J.J. Cale Biography

Jean W. Cale, 5 December 1938, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA. This mercurial artist was raised in Tulsa and first began performing professionally in the 50s as guitarist in a western swing group. With the advent of rock ‘n’ roll he led his own group, Johnnie Cale And The Valentines, before making an unsuccessful foray into country music. In 1964, Cale settled in Los Angeles, joining fellow Tulsa ex-patriots Leon Russell, Carl Radle and Chuck Blackwell. Cale played in bar bands, worked as a studio engineer and recorded several low-key singles before collaborating with songwriter Roger Tillison on a psychedelic album, A Trip Down Sunset Strip. Credited to the Leathercoated Minds, this tongue-in-cheek selection has since become a cult favourite.

An impoverished Cale returned to Tulsa in 1967. He remained an obscure local talent for three years but his fortunes changed dramatically when Eric Clapton recorded ‘After Midnight’, a song Cale had written and released as a single in 1965. ‘It was like discovering oil in your own backyard’, he later commented. Producer Audie Ashworth then invited him to Nashville where he completed the excellent Naturally. The completed tape was then forwarded to Leon Russell, who released it on his fledgling Shelter Records label. The concise, self-confident album, probably Cale’s best, featured a re-recording of ‘After Midnight’, as well as several equally enchanting compositions including ‘Call Me The Breeze’, ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Crazy Mama’, which became a US Top 30 hit. His laconic, almost lachrymose, delivery quickly became a trademark, while the sympathetically light instrumental support from veterans David Briggs (keyboards) and Norbert Putnam (bass), previously members of Area Code 615, enhanced its intimate atmosphere. Naturally created a style from which Cale has rarely strayed and while some critics detected a paucity of ideas, others enthuse over its hypnotic charm. Really confirmed the high quality of the artist’s compositions. Marginally tougher than its predecessor, it included the R&B-flavoured ‘Lies’ and featured contributions from the Muscle Shoals team of Barry Beckett (keyboards), David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums). While Okie and Troubadour lacked its immediacy, the latter contained the singer’s own version of ‘Cocaine’, another song popularized by Clapton, who also recorded ‘I’ll Make Love To You Anytime’ from 5.

Although Cale has remained a somewhat shy and reticent figure, his influence on other musicians has been considerable. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits appropriated much of his delivery from Cale’s self-effacing style, yet while such devotees enjoyed massive commercial success, the originator entered a period of semi-retirement following an ill-fated dalliance with a major label. Despite the inclusion of the popular ‘Money Talks’ and the acquisition of his back-catalogue, Cale’s two albums for Phonogram Records, Grasshopper and #8, failed to sell in the quantities anticipated and he asked to be released from his contract. He re-emerged in 1989 with Travel-Log, which was issued on Silvertone, a British independent label. Devotees were relieved to hear little had changed; the songs were still largely based on 12-bar structures, his guitar style retained its rhythmic, yet relaxed pulse, while Cale’s warm, growling voice was as distinctive as ever.

Cale is an artist who would lose fans if he dared to change and even though the wait between each album can be agonizing, he rarely fails. His recordings for Virgin Records in the 90s, Closer To You and Guitar Man, were both (fortunately) more of the same and, as usual, high class musicians gave him faultless support. On the former release, Little Feat keyboard player Bill Payne, and bass players Tim Drummond and Larry Taylor were featured among the array of names.

Cale’s first album of the twenty-first century, To Tulsa And Back, made a few concessions to modern recording technology, but the focus as ever remained on the artist’s mesmerising guitar and vocal work. His album with Eric Clapton in 2006 demonstrated how similar the artists can be when performing slow folk blues. For newcomers to Cale’s work, the 1997 Mercury Records compilation Anyway The Wind Blows is an excellent primer.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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