Last year, on July 26, I was awakened by my 9-year-old daughter, Liza Jane. She shook me and said, “Daddy, JJ Cale died.” Liza Jane had no idea who JJ Cale was; she had simply picked up my phone and seen a text from my dear friend Shannon, who had turned me on to JJ Cale 25 years earlier, almost to the day.
I was stunned. One of my musical heroes was gone. A wave of memories washed over me, and I was overcome by a feeling of loss. I loved his writing, I loved his vocals, I loved the way he played guitar and I loved his style. He flew below the radar and liked it that way. As he put it, “traveling light is the only way to fly.”
When my musical heroes die, I always associate them with other events that were happening when they passed. Mickey Mantle died the same week as Jerry Garcia. I saw Warren Haynes the night before Levon Helm died. The week JJ died, Prince George was born. I will forever think about JJ every time I hear about the young royal family. It is only fitting that I think of JJ in this context because to me JJ Cale was royalty. JJ Cale was the king of the slow groove.
JJ’s influence on a wealth of musicians is well- documented. His songs were covered by artists ranging from Johnny Cash to George Thorogood, Lynyrd Skynrd to Waylon Jennings, Widespread Panic to Beck. But the artist who covered JJ Cale the most (seven recorded covers) was Eric Clapton, who was nothing less than JJ Cale’s musical soul brother.
Clapton made a dramatic shift in his musical style as he transitioned from rock ‘n’ roll god to the slowhand, the title of his 1977 album. Slowhand included JJ’s “Cocaine,” which became a staple of classic rock. JJ Cale was a huge inspiration in this seismic shift in Clapton’s evolution.
In the documentary on JJ to Tulsa and Back: On the Road with JJ Cale, Clapton said that JJ’s guitar playing led him to the realization that less is more; that it wasn’t about playing as many notes as possible, but that it was about finesse. Clapton followed Slowhand with his 1978 underrated record Backless, which has a laid-back groove and featured the JJ Cale song “I’ll Make Love to You Any Time.” It also featured the song “Tulsa Time,” which may have been a nod to the town where JJ grew up.
JJ and Clapton collaborated on the 2008 record The Road to Escondito, which won a Grammy for best contemporary Blues album. It is interesting to note that that record was billed as JJ Cale and Eric Clapton, and produced by JJ Cale, not vice versa. If you listen to Clapton’s new record Old Sock, it is so laid back and chill that it could easily be a JJ Cale record. Indeed, Old Sock features the JJ Cale song “Angel.” JJ plays guitar and vocals – it is essentially a JJ Cale track. It is only fitting that JJ’s last recorded performance was on an Eric Clapton record, and sadly the title was imminently prophetic. The two were so close that when Eric Clapton was asked what living person he admired most, he responded, “JJ Cale.”
What set JJ apart as a songwriter was his economy of words. If he were writing literature, JJ Cale would have written short stories. His songs were rarely over four minutes, with most lasting less than three minutes. “Traveling Light” clocked in at exactly three minutes, and so did “Cocaine.” One of my favorite songs of his, “I’ll Kiss the World Goodbye,” was only 1:57, and even managed to squeeze in a guitar solo. Yet in very few minutes, JJ was able to speak volumes about sex, love, loss, regret, having a good time and lots and lots of songs about the blues.
And while JJ is primarily known as a songwriter, his secret weapon was his guitar playing. In the video Live at Paradise Studios (which can be seen in it’s entirety on You Tube) JJ talks about how he tweaked his guitars to achieve his sound. He completely took them apart and rebuilt them, using nickels and pennies and other tools to achieve his desired effects. Neil Young once said the two greatest guitar players he ever saw were JJ Cale and Jimi Hendrix. High praise indeed.
JJ possessed one of the smoothest voices in rock ‘n’ roll. It was so smooth that when I first heard the voice, it was unclear to me whether he was black or white, which brings me back to how I first got turned on to JJ Cale.
It was 1988 and I was in San Francisco to see the Grateful Dead at the Greek Theater. The same Shannon who texted me the morning JJ died had a cassette of JJ Cale’s masterpiece Naturally (with a Santana album on the other side). She played it for my brother and me, and we were instantly hooked. The only band I had ever heard that was as smooth and low key as JJ Cale was the Jerry Garcia Band.
I was still collecting vinyl in 1988, having eschewed CDs and CD players in favor of records and turntables. Upon returning to the East Coast, I went looking for JJ Cale records and could not find any, from Bleecker Bob’s to record shows that I attended regularly, JJ was nowhere to be found. He had not put out a record in five years at that point. In those days, releases were measured in dog years, and five years was an eternity. JJ Cale might as well have vanished off the face of the music business.
Finally, I found a JJ Cale collection called Special Edition on cd. Problem was, I didn’t have a CD player to play it on. So I bit the bullet and purchased a CD player. I had much better luck finding JJ’s albums digitally, and soon added Naturally and Troubadour (another classic) to my collection. At this point, I realized JJ also wrote Call me the Breeze (popularized by Lynyrd Skynrd) and Sensitive Kind (popularized by Santana). I was obsessed.
I went to school in New Haven, Conn., and traveled to and from New York City often. My favorite music haunt was the Bottom Line, an intimate club in the East Village. In the fall of 1988, the words JJ Cale appeared on the upcoming shows list on the marquee at the Bottom Line. My brother and I snatched two tickets and arranged to meet in New York City for the show.
At this point, I had no idea what JJ Cale looked like. He didn’t put his picture on any of his albums. As I said earlier I did not know if JJ Cale was black or white, and I pretty much believed he was the former. This was the 80s, years before the internet. Information was not so easily obtained, particularly if you were interested in things that were not mainstream and more obtuse.
My brother and I got to the show early and ponied up in the front row, as excited as can be. Out walked a guy in jeans and an unbuttoned shirt, looking like he had just woken up. I thought to myself, “This must be his roadie.” And then he broke into “After Midnight.” I was floored. So that is JJ Cale!
When the band finished and the crowd filled out, my brother and I decided to try and walk backstage. On our way, we were approached by a bouncer who gave us the “what are you doing here?” look. We replied, “We’re here to see JJ.” The bouncer nodded and let us backstage. Christine Lakeland (who became Mrs. JJ Cale), JJ, my brother and I just hung out. I floated back to New Haven.
Flash forward a couple of years to 1991. I was living in Telluride, and had started a production company called Big Daddy Music. I promoted a show with some acts that were represented by Mike Kappus at the Rosebud Agency in San Francisco. JJ Cale was on their roster. I told Mike that if JJ Cale ever toured again, I would like to book him in Colorado.
In the spring of 1993, Mike called and said JJ was hitting the road, and was available for a date in mid May. We booked the historic Wheeler Opera House in Aspen for the show on May 15 (which happened to be my 25th birthday).
It was a little bit of a dicey date as it was smack in the middle of off-season, when much of the ski town population leaves to Kauai, Jazz Fest and other ports of call.
About a week after we booked the show, the Grateful Dead announced a three-night run in Las Vegas, with Dave Matthews opening. Widespread Panic and The Radiators, acts that were big in the mountain towns of Colorado, were all going to be in Las Vegas. As it was off-season, the Dead in Vegas was an obvious road trip for denizens of mountain towns.
Despite our fears, the JJ show sold out almost instantly. I got to spend some time with JJ in Aspen, including drinking some beers with him. That set the bar high for the next 25 years of my life.
A year later, we booked JJ again for a gig in Telluride. This visit included an interview on KOTO radio. One of the highlights for me was when I asked JJ if he had ever heard of Widespread Panic and their cover of “Travelin’ Light.” He answered no on both fronts so I played the song for him. And I played it loud. When it was done he said, “That’s a real good cover.” Turning JJ on to another one of my favorite bands was a real treat.
The Telluride show was magical. There was a rainbow; John Hammond was on the bill and the two played together; there was a crazy confluence of JJ mojo when white cottonwoods flew into the air around the stage, just as JJ kicked into “Cocaine.” The show was recorded for an NPR show called Blues Stage.
That was the last time I ever saw JJ Cale, but his influence on me is substantial. I call my style of music the rootsy groove. No one epitomizes that moniker more than JJ Cale.
On his website after he died was the following message: “Donations are not needed but he was a great lover of animals so, if you like, you can remember him with a donation to your favorite local animal shelter.”
Classic JJ Cale. Make a donation, don’t make a donation, whatever suits you.
Someday JJ will be inaugurated into the Rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame, and he will get the credit that eluded him in his lifetime. But JJ didn’t care one bit. It was never about the attention or the fame. He was just tickled that he could make a living writing and playing music. As I mentioned above, one of my favorite JJ songs is “Kiss the World Goodbye.” On July 26 2013, JJ puckered up and left the corporeal world. But his music will live forever. In many ways the aforementioned song is a eulogy of sorts. He wrote:
“I’ve taken some things I don’t really need/I’ve wandered out any pride/Just wave me off, I’ll leave without doubt/I’ll kiss the world goodbye.”
Goodbye JJ. I miss you. Long live the king.
01 Intro .mp3
02 Going Down .mp3
03 Devil in Disguise .mp3
04 Don’t Go To Strangers.mp3
05 roll on .mp3
06 Crazy Mama .mp3
07 interlude .mp3
08 cajun moon .mp3
09 Bringing It Back.mp3
10 Riverboat Song .mp3
11 Travelin Light .mp3
12 Nowhere to Run .mp3
13 Too Much for me .mp3
14 closer to you .mp3
15 The Sensitive Kind.mp3
16 ride the river .mp3
17 interlude .mp3
18 durango .mp3
19 Angel .mp3
19 Lou _easy_anna .mp3
19 Magnolia .mp3
20 Wish I had not said that .mp3
21 you got something .mp3
22 Things Aint Simple.mp3