Remembering J.J. Cale, Architect of Laid-Back "Tulsa Sound"

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In his 2007 memoir Clapton: The Autobiography, Eric Clapton wrote that John Weldon "J.J." Cale "is one of the most important artists in the history of rock, quietly representing the greatest asset his country has ever had."

Cale, who was 74, died last Friday night in La Jolla, Calif. after suffering a heart attack, according to a statement posted on jjcale.com.

Unbeknownst to Cale, Clapton recorded Cale's "After Midnight" on his first solo album, Eric Clapton, in 1970. It became Clapton's first solo hit single. Cale frequently recalled in interviews that he was living in poverty and considering quitting music when he heard Clapton's version of his song on his car radio while driving in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla.

Along with fellow Tulsan Leon Russell, Cale forged what is referred to as the Tulsa sound, a style of countrified blues embellished with minor chords and laid-back rhythms.

Clapton would go on to have another charting hit in 1977 with Cale's "Cocaine," while in the interim Lynyrd Skynrd cut Cale's "Call Me The Breeze," on 1974's Second Helping. That song was quickly covered by Johnny Cash and the Allman Brothers Band.

Success as a songwriter led to a wider appreciation of Cale's infrequent album releases. His 1971 album Naturally, which contains several songs covered by higher-profile artists, is considered his recording masterpiece. It yielded Cale's only charting hit as a performer, the lilting "Crazy Mama." It also contained the comedic "Clyde," which became a hit for Waylon Jennings and "Don't Go to Strangers."

Cale cut a string of singles in Los Angeles in the mid-'60s, but he was not a particularly charismatic live performer and never played the "showbiz" game, preferring to live virtually off the grid in a sparsely populated area outside San Diego for decades.

I once had the bright idea that I would like to interview Cale and do a feature story on him. One L.A. contact I thought might be able to direct me to Cale told me that Cale "lives in a trailer house and he doesn't have a phone. So you have to track down his manager, who then sends J.J. a postcard and lets him know you want to talk to him.

"And if J.J. wants to talk to you, the manager will let you know a time you can call him at a pay phone near where he lives," the source added.

Needless to say, I gave up that chase. It didn't seem like Cale would much care to be interviewed.

Despite his lack of visibility, Cale has been honored the past decade by occasional invitations to appear with Clapton, particularly at the latter's Crossroads Guitar Festival. Cale also did an extensive in-studio program with Leon Russell and his band. His 2006 album with Clapton, The Road to Escondido, won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

Anyway, Rocks Off's hat is off to the quiet, soft-spoken Oklahoma troubadour. J.J. Cale was a cool, funky cat who stayed true to himself to the end.

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