Photograph by James Minchin
Call Him the Breeze
J. J. Cale blows into the North Bay
By Greg Cahill
I’ve never considered myself a songwriter,” says J. J. Cale, his slow Oklahoma drawl sliding lazily down the phone line. “Most musicians who write songs just do that in the back room, and that’s kind of what I do. You know, laying down whatever comes into my own mind, whatever kind of rolls off my tongue or has a rhyme to it. But I’ve never given much thought to it. I just grab them out of the air anyway.”
Few songwriters can lay claim to such prize catches.
Over the years, Cale’s tunes have been recorded by everyone from Captain Beefheart to Bryan Ferry. In 1974, Lynyrd Skynyrd covered his “Call Me the Breeze” on their Southern rock classic Second Helping. And Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits has built his entire career as a Cale sound-alike, copping his guitar style and vocal phrasing.
But it was Eric Clapton who really opened the doors for the Oklahoman in the ’70s by recording two big hits–“After Midnight” and “Cocaine”–written by Cale. At the time, Cale (born Jean Jacques Cale) had abandoned his rock-star dreams and returned to his native Tulsa for a stint as a picker in an obscure country band.
“When folks find out that Eric Clapton cut one of your tunes, they want to know what else you’ve got,” says Cale, now 64. “So I’ve put down 12 albums based on the theory of ‘what else you got,’ and it’s turned into a career. It surprised me.”
Cale, who for years lived in the shadow of Disneyland in a tiny Anaheim trailer, has flirted with Top 40 success, but for the most part he’s remained on the periphery of pop music, churning out laid-back ballads and shuffling country boogies.
As a teen, Cale played in several country and western outfits, including one that featured a young Leon Russell. Moving to Nashville in 1959 at the age of 21, Cale was hired by the Grand Ole Opry’s touring company. After a few years, he returned to Tulsa, reuniting with Russell and playing local clubs.
In 1964, Cale and Russell headed for Los Angeles with fellow Oklahoman Carl Radle. Within months, Cale hooked up with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, the husband-and-wife team whose band (including Radle) later formed the core of Derek and the Dominoes. But in 1965, Cale went solo and cut the first version of “After Midnight,” which eventually would become his most famous song. The following year, he formed the Leathercoated Minds, releasing the psychedelic album A Trip Down the Sunset Strip.
Yet L.A.’s burgeoning psychedelic scene didn’t sit well with Cale. He returned to Tulsa in 1967, recording a set of demos that later led to a recording contract. But first, Clapton–who at the time was looking to move away from the acid-drenched rock of the then-defunct Cream– covered “After Midnight,” a Top 20 hit that provided Cale with much needed exposure and royalties. In 1971, Cale released his solo debut album Naturally on Russell’s Shelter Records.
The album featured the Top 40 hit “Crazy Mama,” a re-recorded version of “After Midnight,” which almost entered the Top 40, and “Call Me the Breeze.”
During the ’70s, Cale embraced his laid-back image, becoming reclusive and releasing an album every other year or so. His album sales slowed in the ’80s, and a six-year layoff ensued. Cale reemerged in late 1990 with Travel Log, a more rhythmically aggressive outing on the British independent label Silvertone. While sales remained slow, Cale nonetheless established himself as an important cult figure in the emerging roots-rock scene. His last studio album, the very relaxed Guitar Man, failed to generate either critical or commercial heat.
In 1997, Mercury capitalized on Cale’s cult status with a two-CD, multilabel anthology, Anyway the Wind Blows.
Last year, Cale released his first live album on the Virgin/Back Porch label, showing that at least in concert his languid grace remains intact.
J. J. Cale performs two sold out shows, March 10 and 11, at Sweetwater in Mill Valley. He also appears Tuesday, March 12, at 8pm, at the Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Tickets are $25. 707.765.2121.
From the February 28-March 6, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.