In an industry so often full of frenetic activity and false celebration, JJ Cale was a champion of reserve and integrity. His death was announced in a typically unfussy manner with a simple statement posted on JJ Cale.com yesterday. The full statement reads as follows: “JJ Cale passed away at 8:00 pm on Friday July 26 at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, California. The legendary singer / songwriter had suffered a heart attack. There are no immediate plans for services. His history is well documented at JJCale.com, rosebudus.com/cale, and in the documentary, To Tulsa And Back. Donations are not needed but he was a great lover of animals so, if you like, you can remember him with a donation to your favorite local animal shelter.”
Cale – who was born John Weldon Cale in Oklahoma City on December 5, 1938 but called Tulsa his home for many years – discovered the guitar at an early age but, unlike most musicians, did not claim to have experienced an epiphany, claiming that “I sorted drifted into music.”
Initially backing local singers in Tulsa, he began to forge his own sound – a hybrid of slow-burning blues, country licks and rockabilly thrills. Such was his modesty that he later claimed his laid-back and controlled style emerged from his lack of application rather than his diligence, stating: “I found it hard to imitate people and I would get things wrong. In a way my playing came from making those mistakes.”
His early career saw him initially record under the name of Johnny Cale, before signing to Liberty in the mid-‘60s where he assumed his more familiar stage moniker of JJ Cale and released three singles. The final single was Slow Motion which featured a B-side entitled After Midnight. Released in 1966, the single failed to chart.
As a result Cale made the decision to move to L.A. in the ‘60s, ostensibly to become a studio engineer rather than a performer, but he found the work unrewarding and returned to Tulsa. A post-God phase Eric Clapton was introduced to After Midnight by Delaney Bramlett and covered the track in 1970, including it on his self-titled album. This alone changed Cale’s fortunes.
"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," he told MOJO in 2009.
The following year, aged 33, Cale signed to Shelter Records, the label run by Denny Cordell and Leon Russell. The latter would maintain a friendship with Cale that yielded the film below recorded at Russell’s Paradise Studios in 1979.
Naturally, Cale’s debut for Shelter, included Call Me The Breeze (later covered and transformed into a boogie-fied piece of hard rock by Lynyrd Skynyrd as well as After Midnight and the beautifully understated Magnolia.
If Cale’s debut set the tone for a subsequent career that last 41 years, arguably his most enduring song is Cocaine. Written in 1976 and included on his fourth album, Troubadour, the track was again covered by Clapton on his Slowhand album the following year.
Indeed, Clapton and Cale's friendship would see them collaborate on a number of occasions, a high-point being 2006’s The Road To Escondido album which netted the Grammy for Best Blues Album in 2008.
The pair’s final recorded collaboration emerged earlier this year on Clapton’s most recent studio album, Old Sock, which saw Cale contribute to Angel, a track he’d written and which glides along with the man’s trademarked taciturn grace.
Cale’s last album under his own name was 2009's Roll On. Never a man interested in the business of self-promotion, Cale spoke to MOJO at the time. “It doesn’t take much to make me happy,” he admitted. Somehow, now that he’s gone, the wisdom of that comment seems to resonate even more.