Oklahoma guitarist and songwriter J.J. Cale was best known for his songs “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.” He is more than just those two songs, however. This low-key, reclusive musician is known as a proponent of “the Tulsa sound,” a laid-back, southern, bluesy vibe that influenced much of the rock that came out of the ’70s and beyond. “His influence is immeasurable,” wrote Rolling Stone magazine.
Cale is one of the most respected musicians too, the “musician’s musician,” with plaudits from Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, and, of course, Eric Clapton.
So in this article, we dive into the best J.J. Cale songs to see what all the fuss is about. By the time we’re done, you’ll be a fan. I promise ya!
13. Downtown L.A.
From Cale’s 1982 album, Grasshopper, ‘Downtown L.A.’ is a bluesy shuffle with a gorgeous solo played throughout it, with hints of Spanish guitar, jazz guitar (some lines that wouldn’t be amiss in a Wes Montgomery solo), and even elements of gypsy jazz. It shows us what a freakin’ amazing guitarist this man was. Lyrically, it’s a scathing commentary about L.A., a “depressing place” with people “picking up the garbage people put out back.” His voice is deep and murky in the mix.
12. Travelin’ Light
Released in 1976 on Cale’s fourth studio album, Troubadour, ‘Travelin’ Light’ is pure class. It features funk guitar and xylophones (yes, xylophones!) to fill out the sound. This song was used to wake up the crews of the International Space Station early on Friday, May 21, 2010, before their spacewalk. How very fitting!
11. Missing Person
J. J. Cale and Eric Clapton recorded this track in the studio for their album, “The Road to Escondido.” The album features some of Billy Preston’s final recordings (one of the few people who sat in with The Beatles on keyboards) and was awarded the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2008. One of its standout moments is this track; you can sense the sheer joy all involved had in these sessions.
10. Crazy Mama
Cale’s only Top 40 hit in the United States was “Crazy Mama,” which was featured on the musician’s debut album, Naturally, where a number of the songs on this list reside. This track utilizes electronic drumming in its production, which was rare at the time. J.J. Cale was not only a great guitarist, singer, and songwriter but also knew his way around a recording studio as a sound engineer.
9. Carry On
‘Carry On’ is an upbeat track that says “stay strong” when times are tough. It is the opening track on his album Shades, which continues his tradition of giving each of his albums a single-word title. In what was probably a message to himself, he reminds us that life can get you down, but you need to persevere. “If life’s little downs keep coming around, carry on, carry on.” We all need to be reminded of this message.
8. Cajun Moon
From the studio album Okie, which was released in 1974 and produced by long-time producer Audie Ashworth. This was the first album on which Cale layered his vocal tracks, which would become one of the defining characteristics of his sound. A technique he employed to conceal the fact that he did not think of himself as a very good singer. “The more times you put your voice on there” he said in an interview, “the more it becomes in tune”.
The gorgeous ‘Magnolia’ floats along with a slow and laidback groove. This song exemplifies everything J.J. Cale is known for: deep, sweet, soulful, and lazy as a summer day. “Whippoorwill’s singing, soft summer breeze, makes me think of my baby, I left down in New Orleans.”
6. Call The Doctor
“Somebody call for the doctor, I think I’m sick / Ain’t had my medicine in over a week.” Another classic, I’ll let you decide what the medicine might have been that he’s referred to. Just check out that incredible bass line, too. Blissful.
5. Don’t Go To Strangers
“If I’m standing in a crowd, call my name, call it loud / Don’t go to strangers, woman, call on me.” Here’s Cale at his most vulnerable, trying to convince a love interest to stick with him (“strangers” suggests she’s a prostitute).
4. Mama Said
Apparently, mama (probably a metaphor for conservative America) is a bit of a control freak. She doesn’t like much fun and games going on in this place. No guitar playing, bass, drumming, piano, or reefer-smoking. In true contrarian fashion, J.J. will do all of the above anyway. What a dude.
‘Cocaine’ was included in Cale’s fourth studio album, Troubadour. Eric Clapton covered it on his 1977 album Slowhand, giving the song widespread exposure. Contrary to popular belief, Cocaine is not a song that praises the white stuff. Instead, it is an anti-drug song that warns about how addictive it is. Clapton called the song “quite cleverly anti-cocaine.”
2. Call Me The Breeze
It’s well-documented that Cale was a recluse who preferred to stay away from the limelight (he didn’t appear in any of the photos of his first seven albums!). This autobiographical song does a wonderful job of capturing him; it’s about a guy who is free to go wherever the wind blows him, unburdened by the weight of the world. Lynyrd Skynyrd also did a terrific cover of this tune.
1. After Midnight
Any of these songs could have taken the coveted top spot, but for me, it has to go to ‘After Midnight’. If for nothing else, just because of the impact that song has had on Cale’s career. He first wrote it in 1966, when he was a struggling artist, and it went largely unnoticed. Eric Clapton, unbeknownst to Cale, had heard it, loved it, and covered it for his debut album in 1970. The success of Clapton’s version (and the royalties it produced) gave Cale the finances to re-record the song for his 1971 album Naturally. Despite Clapton’s perfectly respectable version, it’s Cale’s that really nails the song.