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
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
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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