Remembering JJ Cale

JJ Cale would have turned 75 today, but unfortunately he passed away in July of heart failure. In honor of the legendary composer, Joey Spehar interviewed Jesse Novak of the Roots and Rhythm show here at WYEP.

“It’s understated and laconic, and laid back, and he has nothing to prove,” says Jesse of JJ Cale’s style.  “He has nothing to prove. His vocals are almost a whisper at times, but there’s such a coolness to them. I wish I could be as cool as JJ Cale’s music.”

In the early 1960s, Cale moved to Los Angeles to do some studio work. There he worked with Leon Russell, but after only a few years, a discouraged Cale moved back to Tulsa. Fortunately, he got a big break in 1970 when one of his songs was covered by a popular artist. JJ Cale was the author of the song “After Midnight”, made famous by Eric Clapton. “He was talented and had his own sound and was really unique, but it took someone like Eric Clapton to tweak things ever so slightly with a song like “After Midnight” to make it a little more commercially accessible, because as great as J.J. Cale’s music was, I think it lacked accessibility.”

In 1972, Cale released his first album Naturally. “I think with Naturally and the follow up albums, especially Troubadour, theres just such a great blend of music that’s so natural. It’s country and it’s rock and roll, its blues and jazz, and theres not many people that blend things so effortlessly,” says Novak. “He was a special musician.”

Joey comments that Cale wasn’t ever really a household name. Jesse agreed, saying, “He really saw himself as a backup guy. He was a guitar player, and reluctantly started singing and being a frontman. He really got pushed into that realm when Clapton was covering his songs. Then he got signed and he really had to step into that role.” But JJ Cale really stuck to his style and stuck to his guns of what he did best, and that was his mellow delivery.”

JJ Cale recorded a number of albums between 1972 and 1996’s Guitar Man. In '96 he teamed up with Clapton to do an album called Road to Escondido. “Eric Clapton requested JJ Cale to do a record with him, and Cale was originally brought on to be a songwriter and producer and to guide the project, but Eric Clapton really championed JJ Cale as an artist.” Cale didn’t really want to be involved as a performer, and had gone into the project thinking it was a solo Clapton record. “I don’t think he went in kicking and screaming, but it was intended to be a Clapton project.” The album later won a Grammy, which was an honor he hadn’t received before.

“I think JJ Cale’s legacy is just as a fantastic songwriter. He gets passed up probably as a performer, but those songs live on. How many times growing up in Pittsburgh did you hear Eric Clapton doing “Cocaine” on the radio, and “After Midnight”, and Lynard Skinard doing “Call Me the Breeze”. Those songs live on and that’s his legacy.” He was innovative and a fantastic songwriter, and he combined so many things to make his own style. His recorded music wasn’t anything that would catch on in mainstream radio, but the covers of his songs definitely got some airtime. “He claims to have always wanted other people to cover his songs and to just be a songwriter. It wasn’t for him to be in the forefront, he wanted other people to do that. I think he was more than happy to have Clapton do all the hard work and just wrote the songs.”

Listen to the Roots and Rhythm Mix with Jesse Novak each Sunday from 11-2 on WYEP.