Handful Of Tracks Propelled J.J. Cale To Big Leagues

Singer-songwriter J.J. Cale died Friday at the age of 74. His music took the edges off honky-tonk and blues, dressed them in a smoking jacket and ascot, and made them smooth. His most recognizable songs, however, were made famous by Eric Clapton. They include, "Cocaine" and "After Midnight."

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And as we mentioned earlier in the show, singer-songwriter J.J. Cale has died. If you're not familiar with his name, you've probably heard some of his music. He penned hits from the 1970s and '80s that were recorded by Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many others. The success of those songs gave him the freedom to release his own albums for more than four decades. NPR's Dan Bobkoff has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME THE BREEZE")

J.J. CALE: One, two, one, two...

DAN BOBKOFF, BYLINE: J.J. Cale was the father of what's become known as the Tulsa sound, a laid-back mix of blues, country and rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME THE BREEZE")

CALE: (Singing) They call me the breeze, I keep blowing and blowing...

BOBKOFF: Cale started out playing in Tulsa bars in the '50s, never thinking music could be his full-time career. But in 1970, he struck gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER MIDNIGHT")

BOBKOFF: "After Midnight," a song written by Cale but recorded by British guitar legend Eric Clapton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER MIDNIGHT")

ERIC CLAPTON: (Singing) After midnight, we're gonna let it all hang down...

BOBKOFF: In 2004, Cale told NPR that at first, he didn't even know the song was a success.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

CALE: And I said, yeah, sure. You know, I think I was half-asleep that day. Anyway, later on I heard it on the radio, and I almost drove off the road. I went, oh boy, I'm going to buy me a new car now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER MIDNIGHT")

CLAPTON: (Singing) Go shake your tender heels...

BOBKOFF: Following the success of "After Midnight," Cale released "Naturally," his first solo album. It was the first of many with what became known as his signature sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCAINE")

BOBKOFF: But it was just a handful of tracks that propelled him to the big leagues: "I'll Make Love to You Anytime," "Call Me the Breeze," "Bringing it Back" and "Cocaine."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCAINE")

CALE: (Singing) If you want to hang out, you got to take her out, cocaine. If you want to get down, down on the ground, cocaine...

BOBKOFF: This is Cale's version of "Cocaine," the song he wrote but made famous by Clapton. Royalties from the hits meant you didn't have to tour. He shunned the limelight, and appeared embarrassed when recognized at restaurants. He was soft-spoken in both speech and song. He told NPR in 2004 that critics would complain that he mixed his vocals too softly on his records.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

CALE: Oh, I'm not a very good singer, and that's 'cause I was always embarrassed about my singing. So I'd mix my words down. I got a lot of complaints from that. I'd even get complaints from the producer: Well, mix your voice up. And I'd go, no, it's hideous; and it's at down so it'd sound all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PROBLEM")

CALE: (Singing) Born in a time that has gone by...

BOBKOFF: In 2009, Cale was already thinking about mortality, telling NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED that it was a strange feeling to reach his 70s and lose so many friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

CALE: Probably the only thing that I really don't like about being an old guy is, so many of the people who understand what we know are gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD FRIEND")

CALE: (Singing) We always knew those days would forever last...

BOBKOFF: Cale died Friday at a hospital in La Jolla, Calif. His agency's website says he suffered a heart attack. He was 74. Dan Bobkoff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD FRIEND")

CALE: (Singing) But they did, and the numbers grow small. For a time, we had it all. I'd like to see you again sometime...

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Click on Programs and scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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