JJ Cale: 1938-2013
Influential singer/songwriter and blues-rock guitarist JJ Cale died yesterday after suffering a heart attack. He was 74.
Cale is best known for writing two enduring anthems covered by Eric Clapton, “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.” Born in Oklahoma City, OK, Cale initially struggled to find his feet a recording artist in the 1950s and 1960s. One of his early collaborators was Leon Russell, with whom he moved to LA in the mid ’60s. After his initial releases failed to gain traction, he turned his attention to writing and studio engineering work, but scored a new audience after Clapton covered “After Midnight” in 1970.
Cale released his full-length studio debut, the Nashville-influenced Naturally in 1971, and established his trademark mix of Americana, Cajun, blues, R&B and swamp rock known as the Tulsa Sound. He also briefly worked with Delaney & Bonnie, and entered the Grateful Dead lexicon through Jerry Garcia’s version of “After Midnight.” The Band, The Allman Brothers, Johnny Cash, Santana, Chet Atkins, Freddie King, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Maria Muldaur and Captain Beefheart many others also covered his songs.
“We used to do the jamband kind of thing, but we didn’t call it that, right?,” Cale told Jambands.com in 2004. “We used to extend the songs and get in the groove. I write jazz songs, polka, songs, rock and roll—everything. Sometimes, I’ll even take a song and turn it into a country thing. I just write songs and say, well, ‘I’ll put it in this bag or that bag.’ Jambands can do that toothey can take a heavy metal song and turn it into a jazz song. I originally wrote ‘Cocaine’ in a Mose Allison-style. The producer I was generally working with at the time was named Audie Ashworth. He said, ‘John, I really like that song but no one will hear it if you keep it as a jazz thing. Why don’t you do it as more of a rock thing?’”
In more recent decades, Cale forged a connection with a younger generation of jamband musicians. Most notably, Widespread Panic covered his “After Midnight,” “Ride Me High,” “Woman I Love” and, most notably, “Travelin’ Light,” which appears on Panic’s debut album Space Wrangler. Cale also opened for Panic at Dallas, TX’s Smirnoff Music Center on June 25, 2002 and joined Panic onstage for “Ride Me High.” It was one of guitarist Michael Houser’s final performances.
In addition, Cale supported Phish at Berkeley, CA’s Greek Theatre on August 28, 1993. Mike Gordon sat in with Cale during his opening set and Trey Anastasio made a guest appearance on “After Midnight,” a song Phish have since covered on occasion.
“I didn’t know who they were.” he later admitted to Jambands.com. “They said, ‘Do you want to open for Phish?’ I said, ‘Is that Country Joe and the Fish.’ They said, ‘No, this is a new group—- they are a jamband.’ They felt bad about me not having a full band, so the bass player [Mike] Gordon came out and played bass with us.”
Cale continued recording into the 21st century, often with the help of hisfamous friends. He recorded the collaborative, Grammy-wining album The Road to Escondido with Clapton in 2006 and appeared on Slowhand’s 2013 release Old Sock. Cale’s more recent solo released, 2004’s To Tulsa and Back and 2009’s Roll On were both critically acclaimed.
“Right before George Harrison died, he called me,” Cale said, when asked to describe the biggest compliment he ever received. “I had never talked to him in my life and he called me four or five months before he died. A friend of mine was making him a guitar and put us in touch. We made small talk and discussed Ravi Shankar and such. He said, ‘You know, I really love that first album you made. I have it in my car. But, have you made any albums since then?’ We all sort of laughed. Of course, I’ve made nine albums since then, but he was still locked on my first album.”