Stellar career in half-light of fame

Last updated 12:02 08/08/2013
JJ Cale
JJ CALE: A musician's musician.

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Quietly influential singer-songwriter J J Cale who stayed in the background while better-known musicians had hits with his songs, including After Midnight, Cocaine and Call Me the Breeze, has died aged 74.

Cale was never as well-known as Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Cash or many of the other musicians who recorded his songs. But if his career was unsung, his songs were not.

He had been a working musician since the mid-1950s. But he was struggling - "dirt poor," as he put it - and about to quit, when he was driving through Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1970 and heard Clapton singing After Midnight on the radio.

The song, which he had written in about 1966, made the Billboard Top 20 and was Clapton's first major hit as a solo artist. It also secured Cale's musical and financial future.

"I went, ‘Oh, man, I might stay with the music business'," Cale said in 2009. "I was about ready to get out of it. I was playing Friday and Saturday nights and looking for a day job."

Cale won a Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album for The Road to Escondido, a recording he made in 2006 with Clapton. But for years he was content to live in obscurity and let his understated songs speak for themselves.

"In my humble opinion," Clapton wrote about Cale in his 2007 autobiography, "he is one of the most important artists in the history of rock, quietly representing the greatest asset his country has ever had."

Cale and his fellow Oklahoman Leon Russell were credited with developing the "Tulsa sound", a relaxed style of bluesy country rock with minor chords, simple lyrics and a shuffling beat that helped define a decade of roots-based, Southern-style rock-and-roll.

His Call Me the Breeze, which was recorded in 1974 by Lynyrd Skynyrd and later by the Allman Brothers and Cash, became a classic, guitar-driven anthem to the open highway: "Well, now they call me the breeze / I keep blowin' down the road."

Neil Young, Mark Knopfler, Bryan Ferry and Clapton all cited Cale as an influence, and critic Geoffrey Himes wrote in The Washington Post in 1983 that Cale's "superb guitar leads - which other guitarists study faithfully - are so thoroughly woven into the fabric that one has to mentally unravel the songs to identify what miracles Cale is working."

Other well-known performers who recorded his songs include Carlos Santana (The Sensitive Kind); Cissy Houston (Cajun Moon); Captain Beefheart and Bobby "Blue" Bland (I Got the Same Old Blues); Chet Atkins and Jerry Garcia (After Midnight); and Tom Petty (I'd Like to Love You, Baby).

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John Weldon Cale was born on December 5, 1938, in Oklahoma City and grew up in Tulsa. He was playing guitar in Western swing and rock-and-roll bands by the mid-1950s and often worked in Tulsa with Russell, who became an influential songwriter and pianist.

By 1964, Cale had moved to California and began to master studio work, as well as the guitar and other instruments. He changed his stage name from Johnny Cale to J J Cale, to distinguish himself from John Cale, who played in the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed.

Cale recorded his first album, Naturally, in 1971, and his only significant hit as a performer, Crazy Mama, came out in 1972.

He was considered a reclusive enigma, because his records seldom had his picture on them and because he rarely went on extensive tours. He lived for years in a rural area outside San Diego without a telephone.

Cale's musical style changed little over the years, with subtle finger-picking on guitar, backed up by quiet vocals.

"There are entertainers and there are musicians," he said in 1988, "and I never was an entertainer."  - Washington Post

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