Though he released more than a dozen albums over the course of a four-decade career, J.J. Cale's career as a recording artist was largely overshadowed by his work as a songwriter on "Cocaine," "After Midnight" and "Call Me the Breeze," which became major hits for Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and countless other rock icons of the 1970s and beyond. The Oklahoma-born Cale's signature sound - laconic vocals delivered over a slow-boiling mix of rock, country, jazz and blues - was an inspiration to Clapton in the early 1970s as the British guitarist struggled to find his footing after his days as a '60s rock "god"; Clapton's versions of "Cocaine" and "After Midnight" would lead to covers by the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry Garcia and other top artists, as well as a modest career as a solo performer. Cale's approach to the music business was as laid back as his songs; he recorded sporadically between the 1980s and 2000s, surfacing occasionally to release new material or reunite with Clapton, most notably on the Grammy-winning Road to Escondido (2006). J.J. Cale's death in 2013 brought to an end a unique career that wielded quiet influence over some of the biggest rock talents of the late 20th century.
Born John Weldon Cale on December 5, 1938 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, he began performing as a teenager in Western swing bands, including one that featured a piano player named Leon Russell, who would later gain fame as a solo artist and for artistic collaborations with Elton John. After a brief stint as a member of the Grand Ole Opry's touring company, Cale returned to Tulsa, where he and Russell played the local club circuit. The duo lit out for Los Angeles in the early 1960s, where he recorded a handful of singles under a variety of monikers, including an early version of his signature tune, "After Midnight," in 1966. During this period Cale also performed briefly with Delaney and Bonnie - who would also receive a career boost by collaborating with Eric Clapton in the early '70s - and teamed with record producer Snuff Garrett to form The Leathercoated Minds, a studio-only act that released a single album, A Trip Down the Sunset Strip (1967), which featured covers of popular psychedelic tunes interspersed with instrumental originals by Cale.
The record was not a hit, and Cale returned to Tulsa, where he again worked the club circuit while recording demos. Carl Radle sent a copy of the material to English producer Denny Cordell, who had overseen hits for the Moody Blues and Joe Cocker before relocating to Oklahoma to start a record label, Shelter, with Leon Russell. Cordell signed Cale to Shelter in 1969, one year before Eric Clapton recorded his own version of "After Midnight" for his eponymous solo debut in 1970. Delaney Bramlett introduced the song to Clapton, and also played on the track with Russell and Carl Radle; the resulting single reached No. 18 on the Billboard chart, providing Cale with much-needed royalties and exposure. The following year, Shelter released Cale's own solo debut, Naturally (1971), which generated a Top 40 hit with "Crazy Mama," as well as another take on "After Midnight."
Cale's approach to recording music proved to be as laconic as his delivery: between 1973 and 1979, he released just four albums, all of which performed modestly on the charts. However, he continued to mine gold as a songwriter, scoring a Top 30 hit with Eric Clapton's take on "Cocaine" and radio airplay with Lynyrd Skynyrd's cover of "Call Me the Breeze," from their multi-platinum Second Helping (1974) album. Other artists who recorded Cale's songs included Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, Kansas and even the eclectic Captain Beefheart. The steady flow of songwriting royalties kept Cale solvent while he pursued his own sporadic recording career, which switched allegiances to MCA for 1979's 5. In 1982, he left the label to join Mercury's roster, but his two efforts for that label - Grasshopper (1982) and 8 (1983) - failed to generate any significant chart placement. Cale quit Mercury to begin a lengthy period of seclusion, though his music continued to find appreciative supporters in rock and country artists like Johnny Cash and Tom Petty, all of whom recorded covers of his material in the late '80s and early '90s. One of Cale's best-known songs also returned to the spotlight in 1987 when Clapton re-recorded "After Midnight" for a Michelob television commercial.
In 1990, Cale resurfaced with Travel-Log, his first album of new material in nearly a decade. A handful of records s followed in its wake, and if they did not generate much placement on the Billboard charts, they confirmed Cale's enduring status as a top songwriter, a notion underscored by a new batch of covers by artists like Phish and Widespread Panic. After releasing Guitar Man in 1996, Cale took another lengthy break before resurfacing in 2004 to join Clapton onstage for the guitarist's Crossroads Festival. That same year, he released his thirteenth studio album, To Tulsa and Back, for Blue Note; a subsequent tour to promote the record was filmed for a 2005 documentary titled "On Tour with J.J. Cale - To Tulsa and Back."
The following year, Cale and Clapton released The Road to Escondido, a collection of blues-driven material anchored by an all-star array of supporting players, from new guitar talents like John Mayer to established musicians like Taj Mahal and Billy Preston, whose final recording sessions prior to his death in 2006 were featured on the album. A substantial hit on the Billboard charts, where it rose to No. 23, Escondido also earned Cale a shared Grammy with Clapton for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2008.
The popularity of the album spurred the release of several archival efforts, including a collection of unreleased material titled Rewind (2007, which preceded Cale's final studio album, Roll On (2009). Four years later, Cale recorded his final single, "Angel," with Clapton for the guitarist's 2013 album Old Sock. The album was released just five months before Cale's death from a heart attack in La Jolla, California on July 26. Clapton paid tribute to his friend with the 2014 album The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale, a collection of Cale originals performed by Clapton with Petty, Mayer and Mark Knopfler, among others.