A Fifty Buck Guitar In Tornado Alley

By Vicente Mateu

This is the legend of a man who was convinced he was a loser, with a $50 patched-up guitar and a tortured heart, and by all accounts, down and out, a ne'er do well. John Walden Cale (1938-2013), J.J Cale for the record, learned to play guitar on an old Harmony for a price that would cheat fate. In his beloved Tulsa, where only the tornadoes wreak havoc, they couldn't stop him from playing the blues.

At the end of September, Eric Clapton brings back to life his memory with a remix of a legendary concert in March of 2007 in San Diego, where they both rearranged one of the classic Cale titles for a better feel of rock. A review that Guitars Exchange certainly wouldn't miss.

Among the 5 songs they played that night on stage, two stand out as likely having changed the way we hear rock today; it just wouldn't be the same without them: Cocaine and After Midnight. Or vice versa... 

Cale's heart stopped in the famed La Jolla, California, nearly 3 years ago, when his old admirer and friend came to his rescue again -the first time was in the 70s, when Slowhand recorded After Midnight which brought him fame and enough cash to start his own career-. 

The Road to Escondido
won Cale a grammy which revived his status as a cult artist; never gone, but still just as dusty as the roads he used to run, sing and play about. That old Harmony is also a part of history, no longer riding in the trunk of the car, where now sits a Danelectro or a red Strat, or maybe a Casio.

Cale’s blues-rock-jazz-country groove found in the 21st century, along with his fans, had spent ages in their backpacks. A “mature” audience that was suited for his quiet, smooth, cool style, (a term that meant nothing in 1959) and brought them memories of the good old days.

The so-called “Tulsa sound” is rather like an “aroma”, a feeling that gets in your veins with its simple flow. There ́s none of the gimmicky in this self-trained artist; as much a musician as a luthier. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Cale modified every guitar that he ever held in his hands- was a great collector right to the end- he would learn songs he liked by adding or omitting notes from his homegrown collection. It ́s called perfectionism.

From Engineer to Singer-songwriter

That “smell” of blacktop, shimmering over the wayside, and the infinite rolling grasslands of Oklahoma, is what would influence Mark Knopfler, among others. Add this to the smoothness of his voice, an unmistakably relaxing slowness, and the magic shines through. Cale was afterall a singer-songwriter.

At the end of the 50s, with the transcendental outburst of the 60s, J.J. - the second “J” was added by his manager so as not to confuse him with John Cale of the Velvet Underground - moved at first to the capital of country music, Nashville, and from there to L.A, the crib of what became known as the “new trends”.

Cale, however, was still sure he was pretty much a loser without a future because although he formed a band called the Leathercoated Minds, and recorded the album A Trip Down Sunset Strip (1968), he wound up working as a sound technician until he decided to return home to Tulsa, in the middle of Tornado Alley, with a handful of songs that he managed to record. Among those was After Midnight, and that's where it would have ended if not for Clapton, who had taken an interest in the number in 1970. He turned it into one of his greatest hits. J.J. finally got his name as a rock legend.

That smash hit earned him a recording venture with another American legend: Leon Russell, who signed him up to his own recording label. They quickly got him in the studio to record his first solo album; the real debut of J.J. Cale.

His album Naturally (1971) put 3 songs in the top hits column: Crazy Mama, a new version of After Midnight, and Call me the Breeze, which further down the road became a Lynyrd Skynyrd hit. For the next ten years, Cale recorded nearly a new record every year, without reaching the commercial fanfare of his debut album.

Not even with Troubadour (1976) did the number Hey Baby provide a hit, but hidden between the cracks was Cocaine. This time Clapton took a bit longer to discover another song seemingly written for him.

In 1983, Cale practically disappeared for more than 5 years. Perhaps after seeing that his album 8, released that year, failed to make the charts for the first time, he returned home, a “loser”, and didn't make an appearance again until 1990, under an independent British label.

The Dark Years

These were strange times, when good records barely got their heads above water. Yet they broadened his influence and mythology. The whole world, with Neil Young at the helm, considered him to be one of the greatest living guitarists, but even such praise and flattery failed to make him change the road that he had put himself on. After recording Guitar Man in 1996, (another point of reference for lovers of the 6 chord style) he still did not emerge from the darkness. Even signing with Virgin couldn't get him turned half-way round.

At the start of the new millennium, early 2000s, Cale plugged in his guitar once again. His 2004 record To Tulsa and Back seemed to send a message of his new intentions. J.J. was back on the road with the pedal to the metal, next stop!, the award-winning Road to Escondido.

Life made him grin again. Or so it seemed. He was now not just a ‘cult artist’, and the composer of 2 or 3 of the greatest rock songs of all time, J.J. Cale, as we've seen in so many geniuses who reach their
70s, squirmed at the idea of retirement; it's always too early. Sadly, it is only with ailments do they leave the stage, as in the case of Clapton.

Cale's final foray into the studio was in 2009, with Roll On. An effort that got him almost better reviews from the experts than his trip to Escondido. The style was certainly the same, yet it wasn't just another ‘let’s see what we can come up with’, but something more ambitious from a musical point of view. 

His enthusiasm led him back into producing and sound tech work - his old job - and to play nearly all the instruments on some of his numbers despite having well-known guests and friends at hand, as well as the eternal Clapton, and Jim Keltner on drums. The Grammy also helped serve to recoup chunks of history by launching a DVD showing rehearsals in 1979 of the very own Leon Russell on keyboards.

Those sessions in Paradise Studios show the original man J.J.Cale. Touching upon the little things like how he played in those days, or his true nature without having the hoards in front listening. Pure Cale.

This little gem came to light in 2013 just months before a fatal heart attack that broke his heart in two the summer of the same year. In the end he got the whole world, or nearly, to know who J.J. Cale was. He realised that after half a century of suffering and little joy, he had always been a winner.

Those 50 bucks were his first win.

For your listening:
Eric Clapton & Friends: The Breeze – An Appreciation of JJ Cale (Tribute Album)
Roll On
Guitar Man