Like so many, I heard J.J. Cale’s songs long before I ever heard his recordings. Eric Clapton saw to that. The star guitarist scored his first solo career hit with Cale’s After Midnight in the fall of 1970.
Few, outside of perhaps Clapton himself, knew much about the Okie born song stylist at the time. Cale had yet to release any of his own albums. But the runaway success of After Midnight changed everything. Roughly 18 months later, Naturally, Cale’s debut recording was issued. Almost immediately, he became songwriting royalty.
Naturally contained Cale’s own version of After Midnight, the homespun ballad Magnolia (a radio hit for the then-popular country-rock troupe Poco) and the ramblers anthem Call Me the Breeze (arguably the third most popular tune cut by Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd). The album even scored a modest hit for Cale himself, Crazy Mama.
While the early ‘70s pop mainstream may have flocked to Cale’s songs, what clearly established his legacy was the sound he draped them in. Cale’s tunes were often set to dark blues shuffles. Some were lean and homey (like Crazy Mama). Others worked off of efficient power chords (as in Cocaine, which became another huge hit for Clapton in 1977). And there was the vocal sound – a sleepy, whispery mumble that completed the mystery that defined Cale’s music. Collectively, those sounds became the calling card of the anti-star role Cale relished throughout his career.
Despite shunning his own celebrity status, Cale was a prolific recording artist who toured regularly. Even as the mainstream shifted its attention elsewhere beginning in the ’80s, Cale’s ghostly but soulful music stood resolute. While fans still celebrate early albums like Naturally and 1976’s Troubadour, Cale’s latter career years yielded all kinds of great underdog records. The best of them include 1980’s Shades (which allowed Cale his own turn as a cover artist with a regal but reserved take on Mama Don’t) and 1994’s Closer To You (which led off with one of Cale’s mightiest shuffles, Long Way Home).
Cale performed in Lexington several times at the long defunct Breeding’s and, most recently at the Kentucky Theatre. But my favorite was a stop at the University of Kentucky Student Center Ballroom when I was a college freshman.
Cale looked like something out of Deliverance at the show, dressed in what looked like long johns and overalls with a 5 o’clock shadow so pronounced that it could have been tattooed on his face. The entire back of his guitar had been ripped away, exposing a network of circuitry one feared might electrocute the guy at any moment. But the sound that came forth was the same distinctive Okie blues cool that distinguished his records.
Cale died last Friday at age 74 from a heart attack. He’s a settled blues soul, now. But slip on any of his sublime recordings and you will find yourself deep within a subtle groove. That still happens when you call him the breeze.