J.J. Cale left as quietly as he had arrived. The American singer-songwriter spent his life trying not to be noticed too much. Yet he certainly left his mark on music history.

I first stumbled upon his name in a review of the debut album of the British group Dire Straits (in 1978): ‘Mark Knopfler plays nicely but if you want to know where the guitarist picked up his style you should listen to J.J. Cale.’ I got into his fifth album simply titled 5 and was particularly impressed by the song ‘Don’t Cry Sister Cry’. From then on, Dire Straits made second-hand music at best.

5
5

In J.J. Cale, Troubadour in the desert, musicians who worked with Cale tell Wouter Bulckaert about their experiences. The Flemish biographer writes that the singer-guitarist from Tulsa was not very happy with Knopfler’s imitations, especially because he did not earn anything from the Dire Straits compositions. Eric Clapton was another story: his successful renditions of ‘After Midnight’ and ‘Cocaine’ guaranteed J.J. Cale a steady income.

Wouter Bulckaert did not succeed in interviewing Christine Lakeland for his book. She played in Cale’s band from 1979 till 2013. There was much speculation about her friendship with Cale, but that she actually was JJ’s wife remained shrouded in mist for a long time. With that knowledge in mind her vocal role stands out much more in hindsight. Lakeland is not only an excellent guitarist, she did many backing vocals on Cale’s albums. She released her own work as well.

JJ Cale en Christine Lakeland
J.J. Cale and Christine Lakeland

Cale’s career began after he had spent years trying to break through as a musician, first in Nashville, then in Los Angeles. The owner of the music club Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles announced Cale on the facade as J.J. Cale “because we already have a John Cale”.  J.J. accepted that name and adopted it. He worked as a recording engineer for Leon Russell, who was also from Tulsa. This made it possible for him to use the studio in his own time.

The psychedelic album A Trip Down The Sunset Strip did absolutely nothing. One of the singles Cale recorded had ‘After Midnight’ on its B-side. Apparently Eric Clapton had picked up the obscure song somewhere, because in 1970, just when Cale decided to quit the music, Clapton’s rendition became a giant hit.

JJ Cale
J.J. Cale

Producer Audi Ashworth persuaded J.J. to record an LP. His debut album Naturally (1971) was minimally filled with only 28 minutes of music. It was enough to make 32-year-old J.J. Cale a musician’s musician. He turned down an invitation to perform in a popular TV show because he didn’t feel like doing a lip-sync version of ‘Crazy Mama’.

Over the years Cale invented his own way of playing the guitar without using a pick. He used his second and third finger (which he dipped in turpentine beforehand) to subtly touch the strings of his acoustic guitar which was packed with electronics. Remarkably, the drums on Naturally came from a rhythm box. Cale’s musical style is a laid-back blend of country, blues and jazz. His recognizable, lazy sound was dubbed the Tulsa Sound. Cale knew he lacked a strong singing voice and covered this up by singing every song five times: “In a choir, it’s harder to hear that you’re sometimes wrong.” He tinkered with his music in the same way. He recorded the characteristic riff of ‘Cocaine’ string by string. According to Cale, ‘Cocaine’ is not a pro-drug song nor is it anti: “It’s an account of things I have seen”. Cale’s lyrics are subservient to his music: “I don’t write songs to win a poetry prize.”

"J. J. Cale" by Edward Hall
“J. J. Cale” by Edward Hall (picture from the biography)

Cale did everything he could to stay out of the spotlight; only from album #8 onward his face appeared on record sleeves. He didn’t care about fame and even touring and performing bored him after a while. For years he retreated contentedly, anonymously and without a phone, to a trailer park.

Bulckaert claims that Cale’s albums lost quality and urgency since the 80s. When people said something like that to Cale, he responded: “That’s perfect, those records are still being sold!”

Shades
Shades

I still have warm memories of Shades (1981), though. From the hypnotically strong opening track ‘Carry on’ with its beautiful, coolly played guitar solo to the melancholic instrumental closing track ‘Cloudy Day’. Shades was presented in a magnificent cover that refers to the French brand of cigarettes Citanes. Grasshopper (1982) also contains several highlights. Even #8 with its self-deprecating ‘Teardrops In My Tequila’ is dear to me.

Eric Clapton did his utmost to give Cale the credits he deserved in the autumn of his life. Ironically, their duo album The Road To Escondido earned Cale his only Grammy Award plus renewed interest from a younger audience. His increased popularity was translated into the documentary To Tulsa And Back that followed Cale and his companions on their US tour. Significant is the comment of the tour bus driver: “I had no idea who J.J. Cale was, but he’s a nice guy.”

Cale en Clapton
Cale and Clapton

Much better are the 1979 studio sessions J.J. Cale Featuring Leon Russell Live in Session At The Paradise Studios Los Angeles. This footage shows Cale playing accurately in the company of the musicians he felt comfortable with, including his muse Christine Lakeland. Leon Russell behind the Hammond organ is also a treat to watch and listen to. These images are as close as you can get to Cale. Maybe that was the reason we had to wait 20 years for the film and the music.

Cale en Russell
Cale and Russell in 79

Towards the end of his life, Cale became more concerned with society and nature. This is reflected in lyrics like ‘Stone River’, in which he expresses his concern about ecological developments, and ‘Homeless’, in which Cale stands up for the homeless. Both songs are from To Tulsa And Back (2004). Cale’s swan song ‘Bring Down The Curtain’ can be heard on his album Rewind (2009):

No matter what you say,

it will come to an end

Enough is enough

Can’t do it no more.

Bring down the curtain,

close the door.

On Saturday 27 July 2013, Twitter reported the death of the troubadour. However, an hour later the message was denied again. In the end the report turned out to be true: J.J. Cale had succumbed to a heart attack on Friday 26 July 2013.

J.J. Cale band feat. Leon Russel: ‘After Midnight’

Wouter Bulcaert – J.J. Cale, Troubadour in de woestijn – Publisher EPO, Berchem. Drawings by Edward Hall. 

J.J. Cale Featuring Leon Russell Live in Session At The Paradise Studios Los Angeles (DVD)