Ordinarily, in a mentor-disciple relationship in which one of the players is Eric Clapton, the guitar icon would be the mentor. But one of the most significant moments at Clapton’s Crossroads Festival in Dallas last June came when Clapton the disciple happily took the role of sideman to one of his biggest influences, J.J. Cale.
Clapton, of course, has recorded several Cale compositions, the best-known being “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” and Cale’s style has crept into E.C.’s own songs, like “Lay Down Sally,” as well as his guitar playing. But the two had performed together onstage only once before, in Europe, so Cale’s booking agent and business manager, Mike Kappus, invited Clapton to sit in during J.J.’s set. It was answered with a request: “Would it be okay if I’m just in the band?” So instead of a big finale, Cale’s entire set featured the man some still refer to as “God” on second guitar.
At an age when most workers are forced to retire, the 65-year-old Cale could live more than comfortably if he never recorded another album or played another gig, thanks to the royalties generated from other artists covering his songs. In fact, just his 1971 debut, Naturally, would have provided a handsome nest egg; it included his own Top 40 hit “Crazy Mama” (covered by Larry Carlton, Johnny Rivers, and others), “Call Me The Breeze” (a hit for Lynyrd Skynyrd, also recorded by Johnny Cash), and “After Midnight,” which Cale reluctantly recorded, after Clapton had already scored a hit with it (and, as with “Cocaine,” subsequently re-recorded it several times). Just a few of the artists who have tapped Cale’s catalog for material include Widespread Panic, Chet Atkins, John Mayall, Santana, David Lindley, Deep Purple, Maria Muldaur, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Waylon Jennings, Freddie King, Jerry Garcia, the Band, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the Allman Brothers Band, and the Fleshtones’ Peter Zaremba.
Thankfully, instead of just making trips to his mailbox, Cale released his 14th and perhaps best album, To Tulsa And Back (Sanctuary), earlier this year, and has been touring more than ever of late. Backstage at the megafest in Dallas, he and his wife and bandmate Christine Lakeland joked that the next night they were playing a club outside Houston called the Mucky Duck.
Interviews with the notoriously press-shy Cale are rare, but he opens up considerably at the opportunity to talk about the reason he got into the music business in the first place: the guitar.
Vintage Guitar: Thirty-three years after your debut, you’ve put out one of your strongest albums ever.
J.J. Cale: Well, this album was made by committee. The last four albums, with me playing with the synthesizer, everybody hated. [Then producer/manager] Audie Ashworth did the first eight albums, and those were kind of semi-popular, for an obscure songwriter like me. Then I started doing these albums in California with all synthesizers and me being the engineer. I liked those, but the folks wanted a little warmer kind of thing. So when I made this record, I turned in about 30 songs.
Generally, Audie used to pick all the songs. “That’s a good song, John… Let’s throw this one away.” This time, Bas Hartong at Sanctuary Records and Mike Kappus and I jointly picked the 13 songs – instead of going, “Here’s 12 songs; see you later.”
A few years ago, before Audie passed away, I said, “I’ve been making synthesizer records; ain’t nobody likes ‘em but me. I’ll come to Nashville, and we’ll hire all the guys who are still alive who played on the first albums.” Audie said, “Great.” I told him to book some studio time. But then he passed away, and I put the deal on hold. Eventually, I decided to do the same program, only go to Tulsa instead of Nashville. David Teagarden, of Teagarden & Van Winkle, is a drummer who has a studio, so I told him to get the guys in Tulsa that we used to play with when we were kids. I cut some there, and had some demos I did here at the house, and I sent them all to Bas and to Mike.
So the committee made the selections after you’d recorded the finished tracks?
Right. I had 15 or 20 demos out of the synthesizer stuff. I went in and re-cut some of the demos with the guys in the studio. They picked the tunes, but I picked the recordings. Seven of those songs are the home demos; six of them are with the band. The ones here at the house are all synthesizers and drum machines. Of the 13 songs, “My Gal,” “One Step,” “The Problem,” “These Blues,” and “Motormouth” are with the band. I did “Rio” here and took the tape to Tulsa, and Jimmy Karstein played the congas. The rest are just me. [Keyboardist] Walt Richmond did the [synth] horns on “My Gal,” and they almost sound like real horns. I did them on everything else – either on keyboard or MIDI’ed out of my Casio [PG-380] guitar. You can plug the MIDI from the guitar into any synthesizer that has MIDI. Depending on the key – like F#, which is a little rough on keyboard – sometimes it’s easier for me to do it on the guitar.
Probably half the songs that are on there, I wouldn’t have picked. I’m not a very good song picker of my own stuff. The songs I really like that J.J. Cale wrote are none of the hits. I said, “Well, maybe you write some pretty good songs and have made some pretty good records, John, but you need help picking tunes.” All my songs kind of sound the same to me, because they’re all me.
Sonically, this is a cut above the albums you refer to as “synthesizer records” or “demos.”
I made the transition to digital about two years ago. I’ve still got some of the old analog stuff in storage. I love the engineering part; that’s why I put out a lot of synthesizer-type records – I like that sound. Trouble is, everybody’s doing that now. On the radio, chances are you won’t hear a real drummer. I was doing that all the way back to “Call Me The Breeze” and “Crazy Mama.” Those were drum machines.
But back then, drum machines were really primitive.
I have an old Japanese drum box called an Acetone. It just goes bomp-chink, bomp-chink, bomp-chink. Samples didn’t come along until Roger Linn. When we did the first album, most people didn’t realize that was an electric drum machine – or that there even was such a thing. Later on, Roger Linn was playing guitar with Leon Russell, and Leon was fascinated with the cheesy Acetone machine I’d bought, and he decided, “It’d be nice if we could pan the snare over to one side.” It didn’t even have high-hat or anything. But he wanted to make a fancy drum machine. Well, Roger was an electronics nerd, and he was doing the mix. About that time digital was coming in, and I think Karstein is who he sampled on those early Linn machines. So all the records started using drum machines, but with samples of real drums. That old box I had came out of an organ or something.
That means you were the inspiration for the Linn Drum machine.
Yeah. I’ve said before: I think “Crazy Mama” was the first thing to be played on the radio that had an electric drum machine. I ran it into a ’65 blackface Fender Twin amplifier, and put a microphone on it. You could probably research that and find something from the ’50s, but this was the first thing where they took [the percussion] out of the organ. If you bought a Lowry organ, it had a little drum machine thing; that’s all that was, but they put it in a box. And then Roger revolutionized it, and nowadays it’s everywhere. Rap would not work without drum machines.
I didn’t use a real drummer because I had no money. So I cut “Crazy Mama” and “Call Me The Breeze,” and Carl Radle came in and played bass, and Mac Gayden played slide on “Crazy Mama.” Then Audie hired some musicians and a real studio, and we cut the other eight songs on Naturally. It didn’t sell that much, but it was liked by the inside people; we sold the songs.
Our whole deal was we were actually trying to sell songs to all the other musicians. Instead of going down like the Brill Building days or Nashville days, and knocking on George Jones’ secretary’s door, saying, “Here’s a demo; see if you can get George to do it,” we figured out if you put out records, we didn’t need to sell records if they just got to the musicians. That was our “knock” on the door, and everybody else was going door to door, trying to get in to see the country guys or rock guys or Eric Clapton or whoever. Artists who sell a lot of records have about six people in front of them, so you can’t get to them unless someone on the inside says, “This guy’s got a great song.”
That’s a brilliant plan, when you think about it.
Well, my records sell just enough to always be in the black, but not a lot. So the record companies didn’t like it, but the publisher, who was Audie, did because we were getting material out there. Esoteric musicians were playing it, and it was getting to Eric Clapton or whoever.
We didn’t care if the records sold or not; that’s why I always called them demos. But Clapton would cut something; I’d go, “There’s the master [recording] that I didn’t screw with.” That was the whole scheme with Audie and me.
Was it an advantage being with Shelter, which Leon Russell part-owned?
Yeah. Denny Cordell was the businessman; Leon was the musician. I just loved Denny; he was like a musician. Those guys are all gone. Now it’s musicians and “these guys” – guys who got into the business to make money, not because they liked music. Musicians are all in it because they like music, but there’s a great big barrier. The old-school guys like Denny were music guys. Leon wasn’t crazy about the first album. He said, “Yeah, I know Johnny, but it’s too” – he didn’t use the term laid-back, but… Then Denny said, “I like it.” But Audie did all that. I just went in and made the records, and Audie paid for the whole thing and tried to sell it. I said, “Try to get it to a major label.” He said, “John, I’ve had five record companies turn us down, but Denny Cordell, who has Shelter with Leon, will put it out.”
If it hadn’t been for Denny and Leon, the album would have never come out.
Prior to that, had you been writing songs a long time?
I never considered myself a songwriter; I was mainly playing guitar for other people. If the singer didn’t show, I’d sing “Corrine Corrina” and “Linda Lou” by Ray Sharpe. Then out here on the coast I made my living engineering; I worked for Warner Brothers and Snuff Garrett. In the daytime I’d set up mics and all that stuff for whoever they were recording, and at night I’d play with whoever I could get a job with, in El Segundo or Norwalk – a bowling alley for two nights. When I went back to Tulsa, before Clapton cut his first solo album with “After Midnight,” I just played guitar. I didn’t really start singing and writing the songs until the Naturally album.
You couldn’t have envisioned that your songwriting would mushroom the way it did. So when you cut Naturally, the songs were just done as your own vehicle, correct?
Right. I did it because I was an engineer and had access to the studio. In those days, people didn’t have studios in their house. Somebody had to put up the money to rent the studio and hire the musicians. But because I was an engineer, after everything was done, my friends would come in, and that’s where the original version of “After Midnight” came on. I’d play with the tape recorder. I love imitating Les Paul. Multi-track fascinated me.
So I did “After Midnight” and went all over trying to sell that song, and couldn’t sell it. Snuff Garrett was doing all the Gary Lewis stuff, and Leon was doing arrangements for him at the time, and I was the engineer over at Leon’s house. I made “After Midnight” at Leon’s house, and Snuff sold it to Liberty.
So Clapton heard that, and his version was very much like your original arrangement.
Yes. I wasn’t going to put the song on there, but Cordell said, “You’ve got to put it on the album.” I told him I’d already done it, and didn’t like doing the song again. I said, “All I’d be doing is aping Clapton’s version” – because that first version that he heard, on Liberty, was real fast. I decided, “Well, I’ll do it slow.” I’ve done it a hundred different ways – polka, reggae…
But the original Liberty version isn’t even available right now, is it?
No. I do not even have a copy of it. But if you listen to Eric’s and then mine, it’s got that same opening guitar riff and everything.
Do you have a favorite synth?
The main one I use is an Italian synthesizer called a WK; I don’t know the exact model number. And I have a Roland that costs about $200. I come out of my Casio guitar and go into the tape recorder – which is not a tape recorder anymore. The process of making the albums where I really got into synthesizers, and some of the new album, is very time consuming. It’s really much quicker to have musicians do it. I enjoy it because I’m a songwriter.
When I sit down to write new songs, I’m looking for inspiration. It’s like, “Well, I’ve used those chord changes; I’ve used those licks; that sounds like something I wrote 10 years ago.” The nice thing about having that bigger palette of colors is it gets you going.
After you’ve written as many songs as I have, it’s hard to get going. “We want another record, J.J.” I go, “Well, I don’t really need the money anymore…” You know, Eric Clapton has been very good to me (laughs)! But I still have that art jones in my system. Sometimes I’ll write on the piano or on guitar – just like every other singer/songwriter – and come up with something. When I need some more, I’ll start hooking up electronics. I’ll buy some new electronics, and it’ll turn me on, but electronics don’t do anything by themselves; you’ve got to program it or play it. That would inspire me to come up with something. When I get some new piece of gear, I never put something I’ve already written into it; I’ll make up something new.
But it’s not all electronics. I modify guitars a lot, so I’ll plug it into an amp and see what it does, and pretty soon I’m playing something I never played before. That’s the hard part: getting up and going to work every morning – for a guy who just likes to play guitar and hang out. That’s how I make my living; that’s not my favorite thing in the music business. My favorite thing is playing guitar. But as all guitar players would know, you can’t make a living from playing the guitar. I know some of the world’s greatest guitar players, and they’ve got a job plumbing.
Are you your own publishing company?
No. Warner Brothers owns “After Midnight;” a guy named Johnny Beanstock bought most of the songs on the first album; pretty much everything else is Audigram, which is Audie’s company. His wife runs it now, and I deal with her. In the past two or three years, I had them set up a deal where it’s J.J. Cale Music, so I get half the publishing.
You want to learn how to be a songwriter? The first lesson they tell you is to own your own songs. I didn’t want to because publishing is a paper deal – phone, computer, and paperwork. I don’t want to do that; I want to write songs, and if you do all that paper stuff, you’ll get 50 percent of my song, and I’ll get 50 percent. Also, I don’t want to go out and go, “Hey, you want to cut my tune?” So I didn’t opt for the thing that they advise everyone to do, if you go down and buy the book. That’s great if you want to do all the bookkeeping. You’ve got to remember: publishing is a paper deal. You’re going to spend part of your life typing on a computer, writing letters, working deals with publishing companies in Europe to get ten cents over here. So I don’t own any of my songs, but when a dollar comes in on “After Midnight” Warner-Tamerlane takes their half, and I get 50 percent.
So even if you did own your publishing and wouldn’t have to split it with anybody, in your experience, by having them as part of the operation, you’ve made more money?
100 percent of nothing is nothing. That’s the way everything used to be. Along about 20 years ago, with the singer/songwriter deal and people becoming more hip to the music business, most songwriters started owning all their own stuff. Back in the old days, there was a publisher and a songwriter – two different guys. The advantage of it is – although they don’t do it as much as they used to – if they own the song, they’ll hustle the song. I mean, I had three different commercials with “After Midnight” – Michelob Beer, Claritin, and Clapton did one for Miller Beer. I’ve got to believe that Warner Brothers hustled that. If you own your own songs, they’re not doing anything for you. [That's] my philosophy, and I still do that. It’s another way to look at it.
After realizing that the real money is in the publishing and songwriting instead of playing guitar or making albums, most artists would think, “But I’m having to split that with these people.”
It’s called greed. When people started their own publishing companies, like J.J. Cale Music, as times changed, you could buy books that would show you how to make it in show business. But I didn’t change to “I want to own my songs.” Now that I look at it, I wouldn’t have had two beer commercials and a drug commercial if I’d owned that song, because I have no idea how to hustle Miller Beer – but Warner Brothers does. Or Johnny Beanstock, who owns “Call Me The Breeze” and “Crazy Mama,” he also deals with Lynyrd Skynyrd. So it’s against the rules that everybody goes by now, but it works for me.
The thing about publishing that most guys don’t understand is, you can own your publishing, and you can do the paperwork with BMI and register your song, but the hard part is collecting the money. That’s really hard. Publishing companies are aware of that kind of thing, while artists are too busy working on their next song. I’ve managed my whole career being pretty much of a loner – and there’s advantages and disadvantages to that – but that kept me in control. But you can be the world’s greatest guitar player, the greatest dancer – that comes and goes. Songs are around forever. If you want to make money in the music business, write songs. The hard part is, it ain’t no fun. Like I said, I love playing the guitar or engineering – I’ll do that for free. Like I told Karstein, “We get paid for hauling the instruments in and putting them onstage and hauling them back out. We play for free.” “How much do you charge?” It depends on how much I’ve got to take it out of the bus, set it onstage, wind up the cords, haul it back out. That’s what I want to get paid for. I play for free. My act never got to the point where I was making enough money to have road managers and tour directors and techs; it was a matter of economics.
But there’s a separation, then, between you as a performer and your songwriting income.
Oh, my songwriting pays for the whole “J.J. Cale coming to your town and playing Joe’s Bar” deal. When I add it all up at the end of the year, my touring is a loss leader. But it keeps me exposed just enough where people are aware of my music, and then they discover your songs. It comes back in songwriting royalties. In Europe, the money goes up, but when that happens I generally hire more musicians; I don’t hire more roadies. In 2002, I started out solo, then added Christine and a drummer. By the time I got to Colorado four months later, I had four guitar players, two piano players, a bass, and three drummers. And half of them brought their old ladies. I had to have two buses; I couldn’t get everything on one bus.
Do you think you could ever be a Brill Building type of writer, where you go to a cubicle every day and write at least a song a day?
I’ve done that. At one time in the ’60s, I worked with Snuff Garrett, who produced very flowery songs. He made a hit out of Walter Brennan ["Old Rivers"]. Try that someday. He pulled that off! He was an entrepreneur deluxe. He could sell snow to Eskimos. He thought totally different from everybody else. He was in tune with some folks out there who I have no idea who they are, but there are millions of them. Snuff Garrett didn’t play, couldn’t sing, but he was amazing at being able to say, “That’s a hit.” And generally he was not wrong. If you sang him 30 songs, he could tell you which was the good one.
In your days as an engineer, did you ever work on any hits that people would recognize?
I engineered a lot of records, but you never heard of them and couldn’t find them now – and I’m glad (laughs). My claim to fame as an engineer was that psychedelic band that did “Summertime Blues” – Blue Cheer. I engineered the tracks on that and quit the job before they put their vocals on. I was getting tired of being an engineer and wanted to get back to playing guitar, so I went to Nashville.
They were known as one of the loudest bands of their time. Did they play that way in the studio?
I didn’t know what a roadie was, but they started coming in, putting rugs down, and brought in equipment for four hours – before the band even showed up. I’d never seen a Marshall before in my life. The Fender Twin was the pierce-your-ears amplifier. Here they come filling the walls with these amplifiers, and then they started playing. I mean, like all those studios, there’s glass, and then there’s air between, and another pane of glass – between the studio and the control room – to keep the sound from bleeding in. I could turn off the monitors and hear them fine. Coming through double-pane glass.
What guitars did you play on To Tulsa And Back?
I used that Casio. In 2002 I started playing a Danelectro Convertible because it’s light and has acoustic properties. It’s one of the newer ones made in Korea. I like the sound of it; keeping it in tune is a little rough. I had a Martin custom-made in 1991, a 000-45 with my name on it. That’s most of the acoustic guitar you hear, but all the electric leads are the Casio. On “The Problem” I play a gut-string solo on a Ramirez with a piezo. The Convertible is on one cut, “These Blues.” I don’t play guitars without modifying them. I put a piezo in it, and stereo it out. If I’m playing solo, the Danelectro is fine. But if I’m playing with a band, doing hot licks, I use the Casio.
When you cut stuff at your home studio, do you play straight into the board?
Sometimes I play direct; sometimes I put a [Shure] 57 on an amp; sometimes I play through nine gizmos. My amp is a Fender Blues Junior. I have an old 4×10 original ’59 Bassman and a ’65 Twin Reverb with JBLs, but I can’t pick them up; the Blues Junior I can pick up. When you put JBLs in a Twin, you better have a roadie or you better be 18 years old. As the years went by and I got older and my back got worse, my amps kept getting smaller and smaller. The Blues Junior has one 12; they put a mic on it, it’s plenty loud. And I run the piezo through a Crate Limo battery-operated amplifier. So I have a 12″ speaker with tubes for the magnetic pickup, and the piezo through one 10 and a tweeter, solidstate.
I’ve got a Line 6 amp, but they don’t make one small enough for me. The sound is incredible, but I’ve never used it on a recording. I bought it and messed with it for a few days, because I’m always looking for something really small that sounds really big – which is hard to do. My sound isn’t no bigger than my back. I carried a Fender Twin around when I was younger, and that’s probably what’s wrong with my back today. And with JBLs in it, that adds another 20 pounds.
Regardless of the guitar or amp, you always get a warm tone that’s immediately identifiable as you.
Right. I know what I sound like, and other people like the way I sound – which helps me – but still, as a guitar player, I was always trying to get something so I didn’t sound like I know I sound. In other words, I know how to get my sound, and I’ve been doing that for years, but I get bored with that. I’m always thinking that if I buy a new guitar or new gizmo, I’m going to entertain me. The “J.J. Cale” kind of sound just comes naturally. That’s the way I play, and I can’t play any other way. Like all guitar players, when I was a kid I tried to imitate my favorites. But my stab at trying to imitate them is where I got my sound; that’s how you get it. Nowadays, I’ve heard me more than anyone on the planet, so I’m always going, “If I get this guitar here, I’ll sound like… whoever.” Doesn’t work. I end up sounding the same as always. Pisses me off.
Even when you use distortion, like on “Motormouth,” or the wah-wah on “My Gal”…
(Dejectedly) Sounds like me. I try not to sound that way to entertain myself. I’m one of the original home-studio guys, so I’m always trying different things. I go, “Why don’t I sound just a little like Larry Carlton?”
Some guitar stars who are great stylists in their own right cite you as an influence and dip into your style – for instance, Mark Knopfler. Does it ever make you self-conscious if you find yourself doing something that others have borrowed from you – because it might be perceived the other way around?
That’s okay to me. I’ll hear Eric Clapton do one of my tunes, and I’ll borrow some of the things that he put on my tune. That’s that trade-off. People will go, “Man, Eric Clapton is ripping you off.” No, you ain’t got a clue. We’re all just passing this around; it’s dinner for everybody. That’s the positive thing about musicians. You may go through a period where you’re really egotistical and that might worry you, but if you live long enough you see that none of us are really inventing anything. Music is music; there’s only so many notes and chords. I’ll hear something on TV, and either borrow it, or subconsciously it gets put in. One of my favorite Beatles songs was “We Can Work It Out.” If you listen to that and “After Midnight,” they’re totally different, but that was me kind of imitating the Beatles. That’s how that works.
You were already a gigging musician before rock and roll came along. For most people, rock and roll has always been part of the culture.
I remember when it came in. When I was about 12, I played guitar with a friend up the street, and he was into country music – Hank Snow, Gene Autry. In rock and roll my first influences were Scotty Moore and Elvis Presley – which was because a guy hired me to play guitar and he did Elvis Presley songs. So I learned Scotty’s guitar parts, and if he wanted to do a Little Richard or Fats Domino song, I’d have to kind of learn the piano part and do that on guitar. The one who caught my ear when I was a little older and had been playing nightclubs, around ’58, was Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s “Okie Dokie Stomp.” Scotty Moore wasn’t a single-string player; he did more like Arthur Crudup – thumb-and-finger. But “Okie Dokie Stomp” was the first single-string kind of thing that I heard, along with B.B. I can almost play that thing; I could probably get real close to it. Talk about sound and atmosphere and tone and phrasing, it still mystifies me today. I didn’t quite get all the notes, so I’d fake it, and that led to something else. I learned a lot from trying to learn it. The main thing I learned was where to put the note in the spectrum of time. Phrasing. It’s almost behind the beat, but milliseconds.
Learning Scotty’s stuff was a good education too. The break on “Trying To Get To You,” I stole some licks off that.
After those two main guitar influences, anybody that’s been on the radio or that I’ve heard has influenced me. I’ve stolen a couple of notes off everybody – or a couple of grooves or a couple of sounds. I don’t delve into it as much as I used to; that’s probably my age. When you sit down and try to learn somebody else’s style, you’re actually practicing; you don’t know it, because you’re trying to learn their stuff. And then you never really accomplish that, but you learn something and apply it. If you do that enough, you come up with something that’s really you.
Cale photo: Eddie Malluk.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.