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JJ Cale

JJ Cale

J.J. Cale must be the most laid-back, least-known legend ever to pick up a guitar, and that’s just the way he likes it. After releasing To Tulsa And Back his first record in eight years (and without doubt his best since the late 80’s) he broke cover for a very rare chat. “My songs are more famous than I am,” he tells Jonathan Wingate

John Weldon Cale was born in 1938 in Oklahoma City, and raised in Tulsa. Although he didn’t come from a musical family, Cale started by playing a guitar owned by a friend.“When I was about 14, I fooled around with the neighbourhood kid’s guitar until I got me one,” Cale recalls. “But I didn’t start writing songs until 15, 20 years later when I got a job as a sound engineer, so I had access to a studio. That was my main occupation, and I played guitar at night. I always thought writing was kind of a hobby until I heard Eric Clapton cut 'After Midnight', and then I thought, well I guess I’m a songwriter.”

By 1964, Cale left Tulsa and joined up with his friend Leon Russell in Los Angeles, mainly because “you couldn’t really get more than $10 and all the beer you could drink playing nightclubs in Tulsa.” Cale engineered at Russell’s home studio, where he met a man called Snuff Garrett, who signed him to Liberty Records - it was Elmer Valentine, the owner of the Whiskey A-Go-Go, where Cale had a semi-regular gig, who suggested he change his name to J.J. Cale. Two years later, Garrett started his own Viva Records, and at the height of the psychedelia boom, he suggested Cale get together with some of his buddies and cut an album of “psychedelic hits of the day.” Released under the name, Leather Coated Minds in 1966, the Trip Down Sunset Strip album is something Cale would rather forget, although it did spawn 'After Midnight', the song that would change Cale’s career forever.

JJ Cale J.J. Cale is the ultimate man of mystery, yet it’s an image he feels was used to sell his music, despite the fact that it wasn’t until he released his eighth album in 1983 that Cale actually allowed a picture of himself on the front cover. “Look, there’s J.J. on his back porch writing songs,” he says with a wry chuckle. “That’s a kind of marketing tool they used to try to figure out how to advertise me. Because I didn’t do much, didn’t tour much or make many records, and there wasn’t much publicity on me, people started using their imagination. For a long time, we never did any interviews at all. But I’m not reclusive.” When talking about J.J. Cale, the term ‘laid back’ isn’t simply a synonym for slow, it’s a vibe that can fit any tempo. “I guess you might call what I do kinda laid-back,” Cale confirms, somewhat needlessly. “When people are in the mood to have that kinda music, then you can use my music to fill your day. I’m surprised that people like what it is I do. That’s always amazed me, you know.”

Spark up pretty much any J.J. Cale album from the last 35 years, and you can almost smell the thick clouds of dope drifting out of the speakers. His music invariably has an extremely warm, mellow atmosphere, his lazy, hazy, husky vocals and liquid licks almost floating around in the mix. “I don’t know how I do that,” he says. “I don’t want things to sound too direct. Mainly I try to give the impression that there’s always people in a room doing what you’re hearing.
“I’ve never considered myself a singer, but if you write songs, you gotta sing something,” he adds as we’re wrapping things up. “I have about a two-note range. My style is pretty much talk-sing. It’s a phrasing thing, man. And I sing behind the beat. That’s probably my whole deal – I tried to sound like a lot of people that were really good, and I didn’t pull it off. And in doing that, it kinda made me sound unique, I guess.”

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