In the early 1970s, I was living in Tulsa and hanging out with a neighbor who played in a band. One day I was at his house and another musician came by with a newly recorded and unreleased song by J.J. Cale. We sat around and listened to the song, Cajun Moon, and I remember thinking how lucky I was to get to be one of the first people to hear it.
In the mid-80s, I was living in Kansas and I went to hear J.J. Cale play at the Cotillion in Wichita. It was nothing special, a barn-sized venue and there were probably less than a hundred people there. The band started playing and after a while, a skinny guy came out, stood in the shadows and started playing his guitar. No intro, no fanfare, no spotlight. That was J.J. Cale, low key, low profile, never seeking the limelight.
Maybe that’s one reason why he never became a big name rocker, though he was a legend in the music world. (His biggest hit, Crazy Mama, peaked at 22 on the charts in 1972.)
Neil Young considered him, along with Hendrix, one of the two greatest guitarists of all time.
But he’s probably more famous as a songwriter, creating hits like Eric Clapton’s After Midnight and Cocaine and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Call Me The Breeze.
It was not until late in life that he won the grammy for his collaborative album with Clapton, Road to Escondido.
J.J. Cale died at 74 largely unheralded Friday in La Jolla, California, following a heart attack. When I heard of his death, I couldn’t help but think of some prophetic lines from his song Last Will and Testament from the recent album:
“You know I’m going over 60,
I’m older than most,
It won’t be long now I’ll be nothing but a ghost.”
I’ve always felt a special connection to J.J. Cale because we’re both from Tulsa. J.J. Cale was born in Oklahoma City but grew up in Tulsa and graduated from high school there in 1956. He came of age just as the rock era was beginning
In the early 1960s, he moved to California and became a sound engineer. Discouraged by his inability to break into the music business, he almost gave up music, but hung on after Clapton recorded a cover of After Midnight in 1970.
Returning to this hometown, he would be an important element in creating what came to be called the Tulsa sound, a sort of rockabilly shuffle infused with bluesy guitar licks. By then Tulsa’s own Leon Russell had also returned to Oklahoma from California and the two got together and formed a close musical partnership.
It was Leon who first signed J.J. Cale to Shelter Records, despite the fact that co-owner of the label Denny Cordell was less than enthused about Cale’s music. And so J.J. Cale began recording his music at the Shelter Records studio in Tulsa.
His first album Naturally was an underground, if not a commercial, hit. It’s hard to understand why a beautifully melodic song like Magnolia did not become a top hit, while a song like America’s Ventura Highway, which uses an almost identical chord structure, is widely known. Maybe it’s because J.J. Cale was more artist than showman. It’s sometimes hard to understand why the American entertainment industry rewards the artists it does and fails to recognize the ascendant talent of others like J.J. Cale.
For the next four decades he cranked out music in relative obscurity, performing with many famous musicians but never becoming a big star himself.
But his music speaks for itself. and you only have to listen to it to know that the world is lessened by the loss of J.J. Cale.