"When I was struggling with the Seventies guitar-hero hype, he was the light in the darkness," Eric Clapton says of singer-songwriter J.J. Cale. "He led me to another path, of finding integrity in the groove."
This is what Cale has to say of Clapton: "He can really play the guitar and really sing. That's the difference between him and I." Cale's deep, rough voice erupts in laughter. "I have to manipulate my sound to get it right. He does it on the natch."
Clapton and Cale have been a mutual-admiration society ever since Clapton had a Top Twenty hit in 1970 with an exuberant cover of Cale's "After Midnight." The slinky country-funk in Cale's writing and the demo-like intimacy of his records were major influences on classic Clapton albums such as 46z Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand. The two have also played together onstage, most recently at Clapton's 2004 Crossroads festival in Dallas, where he sat in with Cale for a whole set.
But their new album, The Road to Escondido, is the first they have made together. "My original request was, 'I want to make an album, and I want you to produce it,'" explains Clapton, who came up with the idea shortly after that Crossroads show. "If you ask me, he's the best producer in the world." Then, in the year leading up to recording, in Los Angeles in August 2005, Cale wrote a fat batch of new songs for the record, including the creeping blues "Heads in Georgia" and the topical "When This War Is Over."
"In the middle of the sessions, Eric came to me and said, 'I've decided to make this an Eric Clapton-J.J. Cale album,'" Cale recalls. "I went, 'Oh, no, man.' Because it was sounding good with just him singing." Clapton doesn't agree. "It gives me a thrill when I hear him," he says of Cale. "The way he sings, his voice sounds like it's inside your head."
The Road to Escondido – the title refers to a town in Southern California near where Cale lives – has the natural glow and nimble jump of a house-party jam. In fact, the album was mostly recorded live in the studio, with guest contributions by John Mayer (who co-wrote "Hard to Thrill" with Clapton), slide guitarist Derek Trucks, bluesman Taj Mahal (playing harmonica) and the late organist Billy Preston in his last major session. But the album's quality belies the striking differences between Clapton and Cale. The former is British, one of rock's best and most famous guitarists and, even at sixty-one, a tireless recording artist and touring act. Cale, who will be sixty-eight on December 5th, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is best known for writing songs that are hits for others (such as "Cocaine," also covered by Clapton, and "Call Me the Breeze," recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd), and doesn't like straying far from home.
"I'm more of an engineer than a singer-songwriter or guitar player," Cale says dryly. A studio journeyman in L.A. in the Sixties, Cale didn't release his first album, Naturally, until 1972, two years after Clapton recorded "After Midnight." And Cale created much of the back-porch flavor on his early records – dusty, compressed guitars, ticktock beats and his ethereal growl – with studio effects and primitive drum machines. "That's what Eric was hearing then," Cale cracks, "me using recording machinery to cover up my lack of talent."
Clapton and Cale didn't meet until 1976 – Cale was headlining a show in London, and Clapton was one of his sidemen for the evening. "He's very charismatic – warm and self-effacing," Clapton says of his hero. "I asked him not long ago, 'What do you do with your time?' He said, 'I buy guitars and play them.' He leads a simple life. He does a lot of work" – Cale has made more than a dozen studio albums, the most recent being 2004's To Tulsa and Back – "but it's not on a high profile."
That is by choice. "Eric's been on tour since last spring – I don't know how he does it," Cale says admiringly. "I couldn't do that when I was a young fella."
Clapton insists he will get Cale on the road next spring – "if it's somewhere he can drive to," Clapton adds, laughing. "As long as we're in his neck of the woods, I think it will be agreeable to him. He doesn't like getting on buses or planes. He won't even go in the elevator. We're staying at the Four Seasons here in L.A., and his room is on the second floor."
This is from the November 30th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.