J.J. Cale is the last person you’d expect to get the up close and personal “Behind The Music” treatment. Interviews with him are rare, and for years most of his fans only had a vague idea what he looked like, since he toured sporadically and was seldom pictured on albums. Of his 1971 debut, Naturally, he laughs, “Ironically, we were selling records with no interviews, no photographs, no publicity. But that was another time.”
In 2004, he released his first studio album in eight years, To Tulsa And Back. “The reason I did the tour was because Eric Clapton asked me to do the Crossroads Festival,” he explains. “If I got to saddle up and get a band, might as well play some other gigs. Ended up being seven weeks.”
When he granted German filmmaker Jorg Bundschuh permission to film some dates, he says, “I thought it was just going to be a promo thing, like 10 minutes long. I didn’t know we were doing a ‘This Is Your Life’ kind of thing.”
The resultant video, To Tulsa And Back: On Tour With J.J. Cale (Time-Life), is a rare treat, with concert footage (including his first show in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 25 years); informal acoustic performances; family album pictures spanning his lifetime; and interviews with bandmates (some of whom first played with him nearly 50 years ago), his biggest supporter (and beneficiary), Eric Clapton, and – best of all – Cale himself.
In one segment, drummer Jimmy Karstein refers to Cale as “the most unaffected person ever in the music business,” as anyone who knows him can attest. Talking about himself is not Cale’s favorite thing to do. “It was a real surprise to me,” he admits. “That’s really not my kind of thing. Then they wanted me to promote it – like, ‘Will you go to a record store in L.A. and do like a book signing?’ I said, ‘Of course not.’ So they said, ‘Will you sign some sleeves if we send them to you?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’ ‘And will you do some interviews?’ I said, ‘I’ll do two.’ So you’re one of them.”
At the time the tour was filmed, John Cale was 65 years old. He explains how, after he moved to Los Angeles, the owner of the Whiskey A Go Go renamed him J.J. Cale, because there was another John Cale, in the Velvet Underground. “I said, ‘If you give me a job, you can call me anything you want.’”
After years of working as both guitarist and recording engineer, Cale was broke as the ’60s drew to a close, and sold his Les Paul for a ticket home. Then Clapton cut J.J.’s “After Midnight.” His whole world changed, although by all accounts Cale stayed the same. When his first album yielded the hit “Crazy Mama,” he was offered an appearance on “American Bandstand” – sure to help the single climb the charts. When he found out he’d have to lipsynch, he passed – and the record dropped down several notches.
Pianist Rocky Frisco, who formed a Tulsa band with Cale in 1957, pinpoints one of Cale’s unique qualities. “He’s got a fairly simple musical style, compared to a lot of great musicians. But when his style impinges on the styles of great musicians, great musicians start to play like John Cale, rather than the other way around.”
Clapton, who calls Cale “an incredible inspiration,” credits him with making “some of the most significant American music.” The guitar hero seems in awe of Cale’s minimalist style, marveling, “It’s all about finesse.”
Cale, who refers to himself as “semi-retired,” says, “I was always afraid I’d be old and poor. Seems like I have more work now than I used to have, and I turn down more than I take. There’s so much business connected with work now. It ain’t just me playing my guitar and singing my songs and, ‘Hi folks, how are ya?’ In the old days, the record company had the advertising and promotion department. You didn’t do all that; they did. Nowadays, the companies don’t do any promotion; they put it out so you can go promote it. That’s probably the most drastic change in the record business. In the daytime I’m doing interviews or promoting the record on the radio; by the time I get to the club, I’ve done so much talking, the gig is almost secondary.
“But that’s the problem,” he smiles. “I love to do it.”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Seo. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.