Originally published June 2, 2009 at 9:40 a.m., updated August 20, 2009 at 10 a.m.
You've heard his songs, but you may not have heard of him. JJ Cale is one of the most low-profile rock n' roll legends you will ever find. His songs "After Midnight", "Cocaine", and "Call Me the Breeze" have been made famous by artists like Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynyrd. We speak to JJ Cale about his musical influences, his friendship with Clapton, and why he's opted to stay out of the spotlight over the years.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): There are musicians who are world famous, rock stars, pop stars. Everybody knows them, they’re legends. But then there are the musicians who are more famous with other musicians than they are with the general public. They’re usually called musicians’ musicians, artists who the legends and the stars listen to and admire. Every once in a while, one of these musicians’ musicians breaks through to become a musical legend in his own right, and that just about describes the story of singer/songwriter JJ Cale. He gained fame in the 1970s because superstar Eric Clapton recorded two of his songs, “After Midnight” and “Cocaine”, and made them rock classics. (audio clips of “After Midnight” and “Cocaine”) But it wasn’t only Clapton who caught Cale’s Tulsa sound fever. Artists like Neil Young, Bryan Ferry and Lynard Skynard all covered JJ Cale’s songs. (audio clip) JJ Cale is still recording; he’s out with a new CD called “Roll On”. And because he lives here in San Diego and because he is a very gracious man, last week he sat down with me to talk about his life and career. I want to start off by talking about your new album, “Roll On”, and it’s your sixteenth album, twelve new songs including some jazz scatting. Now that’s a new one for JJ Cale. That’s a song called “Who Knew”. Did you have fun with that?
JJ CALE (Musician/Songwriter): Yes, I did. I generally, you know, I don’t – I don’t really scat. I’m – I’m basically a songwriter so you need a little lyrics that rhyme and stuff. And I got into that and decided that, hey, well, that’s something semi-new for me. It’s not new. Ella Fitzgerald was probably the most famous scat singer. Louis Armstrong, and a lot of other people. But, yeah, I went, oh, that’s – that’s kind of fun to do. I – I can scat and I don’t have to sit around and write, you know, dumb poems and stuff. And so, yeah, it made me laugh when I got through it. (audio clip from “Who Knew”)
CAVANAUGH: Now what was the inspiration for this new album? Did you want to try new things like that?
CALE: No, the – I’ve approached all my albums just about the same. I – This was, you know, number sixteen. The management was – was, you know, hey, John, why don’t you make another – another record? And I go, oh, ain’t nobody wants to hear -- You know, I’ve already did – I have a hard time with not trying to imitate myself. After you – after you’ve made so many records or you wrote so many songs, pretty soon, you know, you – you think – your songs all start sounding – you start sounding like a song you’d already written ten years ago or fifteen years ago. That’s kind of what’s rough about making a new album at my age and as long as I’ve been in the business or the music kind of a thing, is – is to keep from imitating myself, so I have to listen to it and go, you know, that sounds like a song that was on my third album, you know? And that’s kind of rough. I – I guess I semi pulled that off. You can probably bust me on a couple of songs but there was no particular inspiration. I’m always writing songs just to entertain myself.
CAVANAUGH: And your process, your process of writing songs, your process of recording, has that changed much over the years?
CALE: Yeah, I’m – Probably three-fourths of the songs I’ve written – written, that’s the wrong way to say that, isn’t it? Three-fourths of the songs that I’ve made has been done in a recording studio environment with the recording studio techniques with the – with recording studio tricks that you can do. Everybody does that now. So – And then I still write some songs, just pick up the old acoustic guitar and, you know, mumble something into a microphone. I play a little more piano on them than I used to. But basically I just, you know, play the guitar and sing and sometimes, most of the time, nothing comes out. But ever once in a while it does and that’s generally the ones I put in and stick on an album and try to get other people that like it.
CAVANAUGH: But, you know, it’s been said that you kind of craft your own JJ Cale style. I mean, you engineer and produce a lot of your music. Is that – is that part of it that you really enjoy, putting those pieces together?
CALE: Yeah, I – I – I’ve – I’m starting to slowly tire of that technique. I generally now write songs that’s just the guitar because it’s much simpler than, you know, manipulating all these things and playing half a dozen instruments and stuff. But basically I’ve really enjoyed – I always had a passion for the recording studio. I made my living as an engineer for a long time, so I love all the new gizmos that they have that make your voice sound more weird or your guitar sound funny or whatever, and I always enjoyed manipulating the knobs and that kind of stuff. So a lot of the songs I’ve written were – I would probably not have wrote it if – if I was not in a recording studio. So that was probably my main tool of choice, my main instrument, was the recording studio and then -- then, you know, just writing acoustic – with acoustic guitar and getting people to play along with you and overdubbing and adding the tricks. It’s kind of the way I’ve done it basically for the last thirty, forty years.
CAVANAUGH: And – and do you have a home studio up in Valley Center now?
CALE: Yes, I do. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.
CALE: Well, it’s just, you know, it’s just – it just takes up a lot of the room in the living room, you know. It’s – Boy, you have a big, hi-fi, you know, is what people say. And, of course, that’s how I make my living, is recording studio stuff. And, yeah, and everywhere I’ve lived – I lived in trailers up in Anaheim around Disneyland for ten years, all during the eighties. I had a recording studio in my trailer. And I’ve had various and sundry houses. I had a house in Nashville, had a recording studio there. I also rent real respectable, big time recording studios. I don’t always make it – all the stuff at home, but I do do that. Everybody kind of has a studio now because you can now buy a little bitty recording studio that’s about as big as a big book for, you know, two hundred and fifty dollars.
CAVANAUGH: That’s true. Do you enjoy working with the new technology?
CALE: Yeah, I do. I miss the old – I come up with those great big old analog tape machines or the…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah?
CALE: I learned how to work on them. I spent most of my time not making music but keeping those old recorders running. I love the old analog sound; the new digital sound doesn’t sound quite like the old analog even though it’s better in a whole lot of respects. And so I had to train myself to when – when the digital revolution come along from going from the old analog recorders. The thing about – that’s nice about the digital recorders, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time on maintenance. On the old analog stuff, I was constantly – I spent at least three or four hours a day maintaining the equipment to where when – when we did play, it sounded good. The new digital stuff either sounds – it – it either works or it don’t; if it don’t work, you just kind of throw it away.
CAVANAUGH: Throw it away, right. I’m speaking with legendary singer/songwriter/musician/producer JJ Cale. And I want to spend just a minute or two talking about your musical influences, if I can. Who were some of your musical inspirations growing up?
CALE: Well, early on, when rock ‘n roll come in, I was, you know, a teenager. Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley. I was, you know, seventeen years old at that time. I was a teenager and that was, you know, the music of all us teenagers. So those were the early influences. Then I started playing – I started playing music, so I backed up singers and I just played the guitar, I didn’t sing or anything. So I’d have to learn the guitar parts and all that stuff and those were the – the guitar players in – in that era were influenced on my guitar. Lately on, lately, it’s – I’m a big fan of Mose Allison, a big fan of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, which are not top 40 kind of guys.
CALE: But I really enjoy those two people and – and some of the early rock ‘n roll people. And then – then some of the young kids that are doing it now are – they’re not an influence on me but, I mean, they – they’ve taken music to a whole ‘nother level.
CAVANAUGH: Now you’re from Tulsa, Oklahoma. You would imagine that maybe you’d gravitate towards country music but you gravitated toward rock ‘n roll. I’m wondering why.
CALE: Well, because I was a teenager…
CALE: …and the old people liked country music, you know. Ironically, I’m an old people now. But, you know, when you’re seventeen years old and rock ‘n roll come in, I mean, the adults didn’t really care anything about rock ‘n roll, not really. And that – so I’m a victim of my generation on – on how I play music that influenced me a lot and – and I could actually do that, you know? Pop music was, you know, a whole ‘nother thing that – and I was a guitar player and guitar’s been very prominent in the evolution of rock ‘n roll. Even to today every other person on the planet plays guitar. So rock ‘n roll was, you know, a big – big influence on me and it’s because of my age. I was young, teenager, and rock ‘n roll was – that’s what – that’s what that music was about and for.
CAVANAUGH: Now your musical friendship with Eric Clapton is legendary. It started with Clapton recording your song “After Midnight”, and then “Cocaine”. Why do you think you guys work so well together?
CALE: Well, I don’t know. We – Eric liked the – those songs and I liked Eric. You know, my songs were kind of demo-ish and Eric kind of made them a little more accessible to a much larger audience. We really didn’t get to hang out together ‘til we made this “Escondido” album. We had seen each other off and on a couple of times through – through the last thirty years or so but really hadn’t had – didn’t hang out too much together. On the “Escondido” album, I think it took us a month to make that album. We was around each other every day. We got to actually know each other real well. We’ve become close friends. (audio clip from “Escondido”)
CAVANAUGH: And your first Grammy is for – from “The Road to Escondido” album that you made with Clapton.
CALE: You can blame that on Eric, you know. I didn’t – I didn’t – I didn’t really want anymore notoriety, I just wanted, you know, the songwriting kind of a thing. And, you know, I mean, he’s so talented, everything he’s around or touches, his stuff gets into that, either large sales or awards and that kind of thing. And it was really nice after doing it for years. But we’ll blame that on him.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, we’ll blame it on him. I – I have to mention another really large song, another song everybody knows, “Call Me The Breeze”. It’s been recorded by many artists over the years. I think Lynard Skynard’s version is really the most famous. What is it like to hear your – other artists interpret your songs?
CALE: Well, that’s the biggest form of flattery that there is when you’re a songwriter. I mean, you basically first write songs to entertain yourself and then, second, you hope somebody else will hear it and like it. And when somebody else cuts your – I’ve cut a – I’ve recorded a lot of songs that nobody cut. I like my own song, nobody cared anything about it. The thing that really knocks you out is when somebody actually takes enough time to record your song and – and make it. You know, that, number one, they had to listen to it, number one. That’s kind of hard, to get somebody to listen to your own – to somebody else’s music. And then they recorded it, that’s really a feather, as they say, a feather in your cap, or it boosts your ego. That’s worth more to me than the actual money.
CAVANAUGH: Are there any particular artists that you’ve heard your songs recorded by and you said, wow, I really like what they did with that.
CALE: One of my favorite cuts was a lady named Randy Crawford. She cut a song I wrote called “Cajun Moon”. I think she – The first person to cut that after I’d recorded it was Cissy Houston, which is Whitney’s mother, which Cissy was a background singer for Elvis Presley and some guy—Herbie Mann, I think—recorded an album and he got Cissy to sing on it and Cissy sang on the thing and that was, oh, quite a few years ago. Then the next person that cut that same song—it was a song called “Cajun Moon”—was Maria Muldaur. She had a real nice version of it. And then I was sitting in a movie theater one day and in between the newlies they played music onto the speakers while people are walking in and out, her version come on and I went, oh, that’s my song. Who is that? I found out it was Randy Crawford; she really did a nice version. (audio clip of “Cajun Moon”)
CAVANAUGH: When did you move to San Diego County?
CALE: I been down here about twenty years now.
CAVANAUGH: And why?
CALE: I lived in LA. I’ve – I lived in LA in the sixties, and in the seventies I moved to Nashville, made records in Nashville. Then I lived in Nashville all during the seventies and then I got tired of Nashville and decided I’d like to come back to the west coast like, you know, I really liked it when it was the sixties. So I come back out here, 1980, loaded up all the things, sold my house, and moved back to – And I decided I’d just live in trailers, and I’d bought me at trailer and so I lived in LA all during the eighties, mainly in Anaheim in a trailer. And then about 1989, I decided that I’d had it with LA, you know, all the traffic and everything, so I started looking for a house and I was starting to come down. I’d get down into lower – southern Orange County and eventually got on down into here and discovered that house that I bought that’s, oh, about ten miles north of Escondido. And I bought me a house there and that’s the first house I’d lived in. I’d been living in trailers up in Anaheim. The first house, you know, got a lawn and a lawnmower and a weed eater and pay rent – I mean, pay – pay bills and all that stuff. And living in a trailer, you don’t do any of that kind of stuff. So what was really nice, I could have all my recording equipment, I could spread it out. I’d just as soon have it in a little trailer. So I moved down here and then the weather’s nice down here. Weather’s about the same in LA, too, but LA’s a totally different kind of a vibe. And I’m out in the boonies, you know, nearest house is way over there, and it’s kind of nice. Gets kind of boring sometimes. I miss the neon. I’m an old nightclub guitar player. So I miss the neon but not so much that I move back – back into the city. So I’m in Southern California, north of Escondido, and I’m – I been down there – I think I bought that house in 1989, so what’s this? 2009?
CALE: So it’s twenty years.
CAVANAUGH: You know, you are amazing people all over the listening area with that – with that recantation of you’ve been living in trailers and so forth. We hear about rock ‘n roll stars living in mansions, multiple houses around the world, buying their own island, and here’s JJ Cale living in a series of trailers. What’s that about?
CALE: Well, I enjoyed that. I’ve always been a motorhome-trailer life kind of guy. I’m a gypsy. I’m not now. I’m too old to move very far. But I’ve always been – A musician kind of has to keep on the go. You can’t just stay in one place. You can, but if you do, you’ll starve. And I was always, you know, going to Nashville or – and touring, you know, is a very mobile kind of a thing. And I was always into trailers and motorhomes and that kind of thing. I just like that lifestyle. I was just in – most people get into it after they retire and they’re old, I got into it while – before I retired. I’m kind of at the age now – ironically, I’m not living in a motorhome or a trailer or doing that kind of thing that retirees do, I was doing it before I retired. So I kind of had it back – bass akwards. And – But I enjoyed that. I loved having no phone. You know, people – because people call me and want me to work, want me to go play gigs, make another record, write another song. And some days I didn’t feel like doing that so I didn’t have that problem. There’s no bills. You just pay the trailer people a certain amount of money or you can stay in, you know, parks and that kind of stuff. I love that. Still do. It’s – I don’t do that anymore but I really like to do that.
CAVANAUGH: Like a lot of your contemporaries, you know, our rock ‘n roll superstars, and live the lifestyle and you’ve already managed to keep off that mainstream radar. In fact, you don’t even like to have your pictures on your albums. I mean…
CALE: Well, they’re on there now. For years, we didn’t. I’ve kind of let – I’ve kind of let the height kind of get a little bigger than it used to be.
CAVANAUGH: There’s just one eye sticking out.
CALE: Yeah, well…
CAVANAUGH: There’s not a whole face.
CALE: You know, yeah, but – Yeah, you’re right. Well, I was just -- You know, I’m basically a songwriter. I make my living writing songs and, you know, I’m not a show biz kind of guy. And so that worked out really good. You don’t really need a lot of hype and to be famous to sell songs. Now you do to sell music but I was always trying to get other people to record my songs and that way I could stay home and they could do the touring and make the records and do the interviews and be on TV and all that kind of stuff. I was always – considered myself a background type of person. It’s kind of gotten out of hand here lately, you know, kind of a little more well known than I used to be but that’s – I – I like that. I wanted to be part of the – of the thing, you know, I really didn’t want to be ‘the’ thing. And I’ve kind of done that. I’m a little – Now, I go to – go play my gigs and it’s JJ Cale and I’m, you know, almost somebody. I was kind of uncomfortable with that. I loved the – hey, I’m part of them, you know, I’m part of the group. And when I go play out and play gigs, and I don’t play that many gigs so – I’m – I’m it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you have done some touring around this new album “Roll On” and I’m wondering, is this for you or is it for the fans?
CALE: It’s probably mainly for the record company. The record company likes you to – When you put out a record, nobody knows that you’ve put out a record, of course the record don’t sell. Well, if I spend all that time making the record, then I can go, well, it would be – it doesn’t change my life or make any difference to me, really, because I make my living mainly off of other people singing my songs. But I had – They want you to do a little bit of promotion, you know, and so I – I’ve done that. I’m not real crazy about that. I do like to get out and play ever once in awhile but as the years go by, that becomes less and less. This last tour I did was a west coast tour. I played from San Diego all the way up to Vancouver and all the towns in between to promote the album. Sixteen – I played sixteen one-nighters, and took a band with me and a roadie and a bus driver and, you know, and we stayed in Holiday Inns and the whole deal. That’s – It’s fun for about three days, you know. The reason it’s fun is because it’s fresh. Then after about the fourth, fifth day, you’re doing the same songs again and, you know, you’ve already told all the jokes on the bus, all the guys all – have already did all that, you know, and then it becomes a day job. I mean, you know, and that’s kind of what all us musicians get into music for is so we don’t have to have a day job. But if you become successful, ironically, you end up with a day job. Now if you’re not successful, it’ll always stay fun but if you’re successful, there’s some business to take care of and that becomes a day job.
CAVANAUGH: It’s still fun, though, isn’t it?
CALE: Oh, yeah, it still is.
CAVANAUGH: JJ Cale, thank you so much for talking with us. I really, really appreciate it.
CALE: Well, thank you.
CAVANAUGH: JJ Cale’s sixteenth album is called “Roll On”. Stay with us for the second hour of These Days here on KPBS. (audio of clip from “Roll On”)