JJ Cale: ‘Send me the money, let the younger guys have the fame’
Clapton’s involvement changed that to an extent, although the Grammy didn’t faze Cale. “That is still in the box. I may put it on the mantle but I probably won’t. My domestic duties are kinda slow. It didn’t really change my life, ‘cept it was a nice pat on the back. Good for my ego. Me and Eric laughed about it, but I have to thank him for boosting my bank balance by recording After Midnight on his first solo record, then cutting Cocaine and I’ll Make love To You Anytime. Same with Lynyrd Skynyrd, who cut Call Me The Breeze. Man, they rocked that up! They cut it so hard it astonished me. I wasn’t aware they were even listening to me. Then those kids all died. That was too bad.”
Cale hasn’t had a hit himself since 1972, when a Little Rock DJ flipped his Magnolia single and hammered the B-side, Crazy Mama, which eventually reached No.22 on the Billboard chart.
Top Nashville guitarist Mac Gayden, of Area Code 615/Barefoot Jerry fame, who played the distinctive wah-wah slide on that track, recalls the session: “Cale’s producer, Audie Ashworth, hired me for the studio at Bradley’s Barn, outside Nashville. We ran through it one time only, then Cale gets on the talkback and says, ‘Come on in Mac and sign the time card, you’re done.’ I said, ‘I can do it better.’ He said, ‘No you can’t.’ I swear it only took seven minutes – first take.
“That cut launched the career of one of America’s most emulated guitarists. John was a total joy, very loosey-goosey with a don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff vibe. In a business packed with people trying to be hip and cool, he is a rare personality.”
Shortly afterwards, Gayden joined Cale’s band for a tour supporting Black Oak Arkansas whose teenage audience started throwing bottles and booing them in Baton Rouge, LA. “So we turned our amps to full throttle and let rip — and it worked. Next night we played the Warehouse in New Orleans with Quicksilver Messenger Service. JJ still played on a stool with his back on the crowd, but they got it.”
Gayden also witnessed a rare flash of Cale temper. “The last time I saw John was in LA a few years ago, at his house. We talked about ‘old friends,’ and then suddenly John started to ‘rag’ on Mark Knopfler. He mentioned how much he didn’t appreciate him ripping off his guitar style and his singing. Just as John was reaching a fever pitch, guess who calls? None other than Mark Knopfler himself, inviting JJ to go on the road and open for his upcoming tour. John was nice, but hung up and started to ‘rag’ him again. I left in total agreement. A few weeks later I read that he was opening for Mark on his US tour. I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”*
Cale — who Clapton calls “a superior musician… one of the masters” — runs in a straight line. In the late 50s and early 60s he cut a sequence of rockabilly and rock’n'roll sides with his own Quintette and helped create the Tulsa Sound with fellow Oklahomans David Gates and Leon Russell (Bridges). In 1965 he moved to Los Angeles when pop producer Snuff Garrett told him that psychedelia was a-happening. Cale migrated and hung out with members of Ronnie Hawkins And The Hawks (the nascent Band), before making the one-off album A Trip Down The Sunset Strip in 1967 with old Okie pals he christened The Leathercoated Minds. The LP contained super-fast acid takes on the Yardbirds’ Over Under Sideways Down, the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, Donovan’s Sunshine Superman, and a few originals composed under the influence of LSD and plenty of pot.
“I hate that album,” Cale says. “I’ve tried to burn it whenever I see one. We bought into the psychedelic scene but it was a bad imitation. You guys might like it, but you’re nuts! I enjoyed LA though. I played at all the East LA bars. We supported Johnny Rivers when he was hot, and I saw Love and The Doors. I also saw Otis Redding, who was better. I think I was only the third act ever to perform at the Whisky. Club owner Elmer Valentine gave me the JJ handle. Said it would look good on the marquee. Smartest thing I ever did.”
While the hierarchy of young, long-haired LA groups thrived, Cale found he’d outworn his welcome. He had a spell as an engineer, working on Blue Cheer’s debut Vincebus Eruptum, but felt out of place among the acid crowd. “I spent too much time drinking and got real poor, real fast,” he recalls. “LA ain’t a good place to be hungry. So I came home and got a job in a country band and lived in motels, earning 10 bucks a night and all the beer you wanted. I really thought I was finished and would end up selling shoes, until Eric cut After Midnight. I was going to be a construction worker, or an insurance man. I was that down on luck.”
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