Oklahoma music legend JJ Cale passed away on Friday night at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, California, due to a heart attack. He was 74.
Cale is most well known as the songwriter for songs made popular by Eric Clapton (“After Midnight” and “Cocaine”) and Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Call Me the Breeze”). His laid back, bluesy and boogie style of playing would make up much of what is known as The Tulsa Sound.
“Basically, I’m just a guitar player that figured out I wasn’t ever gonna be able to buy dinner with my guitar playing so I got into songwriting, which is a little more profitable business.” - JJ Cale
Cale notoriously shied away from the spotlight, refusing to put his image on most of his album covers and keeping his vocals low in the mix of his records. He also frequently turned down touring and appearance requests. Most notably, Cale declined to appear on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” after being told he couldn’t bring his band to the taping and would be required to lip-sync the words.
“I’d like to have the fortune, but I don’t care too much about the fame.” - JJ Cale
Born as John Weldon Cale in Oklahoma City in 1938, Cale grew up in Tulsa and graduated from Tulsa Central High School in 1956. Musically, Cale was heavily influenced by single-string guitarists like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Chet Atkins, Les Paul and Chuck Berry. Under several band names, such as Johnnie Cale and The Valentines and the Johnny Cale Quintette, Cale played local bars in Tulsa before an unsuccessful stay in Nashville in the early 1960s.
His friend Leon Russell persuaded Cale to join him in Los Angeles, where he quickly landed studio work. One of his first gigs was playing guitar and co-producing (along with Snuff Garrett) the 1967 album A Trip Down the Sunset Strip by the fake band The Leathercoated Minds.
Cale began going by the “JJ” moniker to avoid confusion with John Cale of the Velvet Underground. Elmer Valentine, the co-owner of Sunset Strip nightclub Whisky a Go Go, came up with the name.
In the late 1960s, Cale moved back to Tulsa and had almost given up on the music business. In 1970, however, Cale’s 1966 demo of “After Midnight” was covered by Eric Clapton.
“I was tired of the ‘guitar hero’ thing and I was starting to follow the example of JJ Cale. I was tired of gymnastic guitar playing, and when I listened to JJ Cale records, I was impressed by the subtlety, by what wasn’t being played.” - Eric Clapton
Cale was unaware Clapton had cut the song until it became a No.18 radio hit.
“I was dirt poor, not making enough to eat and I wasn’t a young man. I was in my thirties, so I was very happy. It was nice to make some money.” - JJ Cale
Clapton’s version of “After Midnight” was almost a carbon copy of Cale’s 1966 demo, so when he decided to record it for his Shelter Records debut Naturally, he decided to slow it down and cut out the horns.
Also on Naturally was “Call Me The Breeze”, which Lynyrd Skynyrd would record on 1974’s Second Helping. Over the years, his songs were covered by Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Widespread Panic, The Band, Deep Purple, Tom Petty, Captain Beefheart and more.
Bryan Ferry and Mark Knopfler cite Cale as a major influence and, in recent years, Neil Young has written about Cale’s influence on him. In his 2003 biography Shakey, Young puts Cale’s guitar playing on par with Jimi Hendrix.
“What is it about JJ Cale’s playing? I mean, you could say Eric Clapton’s the guitar god, but… he can’t play like JJ. JJ’s the one who played all that shit first… And he doesn’t play very loud, either — I really like that about him. He’s so sensitive. Of all the players I ever heard, it’s gotta be Hendrix and JJ Cale who are the best electric guitar players. JJ’s my peer, but he doesn’t have the business acumen — he doesn’t have the idea of how to deal with the rest of the world that I do. But musically, he’s actually more than my peer, because he’s got that thing. I don’t know what it is.”
Young talked about Cale again in his 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace.
“‘Crazy Mama’ by JJ Cale is a record I love. The song is true, simple, and direct, and the delivery is very natural. JJ’s guitar playing is a huge influence on me. His touch is unspeakable. I am stunned by it.”
“Crazy Mama” was the closest thing Cale had to a hit, peaking at No.22 on the Billboard chart in 1971.
Clapton, who also recorded Cale’s “Cocaine” in 1976, teamed up with Cale on 2006’s The Road to Escondido. The album won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2008.
The 2006 documentary, To Tulsa and Back: On Tour with J.J. Cale, profiles Cale’s life and music career and is a must for someone looking for more information on him.
Steve Ripley compiled several clips of Cale features and interviews from his 2009 radio show, Oklahoma Rock & Roll:
Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.
Memorial services have not yet been announced.
After the jump, hear more of our favorite songs from Cale, plus tweets and commentary of his passing by other celebrities.