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'Cocaine's' Cale makes his own groove

  • Story Highlights
  • J.J. Cale is legend among musicians; wrote "After Midnight," "Cocaine"
  • Guitarist has a distinctive, much-emulated bluesy groove
  • Cale's new album is "Roll On," another distinctive collection
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By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- You've heard J.J. Cale's songs.

"After Midnight" was done most famously by Eric Clapton. "Cocaine," too. Lynyrd Skynyrd had a hit with "Call Me the Breeze," Poco did "Cajun Moon," Santana performed "The Sensitive Kind," and Billy Ray Cyrus has done "Crazy Mama."

And you've heard J.J. Cale's sound.

It's a distinctive groove, a smooth-shuffling gait that calls to mind a bluesier Johnny Cash. Clapton emulates it on many of his late-'70s records, such as "Lay Down Sally" and "Promises," and it runs like a golden seam through several Dire Straits records -- no surprise, since Mark Knopfler's a fan.

But you may not have heard J.J. Cale himself.

Oh, he won a Grammy (with Clapton) for his 2006 album, "The Road to Escondido." And his new album, "Roll On" (Rounder), has earned plenty of praise -- " 'Roll On' finds Cale back in vintage form," said the Boston Globe -- and even a little airplay on satellite and Internet radio. Click on the photo to hear Cale at work

But Cale, 70, has never had a hit, and he's primarily known as a musician's musician. On a recent 2½-week tour, which wraps up April 15, he mainly played 700-seat clubs and theaters, and when it's done, he'll go back home to his house "on a couple acres in the boonies" north of San Diego, California, he says.

He likes it that way.

A new album "is all mainly dictated by whoever's doing my business end of it. I consider myself semi-retired. Every time I make an album, I go, 'That's the last one,' " the native Oklahoman said in a voice as rich and peppery as barbecue sauce. "That's somebody else's idea to make a record and go out and play. I generally don't go out and tour much anymore -- never did, much. I don't really hustle that. ... On a good day, I'm feeling good, I say I'll make another record and go on tour, and on a bad day, I'll say, 'What have I committed myself to?' "

The house, he said, "is quiet. And I'm a musician. That's what I like about it."

It's a good place for the one-time audio engineer to tinker and compose, though he says he's not conscious of creating the J.J. Cale sound.

"It's all accident," he said. "I never know what I'm doing. Writing songs, you start with a clean piece of paper, so you just start screwing with it. Most of the stuff you write, and sometimes even when you're finished, you go, 'That ain't worth a damn,' but you don't throw it away."

On "Roll On," the groove works in mysterious ways. "Who Knew," the opening track, gains an ominous intensity: "Who knew / Not me, not you or anyone else / Come to think of it, it's true / We're misinformed and always warned to look out / Who knew," he sings, a lonely sax moaning behind his voice. (Listen to "Who Knew" in the MP3 box under Cale's photo.)

But the groove gives a touch of wistfulness to "Down to Memphis" and even a little dance-funk to "Fonda-Lina."

Cale comes by the variety honestly: He remembers his formative years as soaking in a brew of country, jazz and early rock 'n' roll.

"I'm so old, I can remember before rock 'n' roll come along," he recalled. "When I was a young fellow, I played guitar for other people, so I'd have to learn [cover tunes]. ... So the guitar players on all those early recordings, I guess, influenced what I did. I never could get it exactly right the way they played it, and I guess that helped the style that evolved."

In 1964, Cale and his friend Leon Russell -- along with bassist Carl Radle, later of Derek and the Dominos -- decided to try their luck in Los Angeles. Russell quickly became an in-demand session man, but Cale didn't meet with the same success and soon returned to Oklahoma.

But he kept writing and recording, and after Russell signed him to his label, Shelter, "After Midnight" found its way to Clapton. The song hit the Top 20 in 1970, and Cale was suddenly in demand.

He's put out albums every two or three years since then, but he's just as happy to have others cover his material, particularly Clapton. "[His] recording all those songs has really helped me pay my rent, 'cause he sells a lot of records," he chuckled.

After more than 50 years making music, he still seems a little surprised by success, even at his under-the-radar level.

"I was mainly entertaining myself and still am," he said. "Making music is fun if you forget about you're doing it as a commercial thing. And I never did think that. A couple things became commercial, and that came as a surprise."

Which has allowed him to keep playing and keep tinkering. And to keep being J.J. Cale, creating that groove.

"When I approach [a new recording], I always think I'm going to sound different than J.J. Cale, to surprise people," he said. "And when I get through, it just sounds like me, and there's nothing I can do about it."

All About MusicEric Clapton

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