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Remembering J.J. Cale (1938-2013)

by Jim Allen

Remembering J.J. Cale (1938-2013)

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Anyone capable of providing the common thread between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Spiritualized has got to be a pretty unique character, and that's exactly what J.J. Cale was. The Okie singer/guitarist/songwriter, who suffered a fatal heart attack on July 26, was roots music's great minimalist. His mellow vocal murmur, muted-but-magnetic guitar work, and laid-back, good 'n' greasy tunes remain the ultimate in understatement. That subtlety was part of what made Cale's music attractive to such a broad spectrum of people. But his reticence regarding the fame game helped ensure that his striking string of '70s albums for Shelter Records would remain cult favorites rather than mainstream successes.

As exemplified by records like 1972's Naturally and 1976's Troubadour, Cale's slippery, soft-pedaled sound was a sultry cocktail of blues, country, soul and early rock 'n' roll that came to be known as the Tulsa Sound. This singular style -- other key exponents include Leon Russell, Roger Tillison and Jesse Ed Davis -- influenced a wide array of artists, whose cover versions of Cale's songs did more to popularize his music than his own recordings ever did.

Eric Clapton proved to be an especially effective acolyte, thanks to his versions of "Cocaine" and "After Midnight," which became classic-rock radio staples. Lynyrd Skynyrd and Spiritualized's takes on "Call Me the Breeze" (the latter featured some added material and was retitled "Run") showed that the sleepy-voiced shaman's sound could comfortably span genres and generations. Between Cale's own quirky-but-timeless tracks and the interpretations of others, his imprint on American music is bound to be a lasting one.

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