We lost a guitar legend Friday – a musician’s musician in JJ Cale, who passed away at a La Jolla, Calif. hospital after suffering a heart attack. He was 74.
Cale is one of those strange enigmas within popular music. His reputation preceded him, but few knew what the man looked like.
Cale is responsible, along with fellow Oklahoman Leon Russell, for developing the “Tulsa sound,” a relaxed style of bluesy country rock with minor chords, that shuffles the beat forward, mixing in a rockabilly style and jazz. It helped define a decade of roots-based, Southern-style rock-and-roll.
Cale never sold a lot of records, and almost got out of the music business, as he was struggling to make ends meet playing gigs on weekends and working a day job, when in 1970 he heard Eric Clapton covering his song “After Midnight” on the radio. It made the Billboard Top 20 and was Clapton’s first major hit as a solo artist.
This song, along with “Cocaine,” which also was recorded by Clapton, and “Call Me the Breeze,” that was a hit for Lynyrd Skynyrd, are all songs that helped define a generation and remain in heavy rotation on classic rock radio.
Cale was never as well-known as his songs, but he was OK with that, so long as the royalty checks kept coming in the mail – and they came often.
The list of artists who covered his music or cite him as a direct influence includes Clapton, Skynyrd, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Mark Knopfler, Jerry Garcia, The Allman Brothers, Carlos Santana, Waylon Jennings, Captain Beefheart, Chat Atkins, and Bryan Ferry.
A song I love of Cale’s is “Travelin’ Light,” which Clapton recorded initially, but has been a standout track for Widespread Panic over the last 20 years, and remains a concert-staple for the band.
Neil Young has said Cale and Jimi Hendrix were the best guitar players he had ever heard. Critic Geoffrey Himes wrote in The Washington Post in 1983 that Mr. Cale’s “superb guitar leads – which other guitarists study faithfully – are so thoroughly woven into the fabric that one has to mentally unravel the songs to identify what miracles Cale is working.
Cale’s biggest personal hit was “Crazy Mama,” which rose to No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100. The story goes that Cale was invited to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand to promote the single, which would have moved it higher on the charts, but Cale declined when told he could not bring his band to the taping and would be required to lip-sync the words.
Cale won a Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album for “The Road to Escondido,” a recording he made with Clapton in 2006.
John Weldon Cale was born on December 5, 1938, in Oklahoma City, OK, and raised in Tulsa. He was playing guitar in Western swing and rock-and-roll bands by the mid-1950s and often worked in Tulsa with Leon Russell, who became an influential songwriter and pianist.
Adding to Cale’s reclusive presence was the style in which he recorded. Cale acted as his own producer, engineer and session player. He purposely would bury his whispery vocals beneath the mix of instruments, forcing listeners to lean in and focus. And he rarely included any pictures of himself on his albums, so few could recognize him, though many had heard his music and could sing his lyrics.
“There are entertainers and there are musicians,” Mr. Cale said in 1988, “and I never was an entertainer.”