By Steve Newton
Twenty-five years ago tomorrow–on March 28, 1990–J.J. Cale played the first night of a doubleheader at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom. Here’s the interview I did with the reclusive songwriting great, which ran in the Georgia Straight newspaper the week of the shows.
Eric Clapton has a lot of admirers, most of them appreciative of the fine music the British guitarist has delivered over the years. But J.J. Cale has another reason for feeling indebted to Clapton, and you spell it with a dollar sign. If Clapton is indeed God, then Cale has been collecting a lot more than just pennies from heaven.
Cale’s windfall began in 1970, when Clapton released a version of “After Midnight” on his first solo album. Cale had written the tune five years before and released it into singles obscurity himself, but when Clapton took a shot at it, it became a big hit. On the line from Washington, D.C. last week, Cale explained how he was struggling in the Tulsa, Oklahoma bar scene when his buddy, Rolling Stones’ saxophonist Bobby Keys, called him up in the middle of the night and told him the news.
“I said, ‘Okay, Bobby, you know it’s three in the morning here, please call me in the daytime.’ I didn’t even believe him till some six months later when I heard it on the radio. It was like discovering oil in your own backyard.
“And I didn’t know he had this Michelob commercial, either,” adds Cale, “and they just played the devil out of it. So that’s mainly how I make my living, you know. Songs for other people.”
Clapton also helped Cale make a few royalty bucks when he released J.J.’s “Cocaine” as the main single from his 1977 LP, Slowhand. Southern-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze” on its Second Helping album, and made that tune a rousing staple of its legendary live shows, while Santana recreated the lovely “Sensitive Kind” on its 1981 Zebop! LP. And although he never actually recorded one of Cale’s tunes, Mark Knopfler obviously adapted Cale’s sparse and laid-back style when laying the groundwork for Dire Straits.
The closest Cale has come to success with his own singles came when “Crazy Mama” sneaked into the U.S. top-40 in ’71, but the 51-year-old balladeer has continued to release albums. His debut release on the British-based Silvertone label, Travel-Log, features 14 tunes in the short and sweet style that Cale is noted for. Laconic vocalis, minimalist blues-rock riffs, and melodic understatement abound. Followers of the man might also be surprised by the fact that he actually rocks out on a few tunes, especially “No Time” and “Hold on Baby”.
“Well, you know me,” he says, “I usually play slow, old, laid-back, sleepy numbers. But there’s a few uppers on this one.”
The new album features guest appearances by such luminaries as Hoyt Axton, Clapton drummer Jim Keltner, and former Elvis guitarist James Burton, but for the most part the songs are played by the same lineup that Vancouver fans will see when Cale visits the Commodore for two shows this Wednesday and Thursday (March 28 and 29).
Cale now lives in San Diego, in a house on three acres of hillside–which he bought with that good old Clapton money–but he spent 10 years living in a trailer outside L.A. in his leaner days, and would take his home on the road when it came time to tour. However, his lengthy career got started in his own Oklahoma home.
“Oil was the big business in Tulsa,” he recalls, “and there was quite a bit of nightlife for a small town. You could never make any money, but you could always find a place to play. So there was a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, country ‘n’ western music there. I played a lot of nightclubs in and around Tulsa till I was about 22, 24 years old, then I started travellin’ around. I was a studio engineer out in L.A. for about six or seven years, and I played sideman for different people, and played in bar bands. I was an old man of 32 when I made my first album.”
Naturally, released in ’71 on Leon Russell’s Shelter Records, was a mellow fusion of American musics that–like the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey–embodied the retreat from the excesses and disruptions of the late ’60s.
“The first album was a collection of tunes I’d been working on for about 32 years,” says Cale. “It was a collection that refined everything that had come out of me and weeded out all the bd ideas I’d had over 20 years. But, when it was successful, the record company wanted the next album in six months. When you get successful, the money comes in and pretty soon you’ve got to hire an accountant, you’ve got to get up early, and then you’ve got a day job. Pretty soon, I wasn’t enjoying life–all I was doing was working.”
The winning sound of Travel-Log, Cale’s 10th album, may be the result of the fact that for the last six or seven years he’s been semi-retired as a recording artist.
“In 1984 I was with a different record company [Mercury], and it didn’t seem to be working out too good, so I asked to get out of my contract, and that took a couple of years to shuffle the paper around. Then when I got through doin’ that, I thought I’d take a little break from recording; maybe go in once or twice a year and record somethin’ I’d written. And that’s what these tapes are that they just put out, a gathering of all those things.”
Although there is a travel theme on his new album, with songs like “Shanghailed”, “Tijuana”, and “New Orleans”, Cale says the LP is not really a homage to the thousands of miles he’s racked up on the road.
“It’s kind of ironic. When Andrew Lauder of Silvertone said he’d like to put out some tapes, I just got a bunch together and they put ’em out as an album. It wasn’t till I got to listening to the album that I noticed that I’d written a bunch of tunes in the last four or five years about towns, and places, and travellin’ around.”
Cale’s easy-going attitude to music–and life in general–is one that you can easily feel in the moody grooves of his albums. His is the kind of music best enjoyed on the back porch on a hot summer night, with your feet up and a frosty brew within easy reach. But, since J.J. doesn’t make house-calls, the cozy confines of the Commodore will do quite nicely. After the tour that brings him to our town, J.J. Cale will just mosey on back to San Diego and pick up where he left off.
“I’ll probably cut another record,” he says, “and take it easy. I’ll just do the same thing I’ve been doin’, you know. There’s no hurry.”
And for all you hardcore J.J. Cale fans, here’s the interview I did with him 19 years later, before a sold-out 2009 show at North Van’s Capilano Performing Arts Theatre. “I’m ridin’ on the bus, so talk real loud,” he told me at the time.