For most, John Weldon ‘JJ’ Cale will be best remembered as the writer of ‘After Midnight’ and ‘Cocaine’, tunes popularised in the 1970s by Eric Clapton, and ‘Call Me The Breeze’, a number which became a Lynyrd Skynyrd staple. Yet, as ingrained as these songs are in the minds of classic rock fans, it always seemed that comparatively few are as familiar with Cale’s original recordings as they are these much-heard cover tunes.
Cale’s own recordings are rarely heard on UK radio stations – if indeed ever – and yet over a career spanning almost six decades, he clocked up a string of hit albums to his credit. It appeared that those who got Cale, really got Cale…and looking at his full length releases (the ones from the 1970s, especially), they barely contain any bad material. His naturalistic, sometimes stripped down approach to making music carried over to his approach to making albums. These records, though short on playing time by more modern standards, are free from filler almost every time. Just take 1974’s ‘Okie’ or 1979’s ‘5’ for a spin – these lean, accessible yet moody records seem over far too quickly, but they could never be accused of having any signs of musical weakness. Even in the 80s, when so many 70s artists faltered, Cale carried on as normal – and although less prolific, his work appeared stately and strong in his typically understated way. Even his lone disc of off-cuts and leftovers (2007’s ‘Rewind’) puts some artists first choice material to shame…
Few artists have recorded such a significant body of work – such a consistently good body of work, even – but been so overlooked by comparison. Sure, Cale received a Grammy nomination for his 2006 release ‘The Road To Escondido’, but we have to ask, would the industry had been so willing to dish out such a nomination had this record not been a full collaboration with Clapton? Perhaps not.
Cale’s influence can be heard in so many southern recordings – with The Allman Brothers Band and Skynyrd being the most obvious – but even Tom Petty showed himself to be an admirer on occasion. Petty’s 1985 recording ‘Spike’ is nothing if not a huge homage to Cale and his late 90s release ‘Wildflowers’ has a rootsy back porch brilliance that would have surely suited JJ, had he ever decided to cover any of its songs. Cale’s easy blues shuffles can even be heard in more unlikely places – just listen to Chas ‘n’ Dave’s 1978 cockney knees-up hit ‘Gercha’ back to back with Cale’s earlier ‘Everlovin’ Woman’ and try and deny the similarities.
While it’s forever more likely we’ll hear Clapton bellowing a Cale song somewhere as opposed to Cale himself, or we see his name in some song writing credits and old, worn vinyl pressings of ‘Naturally’ and ‘Grasshopper’ seem ever-present in the vinyl boxes at second hand stores, JJ Cale’s lasting contribution to roots and blues music just keeps giving… There’s a lot to be said about making music that always sounded old.
JJ CALE (1938-2013)