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Music Review: J. J. Cale – Rewind: Unreleased Recordings

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Quick, what songs from the seventies do you think of first when I say Eric Clapton? I’d lay odds that at least one, if not two of them, would be either “After Midnight” or “Cocaine.”

Back in the early 1970’s, there was a great trivia question you could ask, and very few people would know the answer. Who wrote the Eric Clapton hits “After Midnight” and “Cocaine”? Of course everybody knows the answer now, but back then hardly anybody had ever heard of a guy named J. J. Cale.

You could make a pretty convincing argument that Clapton’s solo career wouldn’t have taken off quite as quickly if it hadn’t been for J. J. Cale. A casual fan of Clapton’s music from that time period, like me, probably couldn’t even tell you the name of another song that he had a hit with during that period.

Oh yeah, his cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff,” got airplay around the same time. Nine times out of ten if they played an Eric Clapton song on the radio (FM radio, you’d never hear any of his stuff on the AM dial – far too risqué), it would be one of those three. But more often than not, it would be one of the former two.

I’ve never been a big fan of Clapton, but to give him credit where credit is due, he was always quick to mention this great guitar player from California who was good enough to let him play a couple of his songs. Gradually people began to get to know the name J. J. Cale, until you’d hear his versions of “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” on the radio about as often as you’d hear Clapton’s.
J J Cale Live.jpg
Mainly because he couldn’t be bothered to play the game, and he preferred to stay at home and play guitar over going out on the road (the story goes that he said if I can’t get home to my own bed after a gig I’m not interested), Cale has always remained on the edges of the limelight. He’s known by those who care to seek out fine guitar playing and a rough hewn voice, but for the majority he’s just a name on the credits of a couple of Eric Clapton songs.

J. J. Cale did a lot of recording on his own and released far more albums then most people probably realize. But a number of tracks he laid down just never got released. An album might have been full, or the song didn’t fit with the rest of the material. Whatever the reason, fourteen tracks that had been recorded in the late seventies and early eighties have been laying dormant in the vaults for all this time.

Finally Time Life Music, who released the DVD To Tulsa And Back: On Tour With J. J. Cale last year, have managed to pry the tracks from the grasp of Cale’s late producer’s wife. Rewind: Unreleased Recordings will be hitting the streets on October 2nd/2007 and I think Cale fans everywhere will be delighted with what they hear.

One of the nice ironies of this recording is that the man whose music has been covered by so many other performers, hardly ever covered another person’s song. Yet on Rewind he covers songs by Waylon Jennings, his buddy Leon Russell, Randy Newman, and — wait for it — Eric Clapton. It’s funny to think of Cale recording a Clapton tune around the time of, let’s say, “Cocaine,” and I wonder what would have happened had they both been released at the same time.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter who wrote any of the fourteen songs on this record, because they all sound like vintage J. J. Cale. In fact, like any good vintage, they have aged nicely, and are still as fresh as when they were recorded. Not only do you get Cale’s melodious guitar work and distinctive vocals, you also get all the great musicians who were always clamouring to play with him showing up on these tracks.
J J Cale Today.jpg
People like Richard Thompson lay down guitar tracks, and Neil Young’s bassist Tim Drummond teams up with Jim Keltner, who played drums for Dylan and Lennon, to form one hell of a rhythm section. But, you don’t buy a J. J. Cale album to listen to the other players, it would be like buying an opera to listen to the orchestra and not Pavarotti.

Listen to his voice on Randy Newman’s “Rollin’.” The sad irony he manages to imbue the lyrics with, while singing about how the booze keeps him rolling along, serves as a contrast to the their light hearted content. Then there is his fine country picking on the Waylon Jennings tune “Wayemore’s Blues,” that sounds like it came from the heart of Hank Williams. None of this new country shit for either Waylon or J. J., but none of that truck-driver, women, and cowboy pain crap either.

Popular music in the 1970’s worked really hard to smooth away the rough edges of rock and roll to create something slick and polished for easy mass consumption. Thankfully, some people remembered what the words heart and soul really meant. Listening to Rewind: Unreleased Recordings lets you know that J. J. Cale was one of those people.

If you were to compare the music on this recording to music he has recorded before and since, the only differences you might be able to hear are how in recent years his voice has become somewhat rougher. Rewind: Unreleased Recordings is J. J. Cale playing and singing as only J. J. Cale can. It’s not often you can refer to someone as a genuine original anymore, but like any masterpiece, J. J. Cale is as unique as they come. This recording serves as a reminder that he has been since day one.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • JC Mosquito

    Call Me the Breeze was one of his too, wasn’t it? In fact, the whole Naturally album is a classic. JJ Cale is one of the few writers that could write a song off of a two chord change and make it sound great.

  • Nb. ALL of Cale’s albums are great masterpieces;-)
    but off course some are better than others – I hope they will find other “forgotten” songs of Cale, because it will take years…-maybe not at all, before we will have another so kind and sensitive musician/man as Cale.
    A man so humble and down-to-the-ground isn’t easy to find among “stars”;-)
    Lars(a fan since -74, Denmark )

  • Mike U.

    I am a singer/songwriter/guitarist who has been heavily influenced by Johnny Cale’s work ever since I first played his album “Naturally” in a small record shop in Orlando, back in 1971. His lyrics to the song “Carry On,” though never a hit, enabled me to get through my last year of teaching high school English and retire with a smile instead of the frowns on so many retiring teachers. No one can touch his laidback sound. Some can write better (Jimmy Buffett, John Prine); some can outplay him in that style (Clapton, et. al.)- but NO ONE puts it all together in one package like JJ Cale. Listen all the way through one Cale album and you’ll be a believer, unless you’re young and absolutely have to have a faster, more driving beat all the time. I used to be that way- then I grew up some. Age happens.
    I recently found an incredible interview with JJ Cale over at Vintage Guitar. Check out http://www.vintageguitar.com/artists/details.asp?ID=197
    for a conversation with a man with less pretention than most stars. He’s the only star I know of to turn down the typical multi-million dollar deal to tour. His response: “Why do I need to tour to sell these songs when they’re already a hit?” Cale is the only artist I feel is worthy to follow closely. He never disapoints.
    Don’t waste your time trying to hear him in a bar. A bunch of us tried to listen to him in Charlotte at the Visilite Theater, which was really a bar, and went home extremely dissapointed. The management in three tries simply could not stop the young folk who were there to party- didn’t even know Cale- from talking,screaming, and carrying on with their partying. JJ plays and sings softly. We heard very little of his music that night, our only chance to hear The Master of Mello. But I’ve got his albums and the mello-ness continues.

  • Debra

    Fortunately, J.J. has been such a prolific writter, I have so many of his albums, I can play his music for hours. Naturally was my first and I have been hooked every since. I got his DVD To Tulsa and Back. He talks a bit, so you get to know him, and they talk about his touring, etc, plus he plays some of his songs. Got to love him

  • John Wilson

    Good review of a fine musician.

  • Ron

    Good review, however JJ Cale is an Oklahoma native. He did live in California for a time but moved back home to Oklahoma. He was a key influence to Eric Clapton and what is known as the “Tulsa Sound“.