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This recording serves as a reminder that, like any masterpiece, J. J. Cale is as unique as they come

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

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.

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.

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.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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