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J.J. Cale was an American singer-songwriter who wrote hits for Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and more. His distinct "Tulsa Sound" left a permanent imprint on music.
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J.J. Cale was born on December 5, 1938, in Oklahoma City. After honing his musicality in Tulsa, the guitar player moved to Los Angeles, where he established himself as a singer-songwriter. Cale was never in the spotlight; other performers covered his songs, most notably Eric Clapton. His signature "Tulsa Sound" influenced musicians such as Neil Young. He died on July 26, 2013, at age 74.
"I heard it on the radio, and I went, 'Oh, boy, I'm a songwriter now. I'm not an engineer or an elevator operator.'"
[On realizing he'd made it in the music business upon hearing "After Midnight," a song he wrote for Eric Clapton, on the radio.]
John Weldon Cale was born in Oklahoma City on December 5, 1938. He was raised in Tulsa, and began playing guitar at the age of 10. During his high school years, J.J. Cale joined the Western swing music scene as a guitar player. In 1959, he toured with the Grand Ole Opry road company. In 1964, he moved to Los Angeles, where, in addition to performing, he worked as a songwriter and producer. It was during this period that he changed his stage name to J.J. Cale from Johnny Cale, to avoid being confused for the Velvet Underground's John Cale. A year later, he recorded his first release, "After Midnight," a song that was destined to change his career and life.
Eric Clapton recorded "After Midnight" just as Cale gave up music and moved back to Tulsa. The first time Cale heard the cover was in the radio of his car. Years later, Cale shared with NPR that upon hearing the tune, he thought to himself, "Oh, boy, I'm a songwriter now. I'm not an engineer or an elevator operator."
Cale took songwriting seriously; he wrote and performed all his own songs, mixed the recordings and played multiple instruments. His songs were covered by Tom Petty, Carlos Santana, Johnny Cash, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Band and more. His collaboration with Clapton continued to be fruitful; Clapton recorded "Cocaine" in 1977, a radio hit that he would continue to perform for years to come. Cale's 2006 album with Clapton, The Road to Escondido, won a Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album.
Cale's style contains elements from myriad genres, including blues, country, rock, jazz and folk. The result is an authentic genre that has been dubbed "Tulsa Sound." Along with fellow Oklahoman Leon Russell, Cale was co-credited for developing this signature brand. Defined by its simple, mumbled lyrics, shuffling beat, bluesy guitar lines and subtle country sound, Tulsa Sound was a sharp contrast to the psychedelic rock of the period. Cale, who attributed his unique sound to his roots, played covers of recordings released prior to the rock 'n' roll evolution of the 1960s. Musical juggernauts have cited Cale as an influence, including the Dire Straits's Mark Knopfler and Neil Young, who said that Cale and Jimi Hendrix were the best electric guitar players he'd ever heard.
Despite the tremendous success of his songs, Cale never became a household name. He recorded solo albums, but his highest appearance on the charts was in 1972, when his song "Crazy Mama" hit No. 22. He toured throughout the 1970s and did an annual tour through most of the '80s.
He was largely unfazed about his lack of name recognition, preferring to call himself a "musician" as opposed to a "performer." He was known as a recluse, living in his trailer without a telephone for years at a time. His record covers rarely featured his picture. Cale died of a heart attack at the age of 74 on July 26, 2013, in La Jolla, California. His wife, musician Christine Lakeland, survived him.
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