Cale, J. J.
J. J. Cale
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Although J.J. Cale has a staunch, almost cultish following, his most enduring legacy is a sound few know he pioneered, and a group of classic rock songs few know he wrote. Cale originated the bluesy, minor-key “Tulsa sound” imitated by the likes of Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler and wrote the Clapton hits “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.” He has had his music recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Larry Carlton, Chet Atkins, Freddie King, and numerous others. However, Cale also has a respectable 11 solo albums to his own name, which have sold steadily through the various musical trends between 1972 and 1995.
Cale began his career with the assumption that music would never pay the bills. He played country, Western swing, and rock and roll in bars throughout the 1950s purely for the love of it. Supplementing his income with odd jobs like that of cook, elevator boy, and flower deliverer, Cale performed nights with his band Johnnie Cale and the Valentines. A self-taught guitarist, Cale continued to learn from recordings and other musicians. He mastered blues and jazz guitar on his own and then went to Nashville in 1959 with the hope of becoming a country singer. He toured with the Grand Ole Opry road company, but couldn’t make it as a frontman.
In 1964 Cale followed two musician friends, pianist Leon Russell and bassist Carl Radie, to Los Angeles. Cale had played with the two in Tulsa and resumed the relationship in L.A. clubs. When Russell opened his Skye Hill studio, Cale got on-the-job experience as a studio engineer, developing skills he would use throughout his career. At the time, Cale also played with Delaney and Bonnie and produced and engineered albums for various groups. In 1968 he cut an album with some friends, calling themselves the Leathercoated Minds. Titled A Trip Down the Sunset Strip, the album featured several psychedelic pop songs, including “Eight Miles High,” Mr. Tambourine Man, and “Sunshine Superman,” with the addition of a few instrumental pieces. The same year, Cale returned to Tulsa to write songs and cut demos.
Financial success for Cale waited until 1970 when Eric Clapton recorded “After Midnight, “a song Cale had penned. It reached the Top 20 and assured Cale of recognition in the music industry. Soon after, he began working on his debut album. Shelter Records released Naturally in 1971, and the album has become a rock classic. The track “Crazy Mama” rose to Number 22 on the charts, and the album’s commercial success settled Cale into a steady recording career.
With the money from Naturally, Cale moved to Nashville and built a 16-track studio he called Crazy Mama’s. Over the next decade Cale wrote and recorded six more
Born c. 1938 in Tulsa, OK.
In the late 1950s and 1960s pioneered, with Leon Russell, the “Tulsa sound,” a laid-back country-blues mix; achieved recognition in 1970 when Eric Clapton recorded his song “After Midnight”; in 1972 released his debut album Naturally; wrote and recorded prolifically throughout the 1970s and early 1980s; had further success with songs recorded by other artists, including “Cocaine” and “I’ll Make Love to You Anytime” (both recorded by Clapton) and “Call Me the Breeze” and “Bringing It Back” (both recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd); slowed his recording and touring pace considerably in the late 1980s and early 1990s, releasing an album every few years and performing only a few weeks a year.
Addresses: Home —San Diego, CA. Record company —Virgin Records, 338 North Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
albums for Shelter Records, most of which he produced himself in his studio. These albums followed in the footsteps of Naturally, which had a subtle, bluesy style. Most Cale songs were written in a minor key and used only two or three chord changes; occasionally Cale tossed in a faster, country-influenced piece. This style became Cale’s signature, a fact he, perhaps not too seriously, has railed against. “I’d like to change,” Cale told Dan Forte in an interview for Musician in 1981, “but you know what? You can’t. Once you become, let’s say, famous, you become stylized. You have to have a trademark, a bag, right? Up to that time you can imitate, you can be whoever you want to be. But once you’re famous, it’s really strange—you can’t get out of your own bag.”
Cale attributes that “bag” to his efforts to find a niche in the 1970s. When Cale started making songwriting and album deals in the 1970s, hard rock was the latest style. Rather than jump on the bandwagon, Cale took the opposite approach. “Rock ’n’ roll in the late ’60s and 70s, everybody was really standing on it,” Cale explained to Musician in 1990. “But there was a hole in there, and I was trying to figure out how to make recordings and not get into anyone else’s bag, so I kind of underplayed, and there wasn’t anybody really underplaying at that time.”
The strategy seemed to work. Cale’s albums, such as the 1974 release Okie and 1981’s Shades, found a moderate-sized audience, and his songwriting talents were being used by a number of artists. Although Cale’s albums sold enough to ensure future contracts, they never broke into the upper strata of the charts. Cale attributed this lukewarm popularity to the rough condition of his recordings, which for the most part he produced and engineered himself. Because he saw his albums primarily as demos for his songwriting, he felt they did not need the slickness required to make them popular on the radio.
Cale worked prolifically for a decade, recording eight albums between 1972 and 1983. However, once Cale had achieved moderate fame and fortune, he backed away from what he considered a too-hectic career. In 1983 Cale got out of his contract with Mercury Records and into what he called “semi-retirement.” With steady money coming in from his songs “Call Me the Breeze, “After Midnight,” and “Cocaine,” Cale stopped recording for several years.
Cale returned in 1990 with Travel-Log, which he described to Musician in 1990 as “basically the same old music, it’s just that I’m a little fresher now because I’ve had a rest.” Travel-Log, released by Silvertone/BMG, was well received, and Cale followed it at a relatively slow pace with Number 10 in 1992. Two years later, Cale finished his 11th album, Closer to You, which had the familiar “Tulsa sound” and rough finish of his previous albums. However, Virgin had hopes that Closer to You would benefit from the trend toward rougher, lo-fi recordings and would reach a wider audience than Cale’s recordings usually did.
Cale himself seemed unconcerned about his album’s fate with the public. “I justtry to get my music out to other musicians who need new material, rather than to the public, like the record company wants me to,” Cale told Jim Bessman for Billboard In 1994. “I never polish my albums—when somebody records my songs, they’re generally more accessible to the public than my records are.” And because he never expected to make a living with music, Cale has said he is happy with how his career has gone. “I’m still in business, even if I never got up in the big time,” he explained to Bessman. “But that’s a kind of blessing. I thought I’d be selling shoes by now.” Having spent several decades doing what he loves most, J.J. Cale has been content to influence rock rather than capture the spotlight himself.
(As the Leathercoated Minds) A Trip Down the Sunset Strip, Viva, 1968.
Naturally, Shelter, 1972.
Really, Shelter, 1973.
Okie, Shelter, 1974.
Troubadour, Mercury, 1976.
5, Shelter, 1980.
Shades, Shelter, 1981.
Grasshopper, Mercury, 1982.
#8, Mercury, 1983.
Special Edition, Mercury, 1984.
Travel-Log, Silvertone/BMG, 1990.
Number 10, Silvertone/BMG, 1992.
Closer to You, Virgin, 1994.
Billboard, July 16, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, August 26, 1994.
Guitar Player, March 1990; June 1990.
Musician, July 1981; November 1990; November 1994.
Rolling Stone, August 20, 1981; June 20, 1982; February 22, 1990.
Spin, December 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Virgin Records publicity materials, 1994.
—Susan Windisch Brown
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