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J.J. Cale

One of the most respected and revered artists to come out of Oklahoma City, J.J. CALE (born John Weldon Cale, December 5, 1938) was slow burning when it came to exacting his “Tulsa Sound” – slow being a rather understated term, as his almost-horizontal, laid-back style emphasized. Writing a couple of songs more associated with his buddy, ERIC CLAPTON (`Cocaine’ and `After Midnight’), cajun-rock and swamp-blues were high on CALE’s agenda as the 70s marked him out as a quality artist to rival the likes of RY COODER.
After a childhood spent immersing himself in the blues and C&W, the guitarist’s initial foray into the music business was as leader of rock’n’roll combos, Johnnie Cale & The Valentines and The Johnny Cale Quintet; three 45s (`Shock Hop’, `Purple Onion’ and `Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby’) garnered little interest when released around the turn of the 60s.
Finding work as a country player in Nashville, CALE duly followed the bright lights to L.A. with Tulsa musical compadres Russell Bridges (aka LEON RUSSELL), Carl Radle (later of DEREK & THE DOMINOS) and Jimmy Karstein, where he worked as an engineer for Liberty Records. Around this time, in the mid-60s, J.J. – named so by Whisky A Go Go co-owner Elmer Valentine, to differentiate him from The VELVET UNDERGROUND’s John Cale – was also performing solo in L.A. clubs, releasing a handful of singles for the said label. However, `Dick Tracy’ and `Outside Looking In’, were overshadowed by prospect of his first version of `After Midnight’.
CALE’s most sought after artefact from this period, however, was his pseudo-psychedelic project, `A Trip Down The Sunset Strip’ (1967), a Snuff Garrett-produced LP recorded under the moniker of The LEATHERCOATED MINDS. Basically J.J. and several session players, only four self-penned instrumentals were featured among the many kaleidoscopic, mind-bending cover versions.
Through the re-vamped `After Midnight’ in 1970, by the aforementioned CLAPTON (via DELANEY & BONNIE), the song’s bluesy groove was pivotal in getting CALE’s career off the ground. The man started to write full-time, and was now eking out a living and earning a crust back in Tulsa after another ill-fated period in Nashville.
The result was NATURALLY (1971) {*8}, a back-porch blend of country, blues, rockabilly and R&B, which would serve the singer well over more than 30 years as a recording artist. Released on LEON RUSSELL’s Shelter Records, the set included a re-recorded `After Midnight’ (of course) as well as such J.J. CALE staples as `Call Me The Breeze’ (extended and made famous by LYNYRD SKYNYRD), `Magnolia’ (later covered by POCO and JOSE FELICIANO) and the languorous `Crazy Mama’ (CALE’s only Top 30 hit ever). The record also introduced J.J.’s trademark vocal style, a tersely minimalist, often barely audible drawl which complemented the unadorned music perfectly; interestingly, his insistence that his voice be mixed down was drawn from his conviction that this would pull the listener in. Maybe there was something in this, as most of his albums pulsate with a subtly hypnotic power that was hard to resist.
A follow-up set, REALLY (1972) {*7}, was more upbeat, recorded as it was in various studios including Muscle Shoals, where CALE cut the moody, horn-embellished R&B of `Lies’; the bubbly `Right Down Here’ and `If You’re Ever In Oklahoma’, were also essential to the man’s boogie-ing blues aplomb – pity then it only lasted just over a half-hour.
OKIE (1974) {*7}, was a more organic affair, with several of the tracks cut at CALE’s house. Notable for having a string of tracks plucked by other artists, LYNYRD SKYNYRD, CAPTAIN BEEFHEART, ERIC CLAPTON, FREDDIE KING, BOBBY BLAND and BRYAN FERRY were respectively grateful for `I Got The Same Old Blues’, while one might recognise `Cajun Moon’, `I’d Like To Love You Baby’ and `Any Way The Wind Blows’ as songs covered by HERBIE MANN, BILL WYMAN’S RHYTHM KINGS and TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS.
The singer subsequently moved to Nashville where he and Audie Ashworth set up a studio in the producer’s house, recording most of the material which would make up the excellent TROUBADOUR (1976) {*8}. This became JJ’s first album to chart in the UK (Top 60), while the brassy swing of `Hey Baby’ enjoyed a brief tenure in the US Hot 100. The set also included the brooding road fever of `Travelin’ Light’ (arguably one of the man’s finest moments, positively frenetic against the bulk of his work!) and his most famous track, `Cocaine’, covered, of course, to much excess by CLAPTON.
Yet again, CALE could’ve taken the bit between his teeth and made a shot at the big time on the back of the single’s success; instead, he chose to spend the proceeds on building a studio in his Nashville home. 5 (1979) {*5} became J.J.’s highest charting album to date, cracking the UK Top 40, though you could hardly call this reticent studio-phile a pop star. Shunning most publicity at any opportunity, it’s just as well that it often took an interpretation by another artist for CALE’s songs to gain radio airplay; 1981’s M.C.A.-financed set, SHADES {*5}, meanwhile, reflected a simpler and organic flavour, with only really the opener `Carry On’ producing the vibe.
Nevertheless, he signed a major label deal with Mercury Records, releasing GRASSHOPPER (1982) {*5} and #8 (1983) {*4}, to an impassive home nation, though they both sold fairly well in Britain. CALE was apparently unhappy and asked to be released from his contract. Characterized by his cool, laid-back guitar style and husky vox, J.J. had breathed down the neck of “Slowhand” CLAPTON on this previous trio of lazy blues-rock sets; MARK KNOPFLER and RICHARD THOMPSON guested on the latter album. CALE then retired from the music business for the rest of the 80s, although one LP did surface, the OST to French film, LA FEMME DE MON POTE (1984) {*5}, basically a low-key-compilation.
CALE eventually returned towards the end of the decade with TRAVEL-LOG (1989) {*7}, courtesy of a new deal with Silvertone (a Zomba Music Group imprint who’d also taken on The STONE ROSES and JOHN LEE HOOKER). With the likes of James Burton, Jim Keltner, Spooner Oldham, Tim Drummond, Christine Lakeland and the legendary HOYT AXTON on board, Americana was reborn from `Shanghaid’ to the `River Boat Song’.
Moving on from another “Travel-Log”-styled set, NUMBER 10 (1992) {*5}, the mid-90s saw J.J. again throw in his lot with a major label, this time with Virgin Records, who released CLOSER TO YOU (1994) {*4} and GUITAR MAN (1996) {*5}. Phonogram Records, meanwhile, issued a long overdue overview of CALE’s career in 1997; entitled ANYWAY THE WIND BLOWS: THE ANTHOLOGY {*8}; the record is worth picking up for the previously unissued tracks alone, especially the neon-lit desert psych-out (no, seriously!) of `Durango’.
Featuring tracks from as far back as 1990 but virtually stemming from 1996, LIVE (2001) {*5}, kept JJ’s name in the limelight. Easing into pension age for his next bag of tricks, TO TULSA AND BACK (2004) {*6} was an obvious title for the rootsy rock talent of JJ; `These Blues’ found its way on to an episode of TV’s Dog The Bounty Hunter.
Given top billing alongside his Brit-born buddy ERIC CLAPTON, the collaborative THE ROAD TO ESCONDIDO {*7}, was CALE’s set in all but name; eleven of the fourteen tracks penned by the man himself, BROWNIE McGHEE’s `Sporting Life Blues’ the only sourced piece. Augmented by BILLY PRESTON (his final outing before his death), drummer Steve Jordan, bassist Pino Palladino and guitarists JOHN MAYER, ALBERT LEE and Butch TRucks, the Simon Climie-produced set was amiable and relaxing as they saddled up for a version of `Anyway The Wind Blows’, plus `When The War Is Over’ and `Heads In Georgia’.
2009’s solo ROLL ON {*7} saw some further workings with CLAPTON (on `Who Knew’, `Former Me’ and the title track), while the guitarist’s guitarist blew back the years on others such `Cherry Street’, `Where The Sun Don’t Shine’ and the boogie-fuelled `Strange Days’. Sadly, this was to be JJ’s musical swansong, as the man went to meet his maker on July 26, 2013, after suffering a heart attack in his La Jolla, California abode.
Fast-forward half a dozen years, J.J.’s widow Christine Lakeland and manager Mike Kappus were ready to unveil unreleased work from the vaults; an easy job to curate as most of CALE’s material was already mixed and mastered. The posthumous album in question, STAY AROUND (2019) {*7}, was deservedly considered as a bona fide new release; its timeless structure and assortment of session staples (i.e. Jim Keltner, David Briggs, Spooner Oldham et al), rested well with devotees of the cooler-than-cool artist who’d influenced CLAPTON and KNOPFLER. Of the 15 cuts, from the smoky `Lights Down Low’ to the seductive `Don’t Call Me Joe’, the intimate title track was indeed the classic missing link.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/BG-MCS // rev-up MCS Jul2013-Jun2019

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  1. Tony Grenfell

    Remarkable musician of certain genres blues rock etc its amazing how his titles of his songs truly catch the essence in the present moment the guy was a legend sadly missed plus great content read resources

    1. Martin Strong

      Eric Clapton certainly vouched for JJ, an artist who grows on me every time I get a chance to play his sets.

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