JJ Cale, the Oklahoma City-born singer/songwriter/producer who became known as one of the primary pioneers of the Tulsa Sound, passed away Friday night at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, Calif. His manager, Mike Kappus, told the Associated Press that Cale died of a heart attack. He was 74.
Cale wrote songs that became some of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll hits of the 1970s for other artists, most notably “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” for Eric Clapton, “Call Me the Breeze” for Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Crazy Mama” for Neil Young.
As the AP notes in his obituary, the list of artists who covered his music or cite him as a direct influence reads like a who’s who of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — Clapton, Young, fellow Oklahoma native/Tulsa Sound pioneer Leon Russell, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Mark Knopfler, The Allman Brothers, Carlos Santana, Captain Beefheart and Bryan Ferry among many others.
While his best known songs remain in heavy rotation on the radio nearly 40 years later, most folks wouldn’t be able to name Cale as their author. According to the AP obit, that was a role the humble Oklahoman had no problem with.
“No, it doesn’t bother me,” Cale said with a laugh in an interview posted on his website. “What’s really nice is when you get a check in the mail.”
Young said in Jimmy McDonough’s biography “Shakey” that Cale and Jimi Hendrix were the best guitar players he had ever heard. And in his recent memoir “Waging Heavy Peace,” Young said Cale’s “Crazy Mama” — his biggest hit, rising to No. 22 on the Billboard singles chart — was one of the five songs that most influenced him as a songwriter: “The song is true, simple, and direct, and the delivery is very natural. JJ’s guitar playing is a huge influence on me. His touch is unspeakable.”
It was Clapton who forged the closest relationship with Cale. Clapton also recorded the Cale songs “Travelin’ Light” and “I’ll Make Love To You Anytime” and included the Cale composition “Angel” on his most recent album, “Old Sock.” The two also collaborated together on “The Road to Escondido,” which won the Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album in 2008.
Clapton once told Vanity Fair that Cale was the living person he most admired, and Cale weighed the impact Clapton had on his life in a 2006 interview with the AP: “I’d probably be selling shoes today if it wasn’t for Eric.”
“As hard as I’ve tried I’ve never really succeeded in getting a record to sound like him and that’s what I want,” Clapton said in a “Fast Focus” video interview to promote “Escondido” (the interview is posted below). ”Before I go under the ground, I want to make a JJ Cale album with him at the helm.”
Clapton described Cale’s music as “a strange hybrid. It’s not really blues, it’s not really folk or country or rock ‘n’ roll. It’s somewhere in the middle.”
Cale’s sound was a great representation of his home state’s music scene: The crossroads of America was and continues to be a veritable a melting pot of styles. Born John Weldon Cale in Oklahoma City, he was raised in Tulsa. Cale took that Oklahoma musical diversity with him as he spent his formative years in Los Angeles and Nashville, but he also used drum machines and often acted as his own producer, engineer and session player.
“I think it goes back to me being a recording mixer and engineer,” Cale said in a 2009 biography on his website. “Because of all the technology now you can make music yourself and a lot of people are doing that now. I started out doing that a long time ago and I found when I did that I came up with a unique sound.”
Cale released what turned out to his final album, “Roll On,” in 2009, and the follow-up to 2006′s “Escondido” continued his habit of making masterfully earthy music that drew on the blues, folk, jazz and country to create a richly diverse sound. Clapton appeared with Cale on the title track for “Roll On,” along with Oklahoman Steve Ripley on acoustic guitar, but for the most part it was in a very real sense a solo album: Not only did Cale write and sing all 12 tracks, he also played a range of instruments, including guitar, bass, banjo, piano and synthesizers.
According to jjcale.com, there are no immediate plans for services. “Donations are not needed,” according to the site, “but he was a great lover of animals so, if you like, you can remember him with a donation to your favorite local animal shelter.”
Our thoughts are with his family, friends and fans. We remember him through his music: