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.
So sad to hear about JJ Cale. Legend. RIP.
— Slash (@Slash) July 28, 2013
Just landed and read the news about JJ Cale. Sad to hear of his passing. His songs brought me lots of joy. RIP.
— Sheryl Crow (@SherylCrow) July 28, 2013
J.J. Cale was my dad's favorite. He studied his songs and his singing. He was the king, the smartest & the slickest of all. R.I.P. #JJCale
— Shooter Jennings (@ShooterJennings) July 27, 2013
RIP JJ Cale. There's no one like him out there. Magical subtlety and timeless songs. Love,GPN
— Grace Potter (@gracepotter) July 27, 2013
jj cale was so kind to invite me to set in with him once. I couldn't quit grinning. I mean I was setting in with jj cale. today..tears. RIP
— Ray Wylie Hubbard (@raywylie) July 27, 2013
jj cale may not have invented the laid back in the deep groove pocket and high cool, but if he didn't..he earned the rights. r.i.p. maestro
— Ray Wylie Hubbard (@raywylie) July 28, 2013
JJ Cale was one of a kind.
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) July 27, 2013
My show tonight goes out to the one and only JJ Cale. Inspirato.
— stoney larue (@stoneylarue) July 27, 2013
— Joe Don Rooney (@JoeDonRooney) July 27, 2013
RIP JJ Cale. "Naturally," one of the great records, and a staple of fine vinyl collections everywhere…
— recklesskelly (@recklesskelly) July 27, 2013
Rest in peace, JJ Cale. Thank you again and again.
— John Calvin (@yourjohncalvin) July 27, 2013
“J.J. Cale has gone away. The rhythm has suddenly jumped time, the melody is off-key, the tempo has strayed and the groove has been lost. Our hearts are heavy, but we know he is traveling light…It’s the only way to fly.” - Brad Piccolo (Red Dirt Rangers)
“There is something intangible about a great song. Whether its the simple melody, meaningful lyrics, or the heart and soul that the songwriter pours into his work listeners can’t help but feel as if it was written just for them.
JJ Cale was such a songwriter. Working in a laid back way that ran counter to the hard rock and breezy country sounds of classic 70’s FM radio Cale made albums for himself that exemplified simplicity and cool. Meanwhile Clapton (After Midnight and Cocaine) and Skynard (Call Me The Breeze) recorded vastly built up versions of his tunes that dominated the airwaves. These were the big hits, but somehow Cale’s versions stand the test of time better. That’s the thing about a great song: it always works.
When Widespread Panic recorded Travelin’ Light for our first album I was unaware of Cale’s version. JB played me the original recording and I was shocked at how different it was from our reading. Cale’s was light and nimble and ours was bombastic and ponderous. Yet it somehow still worked. That’s another thing about a great song: it can be dressed in any costume and still be effective.
Nearly a decade later we released Light Fuse Get Away and the live version of Travelin’ Light got a decent amount of airplay. Around Christmas a case of whiskey arrived at our office from JJ as a thank you for recording his tune. An unexpected gesture from a real class act.
We should have sent him a case of whiskey for writing one of the tunes that helped put Widespread Panic on the map. Maybe a couple of cases for Ride Me High as well….
So if you are looking for something to listen to this afternoon I suggest one of JJ’s albums like Naturally or Troubador. Listen to the vinyl or dial up a playlist. Just listen to the music of a man who spent 50 years writing songs that will always mean something to everyone.
Have a laid back journey JJ and thank you for the music.” - Dave Schools (Widespread Panic)
JJ Cale is my hero. John Weldon Cale was still making great music well into his 70’s, which makes it even sadder to hear of his passing. To lose a dude as cool as Cale is not only a loss for fans of great music, but a loss for those who rail against egoism and pompousness. The fact that he was still creating incredible albums in his 70’s that rival any of his earlier work adds an extra sting for his many devoted fans. I beg you to check out his 2009 album Roll On.
Just the other day, I was wondering when we might get a new batch of J.J. Cale songs. Sadly, that is no longer possible, but the great news is that we are left with a trove of incredible records to carry on with.
If you are new to J.J. Cale’s music or want to educate yourself further, I’ve added this playlist of some of my favorite J.J. Cale music. This is my personal mix tape that I made for myself a couple years ago: http://spoti.fi/12t6Rq2
Some of the tracks weren’t available, and I skipped some of the obvious big songs for my own enjoyment. If this gets people riled up enough to whine, “Where’s ‘Cocaine’?” then that’s just funny as hell.
I once interviewed Mr. Cale for FILTER Magazine. That was the most nervous I hope I’ll ever be. He was so incredibly cool, smart, and sweet about doing it. Let his answers resonate in your soul here.
Also here’s a couple J.J. covers our band has done. If anybody has us covering “Don’t Go To Strangers” from Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa in 2012, please post it!
I’m forever indebted to Sam Beam for turning me on to J.J.’s songs.
Roll On J.J. Cale,