JJ Cale: ‘Send me the money, let the younger guys have the fame’
JJ Cale has died at the age of 74. Here we reprint and interview with him, first published in Classic Rock magazine in 2009: He’s been a mentor to Eric Clapton and an inspiration to Mark Knopfler. Lynyrd Skynyrd covered his songs and he’s one of Neil Young’s favourite guitarists. So why does JJ Cale remain one of blues rock’s best-kept secrets?
Words: Max Bell
John Weldon Cale is sitting in the kitchen of his rural ranch-style bungalow with the blinds drawn against the sun, staring at the wall. He lives in Southern California, in San Diego County, outside of Escondido — which is Spanish for ‘hidden’, and that’s just the way he likes it; nice and quiet, as befits the undisputed king of minimal southern rock, the epitome of laid-back, but a sonic architect just the same. His old Airstream motor home parked out front may be re-commissioned: Cale is about to go back on the road to promote new album, Roll On.
Ever since his companion, an English Springer called Buddy passed on, Cale has been on his lonesome. “Life without an animal is terrible,” he sighs. “I loved that old dawg. And Foley before him. Keep meaning to get me a new one.” His nearest neighbours are three acres away — unless you count his close friends, the squirrels, racoons, rabbits and birds running round his modest estate. “It’s like a Disney cartoon out here,” he chuckles.
The 70-year old Oklahoman, or Okie, with a tong drawl is weather-beaten, with a grey beard, looking not so much unshaven as unshaveable. Dressed in ancient Lee jeans and a work shirt, and pulling on a Kool, Cale admits to being a hypochondriac. “I’m gettin’ by okay for an old man, though since the rain came and ended the drought I got flu. Still alive though. At my age that’s a good deal,” he chuckles. Any day above ground…
Forever typecast as a recluse, Roll On is Cale’s sixteenth record. And it’s terrific, on a par with his early 70s albums Naturally, Really and Okie — which turned him from a 32-year-old late developer into an American legend, albeit of the best-kept secret kind. It’s safe to say that without his influence Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler would not be where they are today, while Neil Young says: “When I think of great guitarists I think of Jimi Hendrix and JJ Cale. There is no one better than him.”
Clapton’s cover of Cale’s After Midnight on the former’s 1970 debut solo album gave his mentor a weird career, though he still reckons “my songs are way more famous than I am. My bass playing friend, the late Carl Radle, played him [Clapton] the tune.” When he later heard that Clapton had covered it, he thought it was a wind-up. “Then Delaney Bramlett [of Delaney And Bonnie] talked me up. That was like discovering oil in your backyard. But I just do it and move on. Hell, I can’t tell one of my albums from the next. I try not to make ‘em sound like anything else, but everything I do sounds like me. It is what it is.”
Roll On features Clapton on the title track, a song that Cale has been playing live for more than 20 years. The two men have combined before, for the The Road To Escondido album , a mutual admiration project which won Cale his one and only Grammy — much to Clapton’s delight and embarrassment.
“Originally I asked him if he’d consider making an album with me,” Clapton recalls. “I really wanted him to produce me, because I’m a fan of his recorded sound. His minimalism is the way I want to go. He has a unique approach, and I wanted to avail myself of that.
“So I moved in with him for a week, to go over material and to get to know each other. Not a lot of work got done, but that wasn’t the point. The idea was to bring in the musicians and record ‘live’. I thought we might have a problem capturing the ‘groove’ I heard on his demos, usually created with drum machines etc and such an important part of his sound. Eventually the Road… album became a duo thing, which improved it and made the experience more memorable for me.
Clapton: “Hanging out with John is one of my favourite pastimes. He’s got a great sense of humour, and has been misunderstood by most people, referring to him as a recluse when he’s very sociable, open and charismatic. He just prefers his own company. JJ has never even been nominated for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, while l’ve been inducted three times. In my opinion he’s one of the most important artists in the history of rock, representing the greatest asset his country has ever had. Yet a lot of people have never even heard of him.”
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