John Weldon Cale (December 5, 1938 – July 26, 2013), professionally known as J.J. Cale, was an American singer-songwriter, recording artist and influential guitar stylist.
Though he deliberately avoided the limelight (being temperamentally averse to celebrity) his influence as a musical artist has been widely acknowledged by figures such as Mark Knopfler, Neil Young and Eric Clapton who described him as “one of the most important artists in the history of rock”.
He is considered to be one of the originators of the Tulsa Sound, a loose genre drawing on blues, rockabilly, country, and jazz.
Many songs written by Cale have been recorded by other artists, including “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” by Eric Clapton; “Call Me the Breeze” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Mayer, Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare; “Clyde” by Waylon Jennings and Dr. Hook; “I Got The Same Old Blues” by Captain Beefheart, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Freddie King; and “Magnolia” by Beck, Lucinda Williams and Iron and Wine and Ben Bridwell.
In 2008 he, along with Clapton, received a Grammy Award for their album, The Road to Escondido.
John Cale was born on December 5, 1938, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and graduated from Tulsa Central High School in 1956. As well as learning to play the guitar he began studying the principles of sound engineering early on while still living at home with his parents in Tulsa where he built himself a recording studio.
After graduation he was drafted into military service studying at the Air Force Institute of Technology in Champaign, Illinois. Cale recalled, “I didn’t really want to carry a gun and do all that stuff so I joined the Air Force and what I did is I took technical training and that’s kind of where I learned a little bit about electronics.” Cale’s knowledge of mixing and sound recording turned out to play an important role in creating the distinctive sound of his studio albums.
Along with a number of other young Tulsa musicians, Cale moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, where he found employment as a studio engineer. While living in Los Angeles he cut a demo single in 1966 (in those days professional demos were actual 45 rpm vinyl singles) with Liberty Records of his composition ‘After Midnight’.
He distributed copies of this single to his Tulsa musician friends living in L.A., many of whom were successfully finding work as session musicians. Although he managed to find a regular spot at the Whisky a Go Go (which is where, according to his own testimony, Elmer Valentine suggested he call himself J.J. Cale to avoid confusion with John Cale of the Velvet Underground ), he found little success as a recording artist and, not being able to make enough money as a studio engineer, he sold his guitar and returned to Tulsa where he joined a band with Tulsa musician Don White.
In 1970, it came to his attention that Eric Clapton had recorded a cover of “After Midnight” on his debut album in 1970. As a result of this, it was suggested to Cale that he should take advantage of this publicity and cut a record of his own.
His first album, Naturally, established his style, described by Los Angeles Times writer Richard Cromelin as a “unique hybrid of blues, folk and jazz, marked by relaxed grooves and Cale’s fluid guitar and laconic vocals. His early use of drum machines and his unconventional mixes lend a distinctive and timeless quality to his work and set him apart from the pack of Americana roots music purists.”
In his 2003 biography Shakey, Neil Young remarked, “Of all the players I ever heard, it’s gotta be [Jimi] Hendrix and JJ Cale who are the best electric guitar players.” In the 2005 documentary To Tulsa and Back: On Tour with J.J. Cale, Cale’s guitar style is characterized by Eric Clapton as “really, really minimal”, and he states precisely, “it’s all about finesse”.
His biggest U.S. hit single, “Crazy Mama”, peaked at #22 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1972. In the 2005 documentary film To Tulsa and Back, Cale recounts the story of being offered the opportunity to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand to promote the song, which would have moved it higher on the charts. Cale declined when told he could not bring his band to the taping and would be required to lip-sync the words.
Cale often acted as his own producer, engineer and session player. His vocals, sometimes whispery, would be buried in the mix.
He attributed his unique sound to being a recording mixer and engineer, saying, “Because of all the technology now you can make music yourself and a lot of people are doing that now. I started out doing that a long time ago and I found when I did that I came up with a unique sound.”
His catalogue is published for the World excluding North America by independent music publishers Fairwood Music (UK) Ltd.
J.J. Cale died at the age of 74 in La Jolla, California, on July 26, 2013, after suffering a heart attack.
Songs written by Cale that have been covered by other musicians include: “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” by Eric Clapton (“After Midnight” also was covered by Jerry Garcia and “Cocaine” was covered by Nazareth); “Bringing It Back” by Kansas; “Call Me The Breeze” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare, John Mayer, and Eric Clapton; “Clyde” by Waylon Jennings and Dr. Hook; “I Got the Same Old Blues” by Captain Beefheart (on his 1974 album Bluejeans & Moonbeams), Lynyrd Skynyrd and Freddie King; “Magnolia” by Poco, Beck and Lucinda Williams; “Ride Me High” and “Travelin’ Light” by Widespread Panic; and “The Sensitive Kind” by Santana (on their 1981 album Zebop!).
The 1992 track “Run” on Spiritualized’s debut album, Lazer Guided Melodies, is essentially a cover of Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze” with some additional lyrics. Cale is given songwriting credit on the album.
The Band covered “Crazy Mama” on their 1996 album High on the Hog.
Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings 1999 album and lead-off song is “Any Way the Wind Blows” from his 1974 album Okie.
Phish has played “Ain’t Love Funny” from his 1994 album Closer to You live a number of times. One such version appears on Phish’s 2015 Amsterdam box set, taken from the July 1, 1997 performance.
George Thorogood & The Destroyers covered “Devil In Disguise” on their 2003 album Ride ‘Til I Die.
As well as “After Midnight” on his self-titled debut album in 1970 and “Cocaine” on Slowhand in 1977, Eric Clapton has covered Cale’s “I’ll Make Love To You Anytime” on his 1978 album Backless.
Other Clapton covers of Cale originals include “Travelin’ Light” on his 2001 album Reptile, “River Runs Deep” and “Everything Will Be Alright” on his 2010 self-titled album Clapton, and “Angel” on his 2013 album Old Sock.
In 2014 Eric Clapton & Friends released the tribute album The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale. Here Cale’s tunes are covered by Clapton with Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Don White, Willie Nelson, Cale’s wife Christine Lakeland, and others.
In the video version of Call Me The Breeze for this album, Clapton declares of Cale, “He was a fantastic musician. And he was my hero.”