Monday, April 30, 2012

Travelin' Light: JJ Cale

JJ Cale

The roads into new music are sometimes improbable and unexpected.

In 1978, after a year in India, I took up residence in a rooming house in Dinkytown, that rather famous little neighborhood in Minneapolis, where Bob Dylan played his earliest public shows. The same day I moved in, the room across the hallway got a new resident too. He was an Iranian who’d recently arrived from the UK and his older brother asked me to make him feel welcome.  The thought of someone who shared a non-American perspective on life appealed to me and Navid and I hit it off. Over the next 12 years he and I had jobs together, fell out and came back together, shared our homes with each other, drove cabs for the same company and saw each other get married and have sons. 

The basis of our friendship centered on politics and music. It was the last days of the Shah when we met and I immediately became immersed in the fevered political discussions of Navid and his circle of Iranian friends. In our small smoke filled rooms I listened as they debated the pros and cons of Khomeini and the communists and the royalists. Interestingly, in all of those nights and weeks of conversations and arguments they never ever played any Iranian music. I learned nothing about Iranian singers or music.  All we listened to was rock n roll.

Navid sneered at my music collection. One of our first fights came right after he walked into my room and turned off my stereo as it was playing a Dan Fogelberg record. I was incensed. “Who gave you the right?” I asked. “Who gave you the right to listen to shit?” he shot back.

All he could talk about was Genesis, Eric Clapton, Gordon Giltrap, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel and Jethro Tull. As a rule he ignored American music and preferred British rock ‘n’ roll. I resisted, more out of spite than anything else and tried to push the virtues of The Eagles.  Somehow we remained friends.

One day he brought an album into my room and excitedly put it on the turntable. It was the one I share tonight, Troubador by JJ Cale. Here, at last was something I could get into. The laid back guitar stylings and whispered vocals immediately hit a chord. I’d never heard anything like him and for once I didn’t mind when Navid played the record a second time. I loved Travelin’ Light, Navid, raved about Cherry. We had a hit on our hands and a certain trust was established. I was henceforth more open to his suggestions and eventually came to love Peter Gabriel and Gordon Giltrap and Camel. He never got Dan Fogelberg but JJ Cale proved to him that Americans could make good music even if their politicians supported a corrupt regime.

With his laid-back rootsy style, J.J. Cale is best known for writing "After Midnight" and "Cocaine," songs that Eric Clapton later made into hits. But Cale's influence wasn't only through songwriting -- his distinctly loping sense of rhythm and shuffling boogie became the blueprint for the adult-oriented roots rock of Clapton and Mark Knopfler, among others. Cale's refusal to vary the sound of his music over the course of his career caused some critics to label him as a one-trick pony, but he managed to build a dedicated cult following with his sporadically released recordings. 

Born in Oklahoma City but raised in Tulsa, OK, Cale played in a variety of rock & roll bands and Western swing groups as a teenager, including one outfit that also featured Leon Russell. In 1959, at the age of 21, he moved to Nashville, where he was hired by the Grand Ole Opry's touring company. After a few years, he returned to Tulsa, where he reunited with Russell and began playing local clubs. In 1964, Cale and Russell moved to Los Angeles with another local Oklahoma musician, Carl Radle. 

Shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles, Cale began playing with Delaney & Bonnie. He only played with the duo for a brief time, beginning a solo career in 1965. That year, he cut the first version of "After Midnight," which would become his most famous song. Around 1966, Cale formed the Leathercoated Minds with songwriter Roger Tillison. The group released a psychedelic album called A Trip Down Sunset Strip the same year. 

Deciding that he wouldn't be able to forge a career in Los Angeles, Cale returned to Tulsa in 1967. Upon his return, he set about playing local clubs. Within a year, he had recorded a set of demos. Radle obtained a copy of the demos and forwarded it to Denny Cordell, who was founding a record label called Shelter with Leon Russell. Shelter signed Cale in 1969. The following year, Eric Clapton recorded "After Midnight," taking it to the American Top 20 and thereby providing Cale with needed exposure and royalties. In December 1971, Cale released his debut album, Naturally, on Shelter Records; the album featured the Top 40 hit "Crazy Mama," as well as a re-recorded version of "After Midnight," which nearly reached the Top 40, and "Call Me the Breeze," which Lynyrd Skynyrd later covered. Cale followed Naturally with Really, which featured the minor hit "Lies," later that same year. 

Following the release of Really, J.J. Cale adopted a slow work schedule, releasing an album every other year or so. Okie, his third album, appeared in 1974. Two years later, he released Troubadour, which yielded "Hey Baby," his last minor hit, as well as the original version of "Cocaine," a song that Clapton would later cover. By this point, Cale had settled into a comfortable career as a cult artist and he rarely made any attempt to break into the mainstream.

So Navid, wherever you are, thanks for the introduction to this great album all those years ago.

            Track Listing:
            01 Hey Baby
02 Travelin' Light
03 You Got Something
04 Ride Me High
05 Hold On
06 Cocaine
07 I'm A Gypsy Man
08 The Woman That Got Away
09 Super Blue
10 Let Me Do It To You
11 Cherry
12 You Got Me On So Bad


kokolo said...

Thank you for a reminder, we are going on a picnic tomorrow and guess who will fill up our two hours ride there. Yes, must say that we enjoyed roll on a lot too.

john jay said...


i have been a fan of j.j. cale's for a very long time, ... , my first album was just after 8 tracks phased into the small tapes.

i think it was "naturally," but i cannot remember.

i have 3 or 4 cd's of his stuff, and i still listen to it quite often. "you get your gun i'll get mine" was a favorite lyric during my last divorce: it was an added pleasure listening to it that my ex-wife-to-be detested the song.

good choice, liking cale.

john jay