicken wire to protect him from flying bottles, Blues Brothers-style.
Early idols were bluesmen including Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and guitarists such as Chet Atkins, Les Paul and Chuck Berry. ‘In trying to imitate them, I missed it and came up with my own kinda thing,’ he said. ‘I could never get the playing of whoever I was listening to exactly right. I would miss a few notes here and there or get a chord wrong. Through that, my playing ended up sounding a bit different from the person I was imitating. As the years went by, I deliberately kept letting that happen. That’s where a person’s style comes from. If you play exactly like someone else, you don’t come up with anything original. In a sense you could say my guitar playing is full of mistakes that came from trying to imitate others.’
In 1964 Cale moved from Tulsa to Los Angeles, where he worked as a studio engineer while playing gigs wherever he could. The following year he began a residency at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub, whose owner Elmer Valentine renamed him JJ so that punters who saw his name advertised would not be confused with the Welshman John Cale of the Velvet Underground.
‘Early on I figured out playing guitar wasn’t going to put as much food on the table as songwriting,’ JJ told the website performingsongwriter.com. ‘The average person understands songwriting a lot better than guitar playing. I’m a guitar player who turned to songwriting in order to pay the rent.’
In 1966 Cale made a demo single showcasing two of his songs – Slow Motion with After Midnight on the B-side. He handed out copies to friends and fans but there was no interest from record companies. Unable to make enough cash from engineering and performing, Cale retreated to Tulsa in 1967, tail between legs. A few months later he headed for Nashville in a borrowed car and worked with producer Audie Ashworth on a few songs but had to return home when the friend asked for his wheels back.
One night in 1970 Cale was in his own rickety car after a gig playing guitar for a little-known country singer when After Midnight came on the radio, performed by Eric Clapton. ‘I thought, “Oh, my gosh”,’ he said. ‘An old friend had told me that Clapton had cut the song, but I just went, “Yeah, sure”. Of course when I heard it on the radio, I knew it was on one of his records.’ A copy of the demo had found its way to Clapton via his friend Delaney Bramlett and he recorded it for his eponymous debut solo album before releasing it as a single. It was a Top 20 hit. ‘I was dirt poor, not making enough to eat and I wasn’t a young man,’ Cale told Mojo magazine. ‘I was in my thirties, so I was very happy. It was nice to make some money.’
Soon afterwards Audie Ashworth contacted Cale and said it was time to make an album on the strength of After Midnight’s success. Ashworth recalled: ‘I said, “Get your songs together”. He said, “I’ll do a single”. I said, “It’s an album market.” He said, “I don’t have that many songs”, so I said, “Write some”.’ A few months later Cale drove into Nashville with his dog Foley and played Ashworth his new compositions, a relaxed blend of blues, country and rockabilly influences. ‘He and I went in the studio and we cut Call Me the Breeze, Crying Eyes, River Runs Deep and Crazy Mama,’ said Ashworth, who acted as producer. ‘He played everything and we used a drum machine.’
Cale’s debut album, Naturally, was released in October 1971. It provided two hit singles, Crazy Mama and a slowed-down version of After Midnight, while introducing the world to what became known as the Tulsa Sound. Reviewing it for Rolling Stone, Jon Landau wrote: ‘This quiet and leisurely album from an excellent guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter is a charmer. JJ Cale has a unique approach to funk, blues, and country and all it involves is taking things at just as relaxed and mellow a pace as the human metabolism will allow. Here it results in one of the most enjoyable debut albums heard in some time.’ Crazy Mama reached No 22 in the charts and Ashworth told Cale that if he appeared on Dick Clark’s TV show American Bandstand it would climb into the Top Ten. He declined the offer, already uncomfortable with the prospect of stardom. He told Ashworth: ‘Send me the money and let the younger guys have the fame.’
In April 1972 work began on Cale’s second album, Really. It had a more commercial sound but he and Ashworth clashed constantly over the mix, with Cale forever trying to fade the vocal tracks and his producer turning them up. As on Naturally, the songs are short, rarely exceeding three minutes as a deliberate antidote to the overblown 20-minute tracks produced by other artists at the time. Best-known tracks include Lies, I’ll Kiss The World Goodbye, Changes and If You’re Ever in Oklahoma. Among the musicians are the bluegrass stars Josh Graves on dobro and Vassar Clements on fiddle, with Cale describing their presence as ‘one of the highlights of my life’.
Album number three, 1974’s Okie, was a more downhome enterprise. The instrumental title track was recorded on Cale’s back porch with several others inside the house. Cajun Moon and Anyway The Wind Blows are prime examples of the Tulsa Sound. This was the first record on which Cale multiple-dubbed his vocals, which he explained by saying: ‘That goes back to the fact I never considered myself a good singer. I often sang off-key, and when you layer the vocals, the more times you put your voice on there, the more it becomes in tune. That’s why when you hear a large group of people singing, the pitch always sounds right.’ My favourite track is the so-laid-back-it-almost-falls-over The Old Man and Me. The final song, I Got The Same Old Blues, was one of the very few cover versions ever made by Captain Beefheart (on his Bluejeans and Moonbeams album) and was also recorded by Bryan Ferry, Bobby Bland and Lynyrd Skynyrd, who gave Cale another windfall with their version of Call Me The Breeze. Here’s a later live version.
The royalties from that song enabled Cale to buy a house on a lake near Hermitage, Tennessee, ten miles from Nashville and therefore far enough out to stop admirers dropping in on him. ‘I knew what fame entailed,’ he said. ‘I tried to back off from that. I had seen some of the people I was working with forced to be careful because people wouldn’t leave them alone. What I’m saying, basically, is I was trying to get the fortune without having the fame.’
He and Ashworth set up their own studio, Crazy Mama’s, in the producer’s home with equivalent facilities chez Cale. However JJ did not overburden himself with work, with Ashworth describing him as ‘busy being unbusy’.
After a two-year gap came Troubadour, which provided Cale with another payday via the song Cocaine, which was a major hit in 1977 for Eric Clapton, who has spent much of his life proclaiming his debt to JJ and played live with him several times. The Troubadour song Travelin’ Light would be played to wake up the Atlantis Space Shuttle and International Space Station crews before their spacewalk in May, 2010.
Cale went on to make lots more albums, including the award-winning The Road to Escondido with Clapton, and provide many other artists with best-selling tunes before his death from a heart attack in 2013, aged 74.
A 50-track anthology of his work, Any Way The Wind Blows, is available on Amazon for less than six quid. There is also an excellent documentary, To Tulsa and Back; On Tour With JJ Cale, which you can see here. In it, he says: ‘I was always a background person. It took me a while to adjust to the fact that people were looking at me ’cause I always just wanted to be part of the show. I didn’t want to be the show.’
He had no problem with the fact that most listeners could not identify him as the author of songs still being played on the radio four decades after they were written. ‘No, it doesn’t bother me,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘What’s really nice is when you get a check in the mail.’