Last week we lost a true American original.
A rare talent who never sought fame (though he never shunned fortune), J.J. Cale was the pure manifestation of “laid back.” While on tour opening for Traffic, he reportedly told Shelter Records exec Denny Cordell, “Send me the money and let the younger guys have the fame.”
His rootsy blending of country and blues with a dash of rockabilly and a leavening of jazz yielded a new genre dubbed the “Tulsa Sound.” Of course he would never have taken credit for such a thing—he often said, “I’m just a songwriter and guitarist.” Yet Cale influenced and was hugely respected by many famous musicians, most notably Eric Clapton (“Lay Down Sally” is a virtual paean to Cale’s influence on Clapton’s evolving sound). When the iconic rock star was asked, “What living person do you most admire?” he responded without hesitation, “J.J. Cale.”
Cale was a master of understatement, indisputably proving that less is more. In a world rife with self-indulgent musical excess—overproduction, synthesizers, and digital sleight of hand—J.J. Cale penned and delivered tunes of bald-faced honesty, simplicity, and authenticity. All he really needed was a good axe, a Fender Champ, a few veteran session men, and a vintage Airstream—he was “Travelin’ Light.”
He was also a consummate craftsman; Cale always knew exactly what kind of groove he wanted a tune to have, and when he heard it, he quit messing with it. His recordings have a raw quality that sounds like they were cut in a single take—which is not far from the truth. Often, when a soloist would urge, “Let’s do that again, I can do better,” Cale would drawl, “No you can’t. That’s it, we’re done.” Spartan arrangements and his sleepy, breathy delivery drew you in and made you listen a bit more closely to his introspective story-songs. This was no accident, Cale was indeed a troubadour and he knew what he was about: “Let’s keep it simple so people can understand it.” Every word was carefully chosen, every note had its place. No fat, no fluff—just lean. How’d he do that?
While I was at the helm of Performance magazine (a trade pub for the touring talent industry), Cale was launching a rare tour in support of his definitive “Troubadour” album (featuring his anthem, “Cocaine,” which emerged as a signature hit for Clapton a year later). Since he was famous for being not famous, I opted to run a full-page head shot on the cover with the bold slug, “The Elusive J.J. Cale” (he would not have a photo of himself on the front cover of an album for another seven years).
But as luck would have it, his near-legendary anonymity was safe. The printers somehow managed to overlook stripping in the photo, so the cover was entirely blank save that not-so-revealing caption. Cale’s management thought we’d done it on purpose and approved! When I had the opportunity to explain what had actually happened to J.J., he cracked up. That suited him just fine, he said…
Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.