JJ Cale, A Musician’s Musician

 “I’d like to have the fortune, but I don’t care too much about the fame.”                                                                                                                 —JJ Cale

 By the time Eric Clapton recorded JJ Cale’s song “After Midnight” in 1971, Cale had already left the music business in LA to go back to his native Tulsa. Clapton’s was his songs covered by a recording artist, and when it hit big, that changed everything. Cale was offered a record deal from Shelter Records and went straight to Nashville to record his first album Naturally.

Cale never wanted anything to do with promoting himself. He just wanted to make the music. To avoid becoming well known, one strategy he used was to keep his picture off his album covers. He kept his face off his first seven albums. For the eighth album, he relented; but he turned sideways and wore dark glasses.

When he died at 74 in July, obituary writers found plenty of quotations by musicians over the years praising the reclusive Cale.  Neil Young, it turns out, was so much in awe of his musicianship in one biography interview he said that of all the electric guitar players he ever heard, Hendrix and Cale were the best.

Yet in Cale’s lifetime, such resounding endorsements made no impact on his fame.  However, since his death, it seems inevitable that Cale’s music will be heard by an ever-widening audience. Public popularity is very likely finally coming JJ Cale’s way.

Until recently, my current JJ Cale music collection was only a couple of old cassette tapes.  I tried playing them but one the tape hissed and the other was broken.  So I was pleased to find the JJ Cale Classic Album Collection, an affordable five CD boxset that includes Naturally and other allbums up to  #8 (1990).

Also, as it happened, over the course of six weeks this summer I was in Nevada City working on my home, painting rooms, putting in fixtures, and repairing.  Doing physical labor is prime time for listening to music for me, so I gave the JJ Cale CDs many listenings during that project.

I found each sparkled with great music and lived up to the status of a classic.  Yet the best of them all was  Naturally.  It is timeless.  Cale’s first album featuring his hybrid of blues, rock, country-folk, and jazz and easily stands as one of the greatest Americana albums ever. images

Even with these early tracks in his 40-plus-year career, Cale’s unmistakable minimalist sound was fully formed, his relaxed vocals and fluid guitar punctuations comfortably in his sweet spot.

Naturally was somewhat of a breakthrough achievement in its use of electronic music, especially for the blues genre. Cale had worked as an engineer and producer and fully understood audio technology and its possibilities. He knew as much as any artist of his generation about what was possible in the early 1970s.  Many years later he said about Naturally:

“On ‘Crazy Mama’ and ‘Call Me The Breeze,’ those were electric drum machines and that was the first album I made back in 1971. I first started out doing that because of the economics; I didn’t have enough money to hire a band. Now that I have enough money to hire a band I still like that; it’s kind of an art form in itself.”

“Crazy Mama” would be his biggest hit single ever, peaking at #22 on the US Billboard charts in 1972. Last year, superfan Neil Young wrote in his autobiography:

“‘Crazy Mama’ by JJ Cale is a record I love. The song is true, simple, and direct, and the delivery is very natural.  . . His touch is unspeakable. I am stunned by it.”

Click the link below to see Cale performing Naturally’s “Crazy Mama” on a TV broadcast from a couple of decades ago:



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