Influential Stylist J.J. Cale Passes

J.J. Cale, photo by Jane Richey

J.J. Cale, photo by Jane Richey

Singer-songwriter J.J. Cale died Friday, July 26, at age 74. Cale achieved his greatest successes while living and working in Nashville during the 1970s. Among his best-known songs are “After Midnight,” “Call Me the Breeze,” “Clyde,” “The Sensitive Kind,” “Crazy Mama” and “Cocaine.”

He was born John Weldon Cale in Oklahoma City and came of age in Tulsa alongside such future music greats as David Gates (Bread) and Leon Russell. In 1959, he came to Nashville to work as a guitarist backing a troupe of Grand Ole Opry stars on tour.

After stints in Los Angeles and back home in Tulsa, he returned to Music City in 1970. Cale teamed up with Nashville producer and song publisher Audie Ashworth (1936-2000). They created his landmark 1971 LP Naturally for Russell’s Shelter Records label. It contained Cale’s versions of “Call Me the Breeze,” “Clyde,” “After Midnight” and “Crazy Mama.”

In 1972, the last-named became J.J. Cale’s biggest hit as an artist. “Crazy Mama” has since been recorded by such stars as Johnny Rivers, The Band and Nashville’s Mac Gayden and Billy Ray Cyrus.

Cale crafted his next seven albums in Nashville, including 1972’s Really, 1974’s Okie, 1976’s Troubadour (which included “Cocaine”) and 1983’s #8. These records established his reputation as a highly influential, genre-defying artist. Cale’s laid-back, groove-soaked music reflected such diverse styles as blues, country, rock, folk and jazz.

In 1975, he and Ashworth built a Nashville recording studio. While living on Old Hickory Lake north of The Hermitage in 1978, Cale also built a home studio. All eight of Cale’s career-building collections were produced with Ashworth.

Despite being a prolific record maker during those early years, J.J. Cale was never interested in being a “star.” He was more than content to have others popularize the songs he introduced on his albums.

“After Midnight” became a big pop hit for Eric Clapton in 1970 and has since been recorded by everyone from Chet Atkins to Jerry Garcia. Clapton also had a hit with Cale’s “Cocaine,” in 1980.

“Call Me the Breeze” became an enormously popular song in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s repertoire in 1974. It has also been recorded by Bobby Bare, David Allan Coe, Johnny Cash, The Mavericks, Larry Cordle and James Otto, among others.

“Clyde” became a top-10 country hit for Waylon Jennings in 1980. “The Sensitive Kind” failed as a J.J. Cale single, but Santana took it up the pop charts in 1981.

The singer-songwriter left Music City in 1980, but his successes with the community’s musicians continued for years afterward. Nashville-based jazz guitarist Larry Carlton, for instance, revived “Crazy Mama” in 1991.

Cale’s “Any Way the Wind Blows” was a country single for Brother Phelps in 1995. The songwriter’s “If You’re Ever in Oklahoma” has been recorded by several bluegrass groups, including The Front Porch String Band (1992), Bluegrass Alliance (2001) and Yonder Mountain String Band (2001).

The rock band Widespread Panic has recorded other J.J. Cale songs, as has Clapton. Cale and Clapton retained their relationship and won a blues Grammy Award for their 2006 album The Road to Escondido. Cale also maintained a musical relationship with Nashville’s Leon Russell for many years.

In 1981-2013, J.J. Cale lived and recorded six more albums in southern California for such labels as BMG/Silvertone, Virgin, Blue Note and Rounder. He was the star of the 2006 film documentary To Tulsa and Back.

His Music City works were reissued on such collections as 1997’s Any Way the Wind Blows and 2007’s Rewind. He was nominated for the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011.

Among the dozens of artists who have recorded Cale’s songs are Maria Muldaur, Bobby Bland, Poco, Jose Feliciano, Redbone, Bryan Ferry, Kansas, Herbie Mann, Dr. Hook, Jimmy Hall, Nazareth, John Mayall, George Thorogood and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.

J.J. Cale died of a heart attack in La Jolla, CA.

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About the Author

Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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