The Long Reach of J.J. Cale

Singer/songwriter J.J. Cale died this past Friday, July 26, at the age of 74. (There's a 1971 clip of him performing "After Midnight," probably his best-known song, below.) In some ways, Cale was the antithesis of alternative rock -- a musician who was all about laid-back profiency, and whose greatest successes came from having his songs played by the likes of Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But there's also a strain of more adventurous music that owed something to Cale -- whether or not its performers or audiences knew it.

"After Midnight" was enough of a standard in the early '70s that the Jamaican group the Pioneers recorded a reggae version of it in 1971, as "Let It All Hang Out."

And the brilliant art-punk band Wire actually made a speedy, stripped-down cover of Cale's "After Midnight" part of their earliest set lists. (The recording below comes from London's Roxy club in 1977.)

A few years before that, Captain Beefheart had recorded his 1974 album Bluejeans and Moonbeams, on which he attempted to shoehorn his fractured, freaked-out blues into a relatively straightforward pop form. One of its two covers is an uncharacteristically lush arrangement (with a string section!) of Cale's "Same Old Blues."

The late, great guitarist Robert Quine told an interviewer that he was "listening to J.J. Cale constantly ... People are either bored by him, or completely hypnotized." You may or may not be able to hear sped-up hints of Cale's dextrous chording in Quine's guitar solos from Richard Hell and the Voidoids' "The Kid with the Replaceable Head."

Cale started recording as a teenager -- his first single was 1958's "Shock Hop" -- but he didn't make an album until Naturally, recorded between 1970 and 1971, once Clapton's version of "After Midnight" had become a hit. Its opening track was "Call Me the Breeze," below, and your ears are not deceiving you: it begins with the sound of a very early drum machine (for which Cale traded an electric banjo). The album also included "Crazy Mama," his biggest American chart hit, built around another loping electronic percussion loop.

Something about "Call Me the Breeze" apparently stuck with Spiritualized's Jason Pierce; the first Spiritualized album, 1992's Lazer Guided Melodies, features a rewritten version of "Call Me the Breeze," called "Run."

Iron and Wine's Sam Beam has cited Cale as an inspiration, and the tap-dancing percussion loop of "Boy With a Coin" recalls the vibe of those early-'70s records, too, especially the way Cale set simple drum machine beats against trickier, overdubbed guitar lines.

The North Carolina group Hiss Golden Messenger's singer/guitarist Mike Taylor is a huge fan of Cale's; you can hear a bit of the relaxed, country-blues-tinged "Tulsa" sound in HGM's "Red Rose Nantahala," below. Taylor also recently made an album with New York-based guitarist Steve Gunn, under the name Golden Gunn; its cover typography is based on the front cover artwork of Cale's Really album.

J.J. Cale fandom turns up in a lot of unexpected places -- the German electronic composer Klaus Schulze, for instance, has repeatedly made a point of how much he likes Cale -- but somehow the Malian singer-guitarist Sidi Touré's appreciation doesn't seem all that unlikely. See, for instance, the 2008 video for "Mon Pays" below: the song's relaxed groove isn't all that far off from "After Midnight."

In the days since Cale's passing, lots of bands have been paying tribute to him. At the Gathering of the Vibes festival this weekend, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals covered his "Cocaine," with Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes sitting in. Their admiration for Cale goes back to the start of their career: Potter and the Nocturnals' 2005 debut album Nothing But the Water opens with the post-breakup anthem "My Toothbrush and My Table." "Give me back my hammer, give me back my nail/Give me back my jeans and my J.J. Cale," Potter sings in a drawling snarl. She knows what matters to her.

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