JJ Cale: Why Neil Young Called Him ‘The Best Electric Guitar Player I Ever Heard’

If guitar players were voted by juries of their peers, JJ Cale — who died Friday at age 74 — would surely be canonized among rock's all-time six-string top 10. Of course, one reason his fellow pickers revered him is among the same reasons he wasn't as well-known to the masses: he was a master of minimalism.

"I was tired of the 'guitar hero' thing," wrote Eric Clapton in his autobiography, recalling his transition to a lower-key style on his first solo album, "and I was starting to follow the example of JJ Cale." In another interview, Clapton said, "I was tired of gymnastic guitar playing, and when I listened to JJ Cale records, I was impressed by the subtlety, by what wasn’t being played."

Cale's influence on Neil Young is lesser known, but in the biography Shakey, he waxed on about the blues-rocker at length, putting him on a pedestal shared only by Hendrix.

"What is it about JJ Cale’s playing? I mean, you could say Eric Clapton’s the guitar god, but... he can't play like JJ," Young told biographer Jimmy McDonough. "JJ’s the one who played all that s--- first... And he doesn’t play very loud, either — I really like that about him. He’s so sensitive. Of all the players I ever heard, it’s gotta be Hendrix and JJ Cale who are the best electric guitar players. JJ’s my peer, but he doesn’t have the business acumen — he doesn’t have the idea of how to deal with the rest of the world that I do. But musically, he’s actually more than my peer, because he’s got that thing. I don’t know what it is."

Young returned to the subject of Cale in his recent autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, writing, "'Crazy Mama' by JJ Cale is a record I love. The song is true, simple, and direct, and the delivery is very natural." (The song was the closest thing Cale had to a hit single, peaking at No. 22 on the Billboard chart in 1971.) "JJ’s guitar playing is a huge influence on me," Young continued. "His touch is unspeakable. I am stunned by it."

His list of admirers spans generations. It was Clapton who first introduced Cale to the world by covering his "After Midnight" in 1970. But younger fans might have first heard that tune via Phish, whose live versions of it were a staple of their New Year's Eve shows and widely bootlegged. The band first met Cale back in '93. As Cale recalled to Rolling Stone, "Several years ago I got a call saying ‘Do you want to open for Phish?’ I said, ‘Country Joe and the Fish?’”

Beck has frequently performed Cale's "Magnolia," the most famous cover of which was recorded by Poco in the 1970s. "The effortlessness, that restraint and underplaying, undersinging — it was just very powerful," said Beck. "The power of doing less and holding back in a song, I've taken a lot of influence from that."

Cale was typically laconic in describing his own allegedly laconic trademarks: "’Mellow’ and ‘laid-back’ are the two terms most applied to my style and I guess I go along with that. Most of it is medium-, slow-tempo, not really an aggressive, in-your-face kind of thing. When I was a real young fellow and played in bands, just as a guitar player, I played a lot more rock & roll, but when I got into songwriting and had to sing, since I only have about a two-note range, it was easier to do mellow stuff and grooves."

Critics tried (and often failed) to put Cale's slow-moving lightning in a bottle, with Billboard citing “Cale’s trademarked understatement, the Tulsa Soul sound, if you will, with everything falling neatly into a pocket and low-pitched vocals strolling along just behind the beat.” Reviewing his final studio album in 2009, Rolling Stone said most of the songs "ride Cale's signature shuffle groove and are delivered in his barroom Zen-master growl while his bubbling guitar — as much a jam-band archetype as Jerry Garcia's — glints across the shadows."

"Man, is Cale underrated. He’s Gatemouth Brown in a B.B. King world," wrote Michael Corcoran in the Austin American-Statesman, also reviewing the swan song Roll On. "It’s impossible to write about this Okie without using the word 'groove'." The critic said certain songs "are what Bob Dylan was going for on Modern Times, but without the weight of being Dylan, Cale serves the blues rock like the best $1.99 breakfast you’ve ever had... This is Chuck Berry rocking on the porch with his foot keeping the rhythm and his guitar stirring the night air... Nobody can hit it hard and soft at the same time, and still carry a melody, like this 70-year-old boogie minimalist."

Clapton could be reduced to sweeping — and sweepingly glowing — generalities: "In my humble opinion, he is one of the most important artists in the history of rock, quietly representing the greatest asset his country has ever had," he wrote in his 2008 memoir.

EC discovered Cale when he was on tour with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends in the late '60s, finding the bridge between Blind Faith and his about-to-burgeon solo career. Cale was joining the Bramletts in one of his few-ever sideman gigs at the time. Clapton particularly cottoned on to "After Midnight," a song that had been a B-side for Cale in the mid-'60s when the future blues-rock hero was making a half-hearted stab at psychedelia with a little-known Tulsa group.

The tune became a radio staple upon appearing on Clapton's 1970 solo debut, and it helped Cale get a deal for his own solo debut, which came out in the last weeks of 1971. It didn't hurt that fellow Okie Leon Russell was the part owner of Shelter, the label that signed him.

Cale didn't have any more radio hits of his own after "Crazy Mama." As he said in an interview some years back, "The last album I did… I didn’t even know I had it out. Real obscure.”

But Clapton continued covering him for decades after "After Midnight," most notably with a version of "Cocaine" that appeared on 1977's Slowhand. Their mutual fan club never broke up. Clapton enlisted Cale to produce an album for him seven years ago, but "rather than just another E.C. album with JJ producing, it was now a duet album, owing to the fact that I wanted JJ’s contribution to be larger," Clapton wrote. In 2007, they won a Grammy for The Road to Escondido, which Clapton insisted —to his partner's chagrin — on naming after Cale's adopted SoCal hometown, where they recorded the project. Even Clapton's most recent studio release this year included a previously unrecorded Cale track.

The influence on Mark Knopfler can't be overstated, of course. "Oh, of course, yeah — I listened to a lot of JJ Cale around the time my style was developing," the Dire Straits founder acknowledged in the early '80s. "He's very, very special to me.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd had one of the most famous non-Clapton covers, with "Call Me the Breeze," the closing song on their 1974 sophomore album, Second Helping — a song that later came to be covered by no less a luminary than Johnny Cash.

But eventually he became less of a Southern rock and country staple than a favorite of the jam bands, with Widespread Panic joining Phish in the Cale phan club in the '90s.

Jenny Lewis has said Cale's original version of "Call Me the Breeze" "reigns supreme" while citing it in playlists she compiled for both Blender and Rolling Stone. And Spiritualized reworked the tune under the name of "Run."

Tom Petty has turned out to be a huge fan, as is Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell; they both sat in with Cale at McCabe's in 2009 when he opened his final tour there. In 2012, the band has made "Traveling Light" a staple of their shows, with Petty introducing it each night on tour by saying, "One of our favorite songwriters is a man named JJ Cale. He’s a fantastic writer. We play a lot of his songs..."

The group Band of Horses corralled "Thirteen Days" into their set:

Cale undertook a slower pace in recent years. Embarking on his final tour in 2009, he told the Los Angeles Times, "When I sit down and play the guitar, I'm 20 years old again. I have as much enthusiasm as I always did. Making the music picks up your day, but doing the business does not, and the trouble with gigs is there's a lot of business with a gig. And 70 is really — you know, my hearing, eyesight, can't hit pitch, arthritis playing the guitar. All the things that whether you're healthy or not come at you as you grow older. Eventually something's gonna get you." The final song of Roll On sounded like the farewell it proved to be: "Enough is enough, can't do it no more / Bring down the curtain, close the door."

But say this for him, among other things: If weariness had set in, drugs didn't take his life, or his fortune. He may be the one guy who ever found a way to get rich on "Cocaine."