J.J. Cale - Biography

By Scott Feemster


J.J. Cale is the rare musician who had purposely kept himself out of the glaring spotlight of recognition and mass popularity over his 40+ year career. Cale considers himself primarily a songwriter, and is pleased when other artists like Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd find ways of interpreting his songs and even score hits with them. Though Cale commands a small, cult following of fans,including notable musicians such as Neil Young, Mark Knopfler, and Bryan Ferry, he is beloved by those fans and other performers for his gently shuffling songs that utilize minimal instrumentation and simple structures. Whereas other songwriters and performers pride themselves on making their songs “complete”, Cale prides himself on keeping his songs open to interpretation.


            J.J. Cale, born John W. Cale, was born on December 5th, 1938 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Cale learned the guitar as a boy, but never really saw music as a way to make a living. In the late 1950's, he played around the Tulsa area playing country, Western swing and early rock and roll in bars and nightclubs, while working on the side in various jobs including being a cook, a flower deliverer, and an elevator boy. Eventually Cale formed his own band, Johnnie Cale and the Valentines, and played a mixture of early rock and roll, country, blues, and jazz. In 1959, he moved to Nashville to see if he could make it as a country singer, and spent some time touring with the Grand Old Opry road company, but after a couple of years or so, he returned to Tulsa. Once back in Tulsa, he reunited with one of his old friends and fellow musicians, pianist/multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell, and began playing around Tulsa again. By 1964, Cale and Russell had had enough of the limited opportunities Tulsa provided, and decided to move to Los Angeles with their buddy, bassist Carl Radle. Once in Los Angeles, the three played together, but Russell got most of the work writing, arranging and producing other artists work. After a short stint playing with Delaney and Bonnie, Cale took a job at Russell's new Skye Hill studio as a studio engineer, and gained valuable experience on how to record and produce records. He served as an engineer and producer for various one-shot groups while in Los Angeles, and also started to cut a few of his own tunes, including an early version of “After Midnight”, a song that would go on to be one of his biggest hits. In 1968, influenced by the burgeoning psychedelic scene that was happening around them in L.A., (and initiated by producer Snuff Garrett), he and friend Roger Tillison, and some other studio musician friends decided to form the made-up studio-based group the Leathercoated Minds, and released the 1968 album A Trip Down The Sunset Strip (Viva), a sort of aural exploitation flick of what people thought was happening on L.A.'s famed Sunset Strip. The album was a one-off project, and though Cale provided some tasty Byrds and Love influenced guitar leads, the record didn't do much, so Cale decided to return to his native Tulsa in 1967.


            Once back in Tulsa, Cale began playing clubs, mostly by himself, and began using some of the skills he learned in Los Angeles to record some demos of some of his material. In an age where musicians were turning up their amps and wanting to take music farther and farther out, Cale took the opposite approach, and tried to make his music simpler and quieter, drawing on the blues, country, jazz, and early rock influences he had always carried inside of him. After about a year, Cale had enough material that he felt good about to send it to his friend Carl Radle, who was still in Los Angeles. Radle gave the demos to producer Denny Cordell, who was in the midst of starting a record label with Cale's old friend Leon Russell called Shelter Records. Shelter signed Cale as a solo artist in 1969, and shopped some of his songs around to other artists to see if anyone would be interested in covering them. One person who became interested in Cale's minimalist style was former Cream and Blind Faith guitarist/vocalist Eric Clapton, and he would go on to be a life-long fan of Cale's music. Clapton included Cale's song “After Midnight” on his first solo album, and released the song as a single. The song became a Top 20 hit and instantly made a name for Cale in the music industry. To build on his name recognition, Cale got to work on an album of his own, and released the album Naturally (Shelter/Mercury) in 1971. Naturally contained the single “Crazy Mama”, which charted as high as #22 on the U.S. singles charts, and established Cale's laidback style in the minds of music fans everywhere. The album also contained a re-recorded version of “After Midnight”, which almost reached the Top 40, and the song “Call Me The Breeze”, which would later be a hit for Lynyrd Skynyrd. With the money he earned from royalties from Naturally and “After Midnight”, Cale moved back to Nashville, and built his own 16-track studio, calling it Crazy Mama's, after his hit single. For the next decade or so, Cale locked into a steady groove of releasing an album every year or two, all in Cale's trademark bluesy, laidback, minor key style. His next album, Really (Shelter/Mercury) followed in 1972, and contained the minor hit “Lies”. That album was followed by Okie (Shelter/Mercury) in 1974. 1976 brought the album Troubadour (Shelter/Mercury), which included the minor hit “Hey Baby”, as well as Cale's original version of the song “Cocaine”, which Eric Clapton would later cover and make a hit. After Troubadour, the hits didn't really come Cale's way, but that seemed more than alright with him. While he enjoyed the success brought to him by the cover versions of his songs, Cale preferred to stay out of the limelight and was fine with just putting out an album every once in a while to his devoted cult following. After Troubadour, Cale released his album 5 (Shelter/Mercury) in 1979, and then switched record labels to MCA for his 1981 effort Shades, and then switched again to Mercury Records for his next album, Grasshopper (1982). Cale recorded one more album for Mercury, 1983's 8, before getting out of his contract with Mercury and going into semi-retirement. He had been steadily putting out records for over a decade, and with royalties coming in from the famous cover versions of his songs, he decided he would step away from the music business for a while.


            Cale eventually returned in 1990 with his album Travel-Log (Silvertone/BMG), a return to his rough-hewn signature sound. Cale joked that the album sounded like “basically the same old music, it's just that I'm a little fresher now because I've had a rest.” Cale followed Travel-Log up two years later with the album Number 10 (Silvertone/BMG), and then after that signed with Virgin Records. Virgin was hoping that Cale's rough and simple sound would appeal to fans of the rising Americana genre, and it did, to a certain extent, but mostly his two albums he produced for Virgin, 1994's Closer To You and 1996's Guitar Man, sold in modest numbers to the same audience that had been following him since the beginning of his career. Cale took another hiatus of about eight years before returning with his 2004 release To Tulsa And Back (Sanctuary). To Tulsa And Back marked a slight change of sound for Cale, as it used more drum loops and keyboards than had previous albums. Below the slight sheen, though, it was still Cale's dusty bluesy shuffles, spiced up with an occasional rocker or a nod towards gypsy swing. Cale teamed up with his old admirer Eric Clapton for their duet album The Road To Escondido (Reprise) in 2006, and in many ways, their styles are so similar that, at times, it was hard to tell who was singing and who was playing guitar. The album seemed to be a “thank you” from Clapton to one of his biggest influences on his solo career, exposing Cale's name to a wider audience than had paid attention to him in quite some time. Cale paid Clapton back by writing 11 of the albums 14 tracks, and seemed to steer the project more towards his style of music rather than the slickness that Clapton so often injects into his albums. The album sold well, and gained the duo a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2007. Cale released the album Roll On on Rounder Records in 2009, including another collaboration with Clapton on the title track. On July 26, 2013 JJ Cale passed away of a heart attack.

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