Songwriter J.J. Cale
was a guitarist who preferred to stay in the background and let others make hits of his songs, such as “After Midnight” and “Call Me The Breeze.”
Cale, 74, died on July 26 at a hospital in La Jolla, California. Cause of death was listed as a heart attack.
Cale was born in Oklahoma City and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He grew up in what he described as a vibrant, boom town. Oil had brought money to Tulsa, and workers from all over the world followed it. Their music came along, too.
“Tulsa is kind of in the middle of the United States and rhythm and blues and blues came out of Mississippi and kind of filtered up there and jazz coming out of the north, Kansas City was a big jazz hotbed in the ‘50s and late ‘40s, and Western swing, which is kind of a Country guy’s impression of swing music of, say, Glenn Miller and those kind of guys. So it was kind of a melting pot in there," Cale said. "Then rock & roll hit about 1956 or ’54, I guess. And I decided that was my kind of music.”
Influenced by all those different styles, Cale picked up a guitar and learned to play. After finishing high school, he performed in bands and began working as a recording engineer. Cale was friendly with another Tulsa musician, Leon Russell, and the piano player soon convinced him to pack up his guitar and move to Los Angeles. In California, Cale continued working as a guitar player and made his first recordings, but they weren’t hits and he decided to return to Oklahoma.
In those days, Cale saw himself as a guitarist first and an engineer second. Songwriting wasn’t his career. In fact, he said, it wasn’t even something he put a lot of effort into. It was just something you had to do, if you were going to make an album.
In 1970, times were tough for Cale and he was about to give up music altogether. One night he turned on the radio and heard a song he had written, “After Midnight,” being sung by Eric Clapton. And suddenly, Cale was a hit songwriter.
“When Eric Clapton cut 'After Midnight,' he sold so many records and it was so big at the time, I decided that I would pursue the songwriting thing." Cale said. "I was 34 years old at that time. I’d been down the pike and back before I had any success at all.”
Soon, Cale was in Nashville, cutting “Naturally”, his most successful solo album, and a disc that featured his hit single, “Crazy Mama.”
While he went on to record more than a dozen solo albums and one Grammy-winning duet CD with Eric Clapton, he saw himself as a songwriter first and a performer second.
“What my whole object was is not to really sell records. I was trying to sell songs," Cale said. "And instead of running around Nashville or New York or Los Angeles, knocking on people’s doors and trying to get them to cut my songs, we thought that making records would get the songs out there farther and it really did. So, my records really didn’t sell, but musicians started picking up on my sound and my songs and cutting my songs and that turned into a gold mine.”
Other artists covering Cale’s songs include Dionne Warwick, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Carlos Santana, and The Band.
If you’re interested in hearing Cale sing his own songs, there is a newly-released boxed set containing five early albums. “The Road To Escondido,” his Grammy-winning blues duet album with Eric Clapton is another good choice. It’s a mix of originals and covers, including their take on the classic “Sporting Life Blues.”