Self-described "semiretired," reclusive singer/songwriter J.J. Cale's songs have been covered by artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Captain Beefheart. But his trademark sinuous, bluesy guitar lines and mumbly, near-whispered vocals have been popularized by Dire Straits and Eric Clapton; the latter's versions of "After Midnight" and "Cocaine" have become radio hits.
Cale took up the guitar at age 10. After playing in a succession of Tulsa, Oklahoma, bands (one group included Leon Russell) during high school, he went on the road in 1959 and played in the Grand Ole Opry road company. By the early '60s, he was back in Tulsa playing with Russell, and in 1964 the two moved to L.A. with fellow Oklahoma native Carl Radle (later of Derek and the Dominos). Cale hooked up with Delaney and Bonnie, and by 1965 he was recording on his own, including the first release of "After Midnight." He left Delaney and Bonnie and in 1967 returned to Tulsa.
Radle passed on some of Cale's homemade demo tapes to Denny Cordell, and Cale became one of the first signings of Cordell and Russell's Shelter Records in 1969. Following Clapton's 1970 success with "After Midnight" (#18), Cale recorded Naturally in 1972, from which "Crazy Mama" went to #22. "Magnolia," also on that album, was later covered by Poco and José Feliciano. Throughout the '70s, Cale recorded and toured at a leisurely pace. Cale moved to Mercury Records in 1982, releasing two albums, Grasshopper (#149, 1982) and #8 (1983). Disappointed by their sales, he asked to be released from his contract. He spent the next six years living in a mobile home outside L.A., emerging only for an annual tour.
Cale released two albums on Silvertone, a U.K.-based independent label, Travelog (#131, 1990) and Number 10 (1992). He also produced John Hammond's Got Love If You Want It (1992) and Trouble No More (1994). Closer to You (1994) and Guitar Man (1996) continued Cale's trademark laid-back bluesy songwriting.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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