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Eric Clapton And J.J. Cale: Notes On A Friendship

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Eric Clapton And J.J. Cale: Notes On A Friendship

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Eric Clapton And J.J. Cale: Notes On A Friendship

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West, I'm Eric Westervelt. There are, you could argue, two strands of Eric Clapton fans. Those who love this electric guitar giant for his groundbreaking fusion of blues and rock, inventive solos that launched a million guitar lessons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC CLAPTON SONG)

WESTERVELT: And then there are those who prefer Clapton's mellow, unplugged pop songs from later years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGE THE WORLD")

ERIC CLAPTON: (Singing) And I can change the world.

WESTERVELT: The two veins of Clapton fans just might find common ground on his new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AND ROLL RECORDS")

CLAPTON: (Singing) I make rock 'n' roll records. I sell them for a dime. I make my living to feed my children all in your good time.

WESTERVELT: "The Breeze: An Appreciation Of J.J. Cale" will be released next week. It's an All-Star tribute to Clapton's friend, the guitarist and singer-songwriter from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who deeply inspired Clapton and also wrote two of his biggest hits.

CLAPTON: You know, when I did "After Midnight" and "Cocaine," I was really trying as hard as I could to sound like him. So he summed up so many of the different essences of American music, you know, rock and jazz and folk and blues. And he just seemed to have an understanding of it all.

WESTERVELT: J.J. Cale died exactly one year ago today. Clapton says he woke up the next morning to find a text message about Cale's passing. And on the long flight to LA for the funeral, Clapton began to map out the new album.

CLAPTON: I planned the whole thing. I selected the songs to do. I even came up with the idea for the artwork and the title and to a certain extent the content. And then when I got to Escondido and we went to the service and I met his wife Christine and his manager Mike Kappus - and we paid our respects to one another and gave one another hugs and I said I'd like to make a record to pay tribute to John. Well, how do you feel? And they said, well, that would be great. There was no hesitation as far as I could see. And that was, you know, very moving for me that they gave me their trust to do this, you know.

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

CLAPTON: (Singing) Well, they call me the breeze, and I keep rolling down the road. They call me the breeze because I keep rolling down the road. I ain't got me nobody, I ain't carrying me no load.

Making this record was a way for me to say thank you for all of your inspiration over the years. And, you know, I suppose at some point I started to feel quite, you know, mildly outraged that he hadn't got the recognition that at least I thought he should've had.

WESTERVELT: You know, from the interviews I've heard with J.J. Cale, he didn't really seem to mind that he never became famous in the way you did. Do you think he cared much or not?

CLAPTON: I think he saw his job or his vocation as a musician on the same sort of scale as someone who likes to do landscape gardening or, you know, an architect. He just thought it was something that you could develop a skill at, be good at, get some satisfaction. So I don't think he recognized that all of the other paraphernalia was necessary.

WESTERVELT: So it was a benefit in that sense?

CLAPTON: Well, those of us who discovered him. For me, he was a beacon in a philosophical sense too because I needed to know that there was someone else out there that didn't want all those trappings too. You know, when I was growing up in the rock 'n roll school in England in the '60s, it just seemed to be a given that everyone was going to end up on TV and the ambition was to have a top 10 single. And I felt really alone in the fact that I didn't want anything. I just wanted to become reasonably good at what I was doing.

WESTERVELT: And you wrote in your autobiography, you know, you were a bit tired of the guitar hero thing and the gymnastic guitar playing. So it sounds like J.J. Cale helped to start to dial you back to be a little more restrained perhaps in the soloing. Is that accurate?

CLAPTON: Yeah, I think it was getting out of control. You know, heavy metal came out of all that stuff too. It was like volume and proficiency and virtuosity. There didn't seem to be any reasonable limit to that. It was just crazy. And so I wanted to go in the other direction and try to find a way to make it minimal, but you still have a great deal of substance. I mean, that was the essence of J.J.'s music.

WESTERVELT: We're speaking with Eric Clapton of his new album "The Breeze: An Appreciation Of J.J. Cale." And how'd it come about working with such an incredible collection of musician friends of yours? I mean, did you just start calling up John Mayer, Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, Willie Nelson...

CLAPTON: Yeah.

WESTERVELT: ...And say - do you want in on this?

CLAPTON: I started out with my partner Simon. We went into the studio and we started to just collect material. And then we took it to LA and three weeks later we put Jim Keltner and Nathan East in as rhythm section and invited a lot of J.J.'s friends from Tulsa to come down and hang out and play. And we turned it into a big party. And then later on, you know, started to share out the vocals. And at that point, you know, I knew I wanted Tom, and Tom wanted to do it. And John Mayer was - had already done a little tribute on stage to John and so he was a logical choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGNOLIA")

JOHN MAYER: (Singing) Magnolia, you sweet thing. You're driving me mad. Got to get back to you, babe. You're the best I ever had.

CLAPTON: Initially, actually, the first person I asked was Don White. And I'd never met Don White until the funeral. And he introduced himself to me and said I'd like to say hello. I'm the guy that gave John his first job. And it turned out that J.J. played in his band. And I was really impressed with this guy - he was a gentleman, you know? And I said well, I'd like - if it's OK, I'm going to do this album and I was going to sing it all myself. But now - would you like to come and sing a couple of songs? And he said yes. And that began the whole thing, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAIN TO NOWHERE")

DON WHITE: (Singing) The goal is never what it is. The goal will never be. The light stays dim a long time now, it's hard for you to see. Talk about the pathway way beyond your side. Another time, another mind that is the way of life. Train that goes to nowhere.

WESTERVELT: You recorded the album "The Road To Escondido" with him in 2006. What will you remember from those sessions now that J.J.'s gone?

CLAPTON: Well, his extraordinary sense of humor, his skill, his tenacity. He was a pretty social guy, actually. I mean, you know, the word out about J.J. was that - you know - that if you didn't know anything about him, that he was reclusive and shy. In fact, he was pretty gregarious character. He just liked to make music and he liked to do it in his own way. And so - but if you got him to do it in the company of his friends and with other musicians, he liked to have fun. So, you know, I remember those sessions as being extremely lively and funny and it's a treasure to me. It's a great memory.

WESTERVELT: You're the only artist to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame three different times. And so far, J.J. Cale is not an inductee. I mean, do you think this is a painful oversight that needs to be changed?

CLAPTON: Yeah, I do. I would say it was a little bit careless, maybe, that it's in the pipeline. But it's a shame that it would happen posthumously I think. I regard him as, you know, one of the roots of the tree in American folklore. He was my idol. And that, you know, you want - I suppose when we're fans of people, we want other people to recognize them too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIES")

MAYER: (Singing) You said you loved me, I can see through that. Lies, lies, lies.

WESTERVELT: That's Eric Clapton. His new triple tribute album's called "The Breeze: An Appreciation Of J.J. Cale." Mr. Clapton, thank you so much for all you've done. It's been a real privilege speaking with you.

CLAPTON: Thanks very much, man. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIES")

MAYER: (Singing) You said you loved me, and then you left me. What you did to me, I can see it in your eyes. Lies, lies, lies.

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