JJ Cale: ‘Send me the money, let the younger guys have the fame’
One day Audie Ashworth, Cale’s future business partner, told him that Clapton had covered his song. He didn’t believe it until the first royalty cheque hit the mat. “Audie got me to Nashville around 1971 and we made Naturally for $3,000-$4,000. This is when the south was gonna rise again, like Charlie Daniels sang. Nashville, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Memphis — suddenly they became hip towns. The players were real good and people like Bob Dylan and Steve Miller were recording in our neck of the woods. It was good timing because rock folks discovered country. The studios were good and professional and the guitarists could play a lick. Like the Lovin’ Spoonful song [Nashville Cats] says about the 1,352 pickers in Nashville.”
The stoned, sexy calm of Cale’s albums gave him instant cult status among discerning record buyers. “Yeah, but I didn’t put Nashville on the map. Perhaps to Europeans I helped, but the Grand Ole Opry was famous since the 40s. My heroes remained the same: Charlie Parker, Elvis ‘fore he got too operatic, Chuck Berry, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and Mose Allison. I loved The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and that song We Can Work It Out. I loved Dylan’s folk stuff, Randy Newman, Nilsson. I don’t mind stealing a lick or borrowing a technique off them. I’m a musician, that’s what we do.”
Naturally was an easy album to make for Cale, since he had hundreds of unrecorded songs in his locker. The albums Really and Okie followed in short order, the former written on the way to Shelter Studios and finished in six days. “Audie and the label owners, Leon Russell and Denny Cordell, phoned every six months: ‘When’s the next one ready?’ My attitude was always: ‘What was wrong with the last one?’ But I got sucked in.”
In 1976 Cale embarked on his first of two European jaunts, promoting his most successful album, Troubadour. I saw him play at Hammersmith Odeon. It’s an indelible, dope-crazed memory. “I don’t remember it myself,” Cale laughs. “It was a blur of VW vans and big cities. The fish and chips were good in London. Eric sat in with us, unannounced. I’ve spoken to people who didn’t know he played!
“Am I laid back? I guess. I call my music ‘humming mud’, and my singing, if you can call it singing, is craggy and baggy. My range is kinda limited. One and a half notes — on a good day.”
Troubadour included the candid drug song Cocaine, while in Cale’s touring band was guitarist Christine Lakeland, who many have taken to be JJ’s muse. It’s thought that Cale has never married, but may have several ‘wives’. “Hmm… I don’t mind a bit of innuendo and sensuality but I don’t discuss my private life,” he says. He once filled out a Guardian newspaper questionnaire and omitted to answer anything remotely personal other than ‘What vehicle do you own?’ (truck and motor home), ‘Object always carried’ (pocket knife), Motto’ (do unto others before they do unto you) and ‘How would you like to die?’ (a very old man). ‘Significant others’ didn’t use up any ink from his pen.
“Nobody likes to be followed to the bedroom. Well, maybe some people do,” he smiles. “Christine is a very old friend. She’s way more of a recluse than I am.” It’s true. Lakeland’s website contains one page: a photograph of her holding an electric guitar. Marvellous.
The thing about JJ Cale is that he doesn’t change and doesn’t need to. He was good when he started and he’s good now. Like his song says: ‘They call me the breeze/ I keep blowing down the road.’ He ain’t broke, he don’t need fixing. “I’ve always been rock’n'roll and country; then again I’m more jazz than your average Britney Spears. But I ain’t a hermit. I’m home a lot writing songs cos that’s what l am. You don’t get that done by playing basketball…”
Five years ago Cale returned to his roots when he recorded the album To Tulsa And Back, hooking up with his old cronies Lakeland, Bill Boatman and Jimmy Karstein, and resolving his fall-out with Ashworth, who became exasperated every time Cale told him: “Send me the money and let the younger guys have the fame.” It was going to be called To Nashville And Back, but Ashworth died before the tapes were loaded.
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