J.J. Cale: A Veteran Songwriter's 'Old Man' Music The songwriter behind Eric Clapton's "After Midnight" and "Cocaine" says he once thought of himself as a late bloomer at 30. Forty years later, he's still blooming. Cale tells Melissa Block about his new album, Roll On.

J.J. Cale: A Veteran Songwriter's 'Old Man' Music

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The musician J.J. Cale remembers those old, lean days in the late '60s.


BLOCK: You'd play a Friday night gig at a bowling alley in Tulsa, make your money as a fry cook or elevator operator, write songs when you could.


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

BLOCK: And if your demo happened to end up in the hands of Eric Clapton, well, your life would change.

CALE: He recorded it and come out about six months later. And I heard it on the radio, and I went, oh, boy, I'm a songwriter now. I'm not an engineer or an elevator operator.


BLOCK: Just like that.

CALE: Yeah.

BLOCK: It happened again with this song.


CLAPTON: (Singing) If you want to get down, down on the ground, cocaine.

BLOCK: The royalty checks keep flowing in, so J.J. Cale doesn't have to tour or record much. He does have a new album out now, recorded mostly in his home studio in Southern California.


CALE: (Singing) Strange days (unintelligible). Strange ways (unintelligible).

BLOCK: It's that same J.J. Cale sound with echoes of his first album, titled "Naturally," from 1971.

CALE: I was a late bloomer in the music business. When I made that album, I went, well, I'm way too old to be doing this. You know, 30 years old is really old. So, ironically, I'm doing it now - and this last album, I'm 70.


CALE: (Singing) Who knew our life would be so complicated? Who knew that we would be so automated? No time to think on the brink. Who knew?

BLOCK: We get to hear you scatting on one of the songs here.


CALE: Yeah, the first song on there is called "Who Knew," and I wrote that song and, you know, didn't have the words, you know. I was just kind of scatting, mumbling, whatever and, you know, and going, well, I'll figure out what has to write there, but I've decided I liked the scatting better than any more words.


CALE: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

CALE: Yes, I've been down the pike and back. And through the years, I've heard different songs with scatting in it, and it was - always cracked me up as kind of a funny style of music, you know? When I did it, it kind of cracked me up as a comedy kind of routine.


BLOCK: We don't hear you laughing on there. But inside, you're laughing, right?

CALE: Right.


CALE: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Who knew?

BLOCK: You were talking about being 30-ish when you started out and being 70 now.

CALE: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: You have a song on here called "Old Friend" that seems to me to be all about, you know, mortality and thinking of where you are maybe in life and as a musician.


CALE: Well, you do that when you get to be older. I write songs that kind of pertain to where I'm at now. And I guess it's good. I don't know, you know? I used to write more about sex or drugs and rock and roll. I don't do that quite as much as I used to.


CALE: And it's a little more old man philosophy.


CALE: I hear all the old folks are gone. I guess we're the ones now. That's the way it's going. (Unintelligible) behind us now.

BLOCK: That line, I hear all the old folks are gone. I guess we're the ones now. It kind of breaks your heart to hear that.

CALE: And once they're gone, it's really a strange feeling, you know? Pretty soon, you just - I guess some people are lucky if they die young, you know?


CALE: I mean, you don't really go through those changes. But that's the only bad thing. 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.


CALE: (Singing) We always knew those days would forever last. And all those friends we had would never pass. But they did (unintelligible).

BLOCK: When you're writing a song, thinking about the sound of a song that you're working on, how much are you thinking about stuff you've done before, and either wanting it to sound really similar to stuff you've done before or make it sound really different?


CALE: That's one of the problems in being a songwriter and living a long time. What you eventually end up doing is you start imitating yourself. So, yeah, I've written a song and go, well, I don't know that song. I really like that song. And then I get listening to it, and I go, well, that sounds just like "After Midnight," which I wrote, you know, 30 years ago. And I don't notice it until I'm through writing a song, and that's the only problem. If you write songs long enough, you run out of material that's original to yourself.



CALE: (Singing) (Unintelligible) and I won't be back again.

BLOCK: Well, J.J. Cale, thanks so much for talking with us.

CALE: Hey, Melissa, thank you.

BLOCK: There's more music from J.J. Cale's new CD, titled "Roll On," at nprmusic.org.


CALE: (Singing) And I won't be back again.

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