“People say each of my albums sounds just like the previous one,” says J.J. Cale. “I’ve tried to change, but whenever I finish something, it just sounds like me.”
Lots of fans—including Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Neil Young—are happy that’s the case. Beginning with such songs as “After Midnight,” “Cocaine” and “Call Me the Breeze,” Cale has adhered to a laid-back, economical style centered on groove-oriented guitar lines, low-key vocals and a country-blues vibe. Countless high-profile artists have covered his songs—sometimes injecting them with a heavy dose of blues-rock fuel—but Cale himself has, by choice, remained largely under the public radar.
Raised in Tulsa, Okla., Cale began his career in the ’50s as a backing guitarist for cover acts in his hometown. He spent the mid-’60s in Los Angeles, securing jobs as a recording engineer and working briefly as a songwriter for hire. Enchanted with recording technology, he made his first proper album, 1971’s Naturally, mostly as a one-man band. The ingredients that went into that project—subtle drum rhythms, murky vocals sung in a narrow range and a guitar style that merged country, blues and jazz—established the template for the “Tulsa sound” Cale has employed ever since.
Career-wise, the major turning point in Cale’s life occurred in 1970, when Clapton’s version of “After Midnight”—a song Cale had written in the mid-’60s—hit the airwaves. Subsequent years saw the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Santana and Maria Muldaur cover his material. Clapton became an especially ardent fan, recording the classic-rock stalwart “Cocaine” and other Cale-penned tracks. Eventually, in 2006, Clapton recruited Cale for the Grammy-winning Road to Escondido, an project on which the two artists enjoyed co-billing.
J.J. Cale passed away on Friday, July 26, 2013 in La Jolla, CA at the age of 74 after suffering a heart attack. His representatives have said that no donations are needed, but since Cale was a great lover of animals you could, if you like, make a donation to your favorite local animal shelter.
We’re remembering J.J. with an interview Russell Hall wrote for Performing Songwriter from his Cale’s home in Southern California, when the then-70-year-old talked about guitars, songwriting and why he decided early on to avoid the limelight. Farewell J.J—you will be missed.
Do you remember the first time you held a guitar?
I was very young. There was a kid up the street who had gotten a guitar, and I played it and noodled around until, eventually, I got enough money to buy my own. It was like sports or school—the normal things involved in any kid’s life. It wasn’t a “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life” kind of thing. I sort of drifted into the professional part of music.
When you first started playing, did you take the usual approach of listening to records and trying to copy what you heard?
That’s right. The real goal was to get a job. After a while, I started trying to make a living playing music—which is a hard thing to do, even today. I started out backing up singers. I didn’t sing at all until many years later—until I started writing songs. To get a job, you had to learn the songs the singer was performing. Generally they were copying the hits of the day. If a guy was singing Elvis songs, you would have to listen to the record to figure out what the guitar player was doing. This was in the mid-’50s.
How did your guitar playing become distinctive?
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.
Do you consider the guitar a songwriting tool, or do you get pleasure from the sheer act of playing?
Basically I’m a guitar player. But early on I figured out playing guitar wasn’t going to put as much food on the table as songwriting. 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.
How does the process of writing a song tend to play out for you?
It happens in different ways. Sometimes I’ll write a whole song in 10 minutes. Other times, I’ll write part of a song, and then come back to it later. Sometimes I write using recording equipment; I’ll put down a drum machine and bass track, and try to get a chord change from that. But I seldom write words and then try to put music to them. I’m not a poet. It always starts with some kind of music. There have been a few times when I’ve written a song just by picking up an acoustic guitar and playing, but that doesn’t happen often.
The association between you and Clapton is very strong. Do you remember what went through your mind the first time you heard his version of “After Midnight”?
I do. I had come back to Oklahoma, where I had a job playing guitar for a country singer. I was riding in my car, and “After Midnight” came on the radio. I had been in the business long enough to know that particular radio station was owned by a conglomerate, and if they were playing it there, they were playing it everywhere. I thought, “Oh, my gosh.” 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.
Did you ponder how your life was going to change?
Oh, yeah. I was deathly poor, so I definitely wanted to make some money (laughs). I was very happy.
Is that when you started thinking about the relationship between fame and fortune—or decided you didn’t want to be famous?
Well, I was already semi-famous in my hometown. And I had played guitar for famous people, so I knew what fame entailed. 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. That’s not so much the case nowadays, because you can hire someone to keep people away. What I’m saying, basically, is I was trying to get the fortune without having the fame.
It’s a rare thing these days that an artist’s songs are better known than the artist.
That’s right. But that’s what I wanted. I was 32 at the time, and I had grown up in a world where people became famous at the age of 20. In that sense, by the time “After Midnight” became a hit, I was an old man. I knew if I became too well known, my life would change drastically. On the other hand, getting some money doesn’t change things too much, except you no longer have to go to work.
Do you have a sense of why your music has had a greater influence on British artists than American artists?
I don’t. It might be that I’m more or less a country-blues type of guy, and the British seem to like American blues. Everyone from England—and from around the planet, really—tries to imitate American blues singers. That’s where rock ’n’ roll came from. I already knew about those artists the British musicians were listening to. I would hear their records and think, “Oh, they’re imitating this or that American blues artist.”
What did British guitar players like Clapton bring to the blues that wasn’t there before?
They electrified it to a much greater extent. Most of those American players were acoustic players. Some had played electric guitars, but when Eric and those other guys came along, they added something different. It was louder, with more distorted guitar. Those old blues players came along before the solid-body existed in 1950. Some of the guitarists who played with Muddy Waters played solid-body guitars, but not with the intensity and volume the English guys did.
When people talk about your influence, they often speak first of Mark Knopfler.
Yeah, people have told me that. I’ve never noticed. There might have been some influence on that first album—the one with “Sultans of Swing” [1978’s Dire Straits]. His vocals are pretty close to Bob Dylan, but Mark has his own style. We all borrow when we’re first starting out. I’m still playing [Clarence] “Gatemouth” Brown licks. That’s how we learn. But I never felt I influenced Mark any more than some others influenced him.
Throughout your career you’ve tended to record as a one-man band. Why?
One reason was because it was cheaper. Another reason was because I was an engineer, and I loved manipulating the sound. I love the technical side of recording. I had a recording studio back in the days when no one had a home studio. You had to rent a studio that belonged to a big conglomerate. Nowadays, of course, lots of people make demos using electric drum machines, synthesizers and so forth.
How did you hit upon the idea of layering your vocals, or tracking them multiple times?
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. Les Paul was the first person to do that, with Mary Ford. It makes the vocals more pleasing to the ear.
What guitars do you take on the road?
In the early ’70s it was a Harmony acoustic. When that one couldn’t cut it anymore, I played a Fender Stratocaster for a long time. Then, when I moved to L.A. for the second time, I started playing a Casio guitar—a 390 or a 290. It’s a very early synthesizer guitar, made in the mid-’80s. I still play it. I mainly use it like a regular guitar, although I do use the synthesizer function in some recording work. Also, when I play solo gigs, I play a Danelectro convertible guitar, which has some acoustic qualities. It has silver Lipstick Tube pickups and a piezo pickup I put in, so I can play through two amps, in stereo.
Do you have a favorite cover version of any of your songs?
“Cajun Moon” by [jazz vocalist] Randy Crawford. She did a really nice version [on 1995’s Naked and True]. Several women cut it. Maria Muldaur recorded it, as did Cissy Houston, who, of course, is Whitney Houston’s mother.
There’s been some talk that you’re contemplating retirement, that this record may be your last.
Well, I’m 70. I’ve made 16 albums, and they’re all still in print. I’m reaching the age where it’s hard to come up with something I haven’t already done. I’ll write a song and think, “Oh, that sounds like ‘Call Me the Breeze,’ which I wrote 40 years ago.” If you write songs for a long time, you start to imitate yourself, where you’re putting new words to the same old beat and chord changes.
What are you most proud of about your career?
I suppose the biggest compliment a songwriter can receive is when somebody else sings your songs. I’m more proud of the long list of people who have done my songs than, say, the money or the records I’ve made. When someone cuts your song—whether it’s good or bad—you feel great.
—By Russell Hall