Characters of the Month – J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton

AUGUST (by Alessandro Vailati)

August 1970, the beginning of an incredible musical partnership between two legendary figures: J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton recorded many of my songs. It’s thanks to him that I no longer have to work for a living. Because of him I avoided having to get a job as a taxi driver.” Extract from

Given the ample space dedicated to the English guitarist on MusicPhilò, we could not miss an extensive chapter on the ‘crossovers’ between these two great artists. Let’s relive together the milestones of a beautiful musical story, which began in August 1970, the month of the publication of Eric Clapton’s solo debut, and blossomed into a great friendship and deep mutual esteem.

From After Midnight to Cocaine

In his life, Delaney Bramlett was never a saint, but he had an incredible power of storytelling thanks to his singing, composing and musical skills. And he also knew many artists of great stature who were little known to the public. One of these was Cale, and in November 1969, during the sessions for Clapton‘s eponymous debut, he turned up with the very first original 45 rpm recording of After Midnight. For Eric it was love at first sight, he immediately recognized himself completely in J.J.’s style, and, as they say in such cases, the rest is history. The song will prove to be a real workhorse in his live repertoire, with numerous arrangements highlighting its interpretative flexibility. It would also be the only one in his long career to be re-recorded in the studio ‒ in a wonderfully rough, inspired, solo-laden version with strong, powerful singing ‒ for use as the launch single for the Crossroads box set (1987).

The song became a hit, reinvigorating both careers, but the real turning point in the relationship between the two came in ’77 with one of Eric‘s most famous tracks, Cocaine.

Released a year earlier on Troubadour, now thanks to a well-conceived arrangement that highlights the hooky brilliance of the riff ‒ in truth, in part very similar to that of Sunshine Of You Love ‒ it is the top song on the award-winning Slowhand, which also includes Lay Down Sally, clearly inspired by the Tulsa Sound, a successful interweaving of rock and country, with an immediately engaging melody and danceable groove. Backless (1978) continues the relationship between the two with the release of the underrated I’ll Make Love to You Anytime and shortly afterwards, the first real encounter between them finally materializes.

The hilarious story of two soul mates finally coming together

The band’s new ‘rhythm’ guitarist, Albert Lee, proposes to Clapton a meeting with Cale, a guest for a few days, runs ’79, at his home in Los Angeles. After an interlocutory phase, full of awkwardness, the two began to have fun, especially thanks to J.J.‘s incredible gift of gab. Although by nature a shy and humble man, when he is in the right environment he unleashes all his knowledge and sympathy, proving himself cultured and visionary. Economics, politics, art, literature and, of course, music, are the topics that are discussed for hours by the American in front of a fascinated Eric. It is the latter’s idea to travel later to Hollywood, where Fleetwood Mac are recording a session for their new album.

And here J.J. Cale‘s well-known shyness and ability to disappear reappears: Mick Fleetwood and John McVie hardly notice his presence in the control room with Clapton.

‘I had to in every way point out to them my friend, whom of course they didn’t know. I thought how magnificent that was: he knows how to become invisible, something I often wanted too, and yet he writes the best music in this world, but nobody knows who he is. Meeting John was like finally finding a soulmate.” Excerpt from interview/article by Dan Forte with Eric Clapton featured in the Deluxe Edition of The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale

By now the spark had been struck and in 1984 the two ‘boys’ managed to carve out time to meet up in California and record some tracks in a warm jam session. The result is an intriguing Roll On, future title track of an opera fifteen years (!) later…

“Eric took advantage of his trip to America, arranged to record additional material to his album at the time, Behind The Sun, also to spend some of his time with J.J. At least six songs were recorded, including Roll On, which is featured on the album of the same name released in 2009.” From Eric Clapton Day By Day, The Later Years 1983-2013 by Marc Roberty

The Crossroads, the record together and Live in San Diego

Several decades pass, both artists experience ups and downs, yet they still stay in touch, and in Reptile (2001) the partnership is renewed with the beautiful cover of Travelin’ Light, later a highlight of that tour. The opportunity to revive the glories of friendship occurs in Dallas, three years later, when Cale receives an invitation to attend the Crossroads Guitar Festival.

The result was an experience so intense that it convinced Clapton to have him produce the next album. The original project then changed course over the next two years and became a true two-piece record, with Mr. Laid Back leading the way compositionally. The Road to Escondido is the most important moment in their relationship. Not only is it the most complete collaboration, resulting in an entire work under their own name, but their friendship is cemented and their mutual esteem leads them to new adventures. In Live in San Diego (2007, released in 2016/17), all the positive energy is captured, the joy of sharing on stage some historic songs and others fresh from release such as Cocaine, Anyway the Wind Blows and Who Am I Telling You.

The latest collaborations and tribute

Eric‘s enthusiasm for his companion of a thousand adventures is sky-high: in the legendary 2008 shows with Steve Winwood at Madison Square Garden he includes Low Down, from Guitar Man, and involves him in Clapton‘s recordings (2010) in River Runs Deep and Everything Will Be Alright, obviously the work of his sharp pen. Another track, the sweet and rhythmic Angel ends up on Old Sock (2013) and is the last song that sees them appear together chronologically, although it comes from The Road to Escondido sessions.

The news of J.J. Cale‘s sudden death unleashed a storm of emotions in the heart of his friend, who regretted not having been able to involve him more in his private and artistic life in those last years, but at the same time remained happy to have shared those precious moments before it was too late. Having also consulted with his wife, Christine Lakeland, a silent and loving companion as well as a talented musician, Clapton decided to record a work entirely in his honour, surrounding himself with some of the stars who adored him most, from Mark Knopfler, Tom Petty and Willie Nelson to John Mayer and Derek Trucks, not forgetting members of his bands. The result is the heartfelt The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale (2014);

In the November 2013 Baloise Session, the British guitarist previews some gems that are included on the LP, such as Since You Said Goodbye and Call Me The Breeze.

A true friendship never ends

The need and desire to celebrate this legendary man does not subside. Eric fishes out two great tracks of his that were never released, Somebody’s Knockin’ and Can’t Let You Do It, also thanks to Lakeland, includes them on I Still Do (2016) and continues to perform his songs live over the years, from the timeless and historic Cocaine and After Midnight (also featured on The Lady in the Balcony in an acoustic arrangement reminiscent of the electric one on Baloise Session) to Call Me the Breeze, which was featured on the recent Japan tour. It is likely, therefore, that in the forthcoming releases of unreleased material planned between 2023 and 2024 other J.J. Cale goodies may see the light of day, to keep his memory and legacy alive.

“I always wanted to know what my favourites were listening to. What Robert Johnson was listening to? Probably Leroy Carr. So I’m listening to JJ Cale and now you should be driven to do so too. And it’s even better than the stuff I play!” Excerpt from Dan Forte’s interview/article with Eric Clapton featured in the Deluxe Edition of The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale

A very humble statement highlighting much admiration for a man who has truly changed his entire life for the better, a unique source of inspiration and wisdom. It is no coincidence, in fact, that Clapton considers this reinterpretation of Golden Ring, an autographed song of his to which he is very attached, to be one of the finest compliments he has received in his life. A cover recorded by a sincere friend, the work of an artist who rarely takes on other people’s pieces, but who in this case has made an exception. A way of thanking the very person who, by recording his songs, made him famous forever.

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