JJ Cale (top) and the LP of Eric Clapton’s ‘Just One Night’, giving Cale the songwriting credit for ‘Cocaine’
A tribute to legendary musician, guitarist and songwriter JJ Cale, who passed away on July 26
FOR many years, I adored his songs without knowing they were his. Let me begin with one example.
Back in the early 1980s, many youngsters of my generation, born between 1960 and 1965, suddenly ditched our favourite Abba pop and Cerrone disco to enter the exciting and energy-packed world of rock music. Artistes like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Doors, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull, Santana and Eric Clapton became overnight idols. We became part of the hip crowd at Delhi University, and looked down at those who didn’t think like us. And to be certified as a diehard rock fan, one compulsorily had to know six songs – Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water’, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, the Doors’ ‘Roadhouse Blues’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ and Eric Clapton’s ‘Cocaine’.
Yes, most of us identified ‘Cocaine’ with Clapton. We heard it everywhere — at home, in parties and at local college festivals, with various campus bands playing their own, totally mangled-up versions of that famous guitar riff. Clapton was God, but none of us had heard of JJ Cale. The man who wrote that song.
Though I owned a few LPs at that time, Clapton wasn’t in my vinyl collection. Whatever I had, including his famous live double album ‘Just One Night’, was on specially recorded cassettes, where I wrote down the song names in my own handwriting. And I never knew Cale had also written ‘After Midnight’, the other masterpiece which Clapton played on that album.
A few years later, a friend told me about the actual writer of ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After Midnight’. I said no, nothing doing, but he quickly took out his double LP and proved his point. My myth was broken.
Clapton wasn’t the only instance. For some time, I associated ‘Call Me The Breeze’ with Lynyrd Skynyrd and ‘Sensitive Kind’ with Santana, who played it on that classic album ‘Zebop!’. The former was even covered by the Allman Brothers Band and superstar Johnny Cash, and in the case of both songs. I was surprised to later discover they were written by JJ Cale.
The question was: Who on earth was this guy? How could someone writing such huge hits for such known artistes be so unknown himself? Unfortunately, there was no Wikipedia or Google to find out, and I still hadn’t bought my first rock encyclopaedia.
WHO was JJ Cale? My first exposure to his actual music must have come in 1991 or 1992, over a decade since I first heard ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After Midnight’.
His album ‘Travel-Log’ was doing the rounds, and the songs to hit me instantly were ‘Lean On Me’, ‘Lady Luck’ and ‘Tijuana’. My first instinct was that he sounded like a more country-rock version of Dire Straits, mainly in the way the songs were structured and the way the guitar was played. Of course, I discovered later that Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler was hugely influenced by him.
Over the next few years, I listened to his albums sporadically. A lot of them weren’t available in India, so one had to depend on collections of those who possessed them. And one didn’t meet such people too often.
On closer listening, it became obvious that Cale used a neat blend of rock, jazz, blues and country, in what came to be known as the Tulsa Sound, which was pioneered by him and Leon Russell in the group The Starlighters back in the mid-1960s. It was a distinct sound, which had its own beauty and flavour.
Slowly, I heard Cale albums like ‘Naturally’, ‘Okie’, ‘No 5’, ‘Grasshopper’ and ‘No 10’. Much later, ‘To Tulsa and Back’ and ‘Roll On’ became favourites. The songs that totally fascinated me included ‘Don’t Cry Sister’, ‘Crazy Mama’, ‘Cajun Moon’, ‘Mama Don’t’, ‘Shady Grove’, ‘Carry On’, ‘Roll On’, ‘Don’t Go To Strangers’, ‘Passion’, ‘Digital Blues’, ‘Fate of a Fool’, ‘Stone River’, ‘Anyway the Wind Blows’ and ‘Clyde’, popularised by country star Waylon Jennings.
In 2006, while working at EMI Music, we got the news that Cale and Clapton were collaborating on an album. ‘The Road to Escondido’ was being released by Reprise Records, which was part of Warner Music, whose music EMI was marketing and distributing through a licensing agreement.
Though I knew I would get to hear the album much before the others, I was still impatient, waiting for the arrival of the master copy. This was like a dream come true. And for weeks, ‘Escondido’ would be played in office. ‘Don’t Cry Sister’, ‘Dead End Road’ and ‘Anyway the Wind Blows’ would be on repeat loop.
Very recently, I heard an amazing version of ‘Anyway The Wind Blows’ by former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and his band Rhythm Kings, who’ve done total justice to the song. I realised it was quite some time since I heard Cale, but even before I did so, news of his death came.
On July 26, the legend died of a heart attack at the age of 74. Interestingly, his last released song was ‘Angel’, a collaboration with Clapton on the latter’s latest album ‘Old Sock’. I first heard this song today, before writing this blog, and it’s a beauty.
IF one were to analyse the immense contribution of JJ Cale, the first thing that would obviously come to mind is that he was a hit-maker. Though he himself stayed in the background, he created hits for some of the biggest artistes of the 1970s. Even artistes like Freddie King, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, John Mayall, Chet Atkins, Jerry Garcia, Tom Petty, Captain Beefheart, Cissy Houston and jazzmen Herbie Mann and Larry Carlton covered his songs. Musicians from genres as diverse as rock, blues, jazz and country played his compositions.
Then, there was the Tulsa Sound, pioneered by him and the equally-underrated genius Leon Russell. Named after the city of Tulsa in Oklahoma, US, it broadly fell under the classification of bluesy country rock, using minor chords, simple lyrics and a shuffling beat, but helped define a decade of roots-based rock ‘n’ roll. Interestingly, David Gates of the soft rock group Bread also hailed from Tulsa, and was influenced by both Cale and Russell.
Besides Clapton, Knopfler and Gates, other giants inspired by Cale included Neil Young and Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry. An outstanding guitarist himself, and the biggest influence behind the late 1980s and early 1990s grunge sound, Young often said his two favourite guitarists were Jimi Hendrix and Cale.
Both, of course, would represent opposite spectrums of guitaring styles. If Hendrix was all pyrotechincs and hyper-energy, Cale’s style has been described as laidback, smooth and cool. By subtly finger-picking his guitar, he created a completely different army of followers.
Cale often described his own music as ‘front porch noodling’, because compared to the instruments, the vocals were subdued. He often wanted the voice mixed down. But in his albums, he’d use a variety of instruments. For the country flavour, he would have musicians playing the violin, mandolin, dobro and pedal steel guitar. For the blues, bottleneck slide guitar and blues-styled piano passages would come in. For the jazz effect, he’d have the saxophone, trumpet and trombone. To give them a Latin American flavour, some songs would use bongos and congadrums. And the electric guitar, organ and drums would lend the rock atmosphere.
One may debate whether Cale would achieve any fame at all, if it were not for the fact that his songs were covered by the likes of Clapton, Santana, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Freddie King, Bland, Mayall, Johnny Cash and Jennings. But then, it was obviously his sheer brilliance that attracted such great musicians to his songs.
Cale defined the cult musician as well as the musician’s musician. What George Gershwin was to jazz, or Willie Dixon was to the blues, Cale was to eclectic roots-rock. They all created some outstanding music for themselves, but were known more for versions popularised by others. They all helped define the sound of future styles of music through their sheer genius. In their own different ways, they were all game-changers.
There have been many ways to describe Cale’s music. ‘Laidback’ and ‘cool’ are some of the common phrases used. Allow me to chip in my two bits here. The word I’d normally associate with Cale is ‘lilt’. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has three meanings for it. One, a spirited and usually cheerful song or tune. Two, a rhythmical swing, flow or cadence. And three, a springy, buoyant movement.
All three meanings fit in perfectly with Cale’s music. For me, he was the Lord of Lilt.