Coincidence or not, the phrase "laid back" crept into common use right around the time of J.J. Cale's first album. Nearly everyone but Cale missed the point. "Laid back" wasn't a synonym for "slow"; it was a frame of mind that applied to any tempo. A fast song could be "laid back" as easily as a slow one. It all hinged on the approach. Cale arrived at a time when entire sides of LP's were consumed with suites, and the suites had paragraph-length titles. In the midst of this, Cale took his cue from old pop records, which said what they had to say in three minutes. His concession to the new world order was to stretch the occasional song to four minutes. It wasn't that he couldn't play all those notes or write a 20-minute suite; he just couldn't see the point. In a world given to excess, Cale made a virtue of economy. Even his LP titles had expressed much in a few words. Naturally, Really, Okie.
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Cale seems proud that he has prevented himself from becoming tremendously famous. "I stopped a lot of people who wanted to shove me into the real big time, " he said recently. "Your ego wants to say, 'Hey, I'm somebody, man,' but I knew there were many days when I just wanted to be John Cale." Someone he knew from school painted him as a sly raccoon on his first album jacket. He slips out at night and makes a record. You catch him sometimes in your headlights, then he's gone. Back to the lake. Back to the desert. Back to the trailer park.
J.J. Cale has given few interviews over twenty-five years. Someone likened a Cale interview to the appearance of Halley's Comet. Only technical questions about guitars and studio hardware elicit detailed replies. The core of the man is known only to himself. Cale's songs are often wry, ironic little observations, but they aren't deeply revealing. Cale has--by his own choice--become the Howard Hughes of rock 'n' roll. If it's a pose, it's one that has fooled everyone who has worked with him over twenty-five years. If Cale could write his songs, make his records, and never show his face, he probably would.
Cale was born in Oklahoma City. He was raised and went to school in Tulsa. "It was a good nightclub town," he said later. "Lots of bars. They don't pay you very much, but you have such a good time you forget you're poor." His earliest musical influences were rockabilly records from Memphis, and single string blues players like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Billy Butler. He tried to figure out how to play like them, and like Chet Atkins, Les Paul, and Chuck Berry; "In trying to imitate them," Cale says, "I missed it, and came up with my own kinda thing."
Others floating around the Tulsa rock 'n' roll scene at that time included David Gates, later the founder of Bread; Russell Bridges, who reinvented himself as Leon Russell; and Carl Radle and Jimmy Karstein, who later joined Cale's band. Everyone ended up in Los Angeles. Russell went first and came back with the news that you could actually make a living playing music there. Cale went in 1964. "When I got to Los Angeles," he said, "I decided no matter how bad the pay [as a musician], it was better than that straight jive. I don't like to get out of bed too early." Cale engineered at Leon Russell's home studio on Sky Hill Drive, and it was there that he met Snuff Garrett, who had been head of A&R at Liberty Records. Garrett had discovered Bobby Vee and was an independent producer working with Gary Lewis, Brian Hyland, and several others. He placed Cale with Liberty in 1965, and set him up as the recording engineer at his Amigo Studio. Around the same time, Cale was a quasi-regular performer at the Whiskey A-Go-Go, working when Johnny Rivers wasn't. The owner of the Whiskey, Elmer Valentine, suggested the name change to "J.J." Cale.
In 1966, Garrett started Viva Records. There's a cult market (mostly in Europe) for Cale's Viva album, Take a Trip Down Sunset Strip by the Leather-Coated Minds. It's an album that gives a real sense of Cale's feeling for the experimental edge of music and technology. "After Midnight" emerged from this project. According to Cale, it was originally an instrumental track for Take a Trip Down Sunset Strip, but it was jettisoned and then recycled into a "B" side for Liberty later in 1966. Cale was playing in Atlanta when he heard someone in the crowd shout, "Let it all hang out." The lyrics fell into place from there.
It was probably 1968 when Cale first went to Nashville. He had been working in New York and Los Angeles for Garrett, producing Brian Hyland, Blue Cheer, and other acts. Audie Ashworth and Garrett were putting a production company together financed by Hubert Long, who owned a booking agency and Moss-Rose music publishers. Audie worked for Moss-Rose as a song scout, plugger, and producer. He persuaded Long to install a studio, using an old console from Bradley's Barn. Snuffy told Ashworth he was sending someone down to help him. "I know this guy," he said, "J.J. Cale. He can work in the studio with the players." Cale drove into Nashville in the '65 Mustang that Garrett had given him, and took an office in Hubert Long's building.
"Cale had a different sound," says Audie. "A different approach to the guitar and songwriting. We tried to produce some records for Dot Records, but nothing worked. Next thing I know, Cale said, 'Snuffy's unhappy. He wants his car back, so I guess I'll go back to Oklahoma.' He split, went back to Tulsa and started working his club gigs again."
There are several accounts of how Clapton came to cut "After Midnight." Clapton was working with Cale's buddy Carl Radle in Delaney & Bonnie's band, and in one version of the story Clapton heard Cale's song on a tape that Radle had made. Garrett, though, says that Jerry Ivan Allison, once Buddy Holly's drummer, had heard Cale's Liberty record. Allison was hanging out with Clapton and offered to get the song, now three years old, to Clapton on Garrett's behalf. Cale has an idea of how "After Midnight" got to Clapton; he said that his own mom might have sent it to Clapton for all he knows. According to Clapton, "Delaney said someone should cover it. He said if I didn't, he would. Delaney actually did a version with the same track with his voice instead of mine. We argued about it, and he gave in."
Bobby Keys, who had worked with Cale in Los Angeles and was working with Delaney & Bonnie at the time, phoned Cale to tell him that Clapton had recorded it, but Cale had heard what he called "that kind of jive" before. He didn't pay much attention until "After Midnight" came on his car radio in Tulsa. He had never heard one of his songs on the radio before. "After Midnight" became a Top 20 hit in the Fall of 1970.
"I phoned Cale," says Audie Ashworth, "and I said, 'It might be time for you to make your move. Do an album.' I said, 'Get your songs together.' He said, 'I'll do a single.' I said, 'It's an album market.' He said, 'I don't have that many songs,' so I said, 'Write some.' Three or four months later he called me. He said, 'I got the songs.' He drove in. He was driving a Volkswagen this time. He came in with his dog, Foley. He played me all those songs." Ashworth heard a very different J.J. Cale that time. Cale had been working on a quiet mix of country, blues, and rockabilly. It was time to be true to himself.
"He and I went in the Moss-Rose studio and we cut 'Call Me the Breeze,' 'Crying Eyes,' 'River Runs Deep' and 'Crazy Mama,'" recalls Ashworth. "He played everything and we used a drum machine. We needed to add some stuff to 'Crazy Mama,' so I called Jerry Bradley, Owen's son, and said I needed the multitrack. He let me in there at a demo rate. I promised him full rate if we sold it. We worked at night. I pulled a group of players together, Karl Himmel on drums, Tim Drummond on bass, and Bob Wilson on piano. Eric was in Nashville for the Johnny Cash TV Show and Carl Radle was with him. I called Carl and said, 'Bring Clapton out to the Barn, we're doing an album with J.J..' Clapton didn't make it, but Carl did. He came and played bass on a few tracks including 'Crazy Mama.'" Ashworth said, "'This track Mama needs something. How about a slide guitar?' I called Mac Gayden, and he came out and set up as he ran it down with the tape. J.J. said, 'Record it, that's it! Let's go home.' Mac said, 'I can do it better.' Cale said, 'You can't do it better.'"
Ashworth ended up with twelve songs. Out in Los Angeles Denny Cordell had launched Shelter Records in January 1970 as a partnership with Leon Russell. Originally from Ireland, Cordell had started out in England producing The Moody Blues and selling Beatles merchandise. Then he started Regal Zonophone Records to record The Move and Procul Harum. He came to the United States with Joe Cocker's revue, eventually selling out his share of Regal Zonophone to start Shelter Records. Shelter was headquartered in Hollywood.
"Carl Radle got us the deal with Shelter," says Audie. "He called Leon. He said, 'This album that Cale and Audie are working on is pretty good. I think you ought to listen to it.' Leon said, 'Send me a tape.' We ran off a reel-to-reel and sent it with Carl. I always thought that Leon got us the deal, but I heard later that he didn't care for the tape, but it got on Denny Cordell's desk, and Denny loved it."
The first Shelter single, "Magnolia" backed with "Crazy Mama," was released on July 5, 1971. It didn't make many waves, except in Little Rock at KAAY, a 50,000 watt station, where dee-jay, Wayne Moss, kept spinning the "B" side. Wayne kept calling Ashworth saying, "You guys are on the wrong side of the record." Ashworth finally got the message to Cordell, and just before Christmas Shelter reissued "Crazy Mama" as an "A" side backed with "Don't Go to Strangers". The new coupling got into the charts, peaking at No. 22 - - Cale's all-time highest placing. The first album, Naturally, was released soon after. Rolling Stone came to call, and Cale monosyllabled his way through his first major write-up. Cordell got him on a Traffic tour. On his day off, Cale would fly back to Tulsa to get his bearings. Already, the mantle of stardom was sitting uneasily on him. Ashworth remembers him saying, "Send me the money and let the younger guys have the fame." Naturally created enough of a stir to present Cale with the option of going for it, but he made a conscious decision not to.
Work began on the second album Really in April 1972. "We started it at Quadraphonic in Nashville," says Audie, "and we did some work in Muscle Shoals, and we put some horns on at the Barn. Cale liked to visit different studios and pull players from different locations." There was more commercial gloss to Really, but it was still clear that Cale had a very unique notion of how to make a record. He reversed the Nashville equation in which everything was factored around the vocal. In a Cale mix, the soloing instruments and the voice just barely rise out of the bed track, and they never stand apart from it. The overall sound is surprising for so few instruments and so few notes. According to Audie, "Cale always wanted the voice mixed down. We'd be sitting at the board and both of us were trying to get our hands on the faders. He was always pulling back the fader on the vocal. He'd mix his voice back in the bed. He said it made you want to lean into the music instead of leaning back from it. It would pull people in. He had definite ideas about mixes."
The advantage of being with Shelter was the relative lack of corporate pressure to meet album commitments. The albums came when they were ready. Cale mostly wrote alone. "When the first album was a success, we needed some more songs," says Ashworth, "and Cale said, 'I had thirty years to get that first group of song ideas together.' There was a steady stream of tapes from people wanting to get a song on a J.J. Cale album, but he usually rejected them. He'd say, 'You know, I only have a three-note range. I can't do that song. It gets too high in the bridge. Let's keep it simple so people can understand it.' He'd say, 'I need to find a little niche that's just me.' Ashworth describes Cale as "very conscious of trying to be original and serious about trying to make records that stand the test of time. He has a no nonsense approach to the studio. He brings the songs and a bag full of ideas for arrangements. He usually runs the song down with guitar calling the changes as he goes, but he's open to ideas."
The third album, Okie, was much more a backporch record than Really. The title track had literally been recorded on Cale's porch, and several others had been recorded inside the house. "Cajun Moon" was pulled as the first single. Nashville session ace Reggie Young, a veteran of the Bill Black Combo, took the solo. Another track from this album, "Anyway the Wind Blows" is an object lesson in just how little you really need. It's one chord, a fifty-dollar Harmony guitar (albeit one customized with hundreds of dollars worth of hardware), and the simplest of all blues riffs. Cale paid a drummer for the session, but it's a drum machine on the track.
After Cale moved to Nashville in 1975, he and Ashworth set up their own studio, Crazy Mama's, in Ashworth's house. "John said we'd rented enough studios and paid enough rentals that we could own our own equipment," says Ashworth. "I'll bring the mixing console, you bring your 16-track Ampex. He picked out a bedroom, and he'd stay here occasionally. He was very insistent on not making the studio too fancy. He moved another console out to his house on the lake, and recorded out there by himself."
Cale bought a house near Andrew Jackson's old home in Hermitage, Tennessee. It was far enough out that people wouldn't be dropping in on him, he said. The purchase was probably made easier by the fact that Lynyrd Skynyrd put "Call Me the Breeze" on their mega-platinum Second Helping. There was plenty of work to be had in Nashville, but Cale rarely did other people's sessions. He played on an album by French singer, Eddy Mitchell and he worked on Neil Young's Comes A Time and Art Garfunkel's Angel Clare. He produced Chicago bluesman Jimmy Rogers for Shelter, but otherwise, as Ashworth says, "Cale was busy being unbusy." He bought an Airstream trailer, and he'd park it in a KOA trailer park near Opryland and live there from time to time. He hated the Nashville winters, so he'd hook up the truck and trailer then take off for Florida or California.
There were two years between Okie and Troubadour. "Hey Baby" was the first song pulled from Troubadour. It spent three weeks in the Hot 100. The flip side was "Cocaine." Cale had brought the song to Ashworth as a Mose Allison-style jazz piece. "You want to make some money?" asked Ashworth. "He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well, let's make a rock 'n' roll song out of it.' He went home and changed the arrangement, Cale overdubbed the riff three times, single string at a time, then did the bass part. Reggie Young took the solo. Again, we recorded it as he did the run down. Reggie said, 'Let me do it again. I can do it better.' Cale said, 'No you can't! That's it!'"
In April 1976, Cale overcame his fear of flying and went to Europe to promote Troubadour. "I was in London playing at Hammersmith Odeon when Carl Radle and Eric [Clapton] came and sat with us," he told Nicky Horne on UK's Channel 4. "We all went down to the studio, and Eric surprised us with his cut of 'Cocaine.' My version had been out for a year, and I couldn't get anybody to play it. The ironic thing was that for about five years after, you'd walk into a bar and hear everybody play it." Clapton's version was issued on Slowhand, and then on the flip side of "Tulsa Time." Most writers would kill for one Clapton cut; Cale has had several.
Cale and Don Williams were having a strong influence on Clapton at this stage in his life. Clapton once said that "Lay Down Sally" was as close as an Englishman could get to being J.J. Cale. For his part, Cale never saw Clapton's success as success that should have been his. "Eric Clapton was just picking up ideas," Cale said later. "He picked up some of mine like I picked up some from the people before me. It's very flattering that people of that caliber are listening to what I do. It's always kind of nice when people cut my songs and turn them into something that people really like. For a lot of people, it's hard to listen to my version because it's very raw, kinda rough around the edges and they may sound unfinished, but that's the way I like it, not too slick."
The success of "Cocaine" meant that Cale was once again at the crossroads. He could have toured on the strength of it, and rushed out another album. He was finding what he called a younger "boogie crowd" at his shows. "They wanted someone up there bustin' them one," he said. He could have picked up the tempo and gone for it, but instead he went back to Nashville and worked on installing a studio in his home. The next album, 5, didn't appear until 1979. Audie Ashworth saw some AM potential for "The Sensitive Kind," and overdubbed strings. "I was hoping for airplay on that," he says. "I was digging for ideas to change it up." Radio ignored Cale's version of "Sensitive Kind," but Santana covered it and took it half-way up the Hot 100.
In 1980, New Musical Express in London sent a journalist, Philippe Garnier, to interview Cale out at the lake. Cale seemed totally immersed in studio hardware. "We kinda grow the flour to make the cake," Cale said, trying to explain why he now needed to master studio technology. He wanted his records to be wholly his from the ground up. All in all Garnier thought that Cale radiated contentment and seemed to have no regret for the path his career had taken.
Cale finally left Nashville and moved back to California in 1980. His sister lived in southern California. Cale sold his boat, packed everything into his Airstream trailer and moved to a trailer park in Anaheim. For a while, he stayed put in the trailer. Anyone wanting to talk to him would have to leave a message with Ashworth and wait for Cale to call in. Cale might have had the latest digital gizmos, but he didn't have a phone.
The final Shelter album, Shades, was issued in 1981. Not long thereafter Denny Cordell wound up Shelter Records. Cale's new label Phonogram International subsequently acquired his 6 Shelter albums from Cordell.
In 1982, the first album on Phonogram's Mercury label, Grasshopper, was released. It was a fine, varied album, which did very well in Europe, though not as well in the US. It's successor, # 8, released in 1983, sold modestly and if nothing else, was remarkable for the fact that Cale had finally allowed a photograph of himself to go on the front of the album.
It wasn't until 1989 that Cale signed a new deal with Silvertone Records in England, a company started by Andrew Lauder, the founder of Demon/Edsel Records. Silvertone's first album with Cale was Travel-Log. Cale toured to support the album. According to an interview he gave to Dave Hoekstra at the Chicago Sun Times, he had spent the previous six years cycling, mowing the lawn every Saturday, and listening to rap and Van Halen. The years in Los Angeles had made his music "more rattly...more uptown," he said. Hoekstra remarked on Al Capps' very full arrangement on "New Orleans," which pitted a Dixieland parade against a string section. "Al Capps knocked me out on that," said Cale. "I liked it so well I was going to take my voice off it and make it an instrumental." As always, he was happy to talk about which model bass was patched into what amp, but beyond that his conversation was couched with generalities.
In 1992 Cale issued his tenth album, titled with impeccable logic Number 10. The languid grace was still intact. "Artificial Paradise" sported perhaps Cale's best ever solo. The usual precision and economy were married to a flawlessly executed flow of ideas. The tone was uniquely Cale's own. On "Jailer" Cale's guitar interweaves with Spooner Oldham's organ for a much darker texture.
In 1994, Cale signed with Virgin Records. He had bought a house and several acres in the semi-desert of southern California. The first Virgin album, Closer to You, came with unexpected quickness. Cale had ordered a new customized Martin guitar. "A good guitar will inspire you," he told Paul Trynka. "I wrote eight songs in one day. Then I rented Capitol Studio in Hollywood and recorded the album in two days with all the vocals cut live. Then I brought all the stuff home and started over-dubbing."
It's been almost twenty-five years since a dapper raccoon, looking like a refugee from a Lewis Carroll story, introduced us to J.J. Cale. He has probably lasted by pacing himself so well. Twelve albums. Maybe fifty shows a year. Cale's records still seem remarkably fresh, untainted by fads and rock music's urban frenzy. He once remarked that his records were demos, recorded simply so that another musician would take interest in them and record them. That way, he'd make more money. You can't believe that, though. This is the art that conceals art. Plenty is going on here. As always, Cale is very busy appearing to be unbusy. The texturing, tweaking, and fine-tuning are hallmarks of the craftsman. These are hand-made records, rich in nuance and detail. More individualistic music cannot be found. J.J. Cale, truly an American original.
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