It’s an unfortunate fact, but for many people the name J.J. Cale might just as well belong to John Cale, the ex-Velvet Underground musical provocateur, or J.J. Abrams, the screenwriter and producer, or… well… anyone or no one at all. Cale, who died Friday of a heart attack in La Jolla California at age 74, was anonymous almost to a fault, the stereotypical wallflower who pursued his craft far removed from the spotlight and nestled well under the radar.
Not that he avoided recognition; he recorded 15 albums in all, starting with Naturally, his 1972 debut and one of the earliest offerings on Leon Russell’s fledgling Shelter Records label. His efforts brought him well up to the present day, culminating in the 2006 song summit with longtime friend and fellow traveler Eric Clapton, the Grammy award winning collaboration The Road to Escondido, and, just this year, his contribution to Clapton’s current covers album, Old Sock.
In truth though, it wasn’t Cale’s recordings that procured his lingering legacy. It was, bearing out his typical discretion and modesty, inherent in the songs he penned that others made into classics. “Cocaine” and “After Midnight” as interpreted by Clapton. “Call Me the Breeze,” a staple of Lynyrd Skynrd’s. “Ride Me High” and “Travelin’ Light,” appropriated by Widespread Panic. Or any of the tunes that were covered by Santana, The Allman Brothers, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.
Nevertheless, it’s well recommended that now, in retrospect, belated admirers go back and uncover Cale’s own versions of those tunes, each graced by his easy, unpretentious delivery, his fluid fretwork and those unhurried vocals that reflected so admirably on one of the most unaffected and unpretentious artists that America ever produced. One can needle drop on any one of Cale’s own efforts and uncover the subtle genius and unassuming attitude that this reticent musician bore so nobly. His music was a blend of just about everything this country ever fostered in a homegrown stance — jazz, blues, country, rock and folk — all stirred with the tenderness and care only a true devotee could muster.
Cale never decried his lack of recognition. In fact, he humorously remarked that as long as the checks kept coming, that was good enough for him. In the 2006 documentary about his career, To Tulsa and Back, Cale references the time he was offered an appearance on American Bandstand and allowed opportunity to promote his tune “Crazy Mama,” which, as it ended up, become the one song that nearly gained him entry to the top of the charts. Cale says he was forced to decline when he was told his band couldn’t accompany him and he’d have to lip sync the vocals.
Ultimately, this reticent troubadour stayed true to his calling. Reluctant to betray his integrity, the Oklahoma homeboy never forget the lessons learned in the heartland. And yet, greatness was always within reach. Neil Young recently remarked that of all the guitarists he ever encountered, Cale and Hendrix were the two best in his opinion. Clapton obviously adored him.
Indeed, in a culture where flash and glamor are considered essential, J.J. Cale offers a lesson for us all. Modesty and humility is borne best by those who choose not to shout their accomplishments, but rather to comfortably rest on their laurels instead.