Born in Oklahoma City and raised in Tulsa, Cale graduated from Tulsa Central High School in 1956. He cut his teeth musically in Tulsa bars, fronting bands like Johnnie Cale and The Valentines and the Johnny Cale Quintette, before spending a brief time in Nashville and several years in Los Angeles.
He moved back to Tulsa in the late 1960s and had almost given up on the music business. But, in 1970, Eric Clapton covered Cale’s 1966 demo of the song “After Midnight,” making it a top 20 hit. Clapton says he had grown tired of ‘gymnastic guitar playing’ and was impressed by the subtlety of Cale’s style.
Dr. Hugh Foley, professor of Fine Arts at Rogers State University and founding board member of the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, says Cale’s laid-back style was a big shift from what most rock guitarists were playing at the time.
“It was the complete opposite of the more aggressive heavy metal or the bigger arena sound that a lot of the rock bands had achieved by that point. It had a folksier aesthetic, if you will, and I think that probably appealed to musicians who had just gone through that hard rocking period, say from ’64 through ’71-’72.”
In his 2003 biography, Neil Young places Cale’s guitar playing on par with Jimi Hendrix, simply saying, 'he’s got that thing. I don’t know what it is.'
“He was a guitarist’s guitarist and his relaxed style really provided people an opportunity to not attack their guitar and just go crazy with it to show off, but to relax a little bit and play an easier style.”
Cale’s songs have been covered over the years by Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, Deep Purple and John Mayer. The closest thing Cale ever had to a hit personally was “Crazy Mama,” which peaked at No.22 on the Billboard charts in 1971.
Cale notoriously shied away from the spotlight, refusing to put his image on most of his album covers and keeping his vocals low in the mix of his records. He also frequently turned down touring and appearance requests, including previous attempts to be inducted by the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
When Cale died in 2013 at the age of 74, there was an outpouring of condolences, everyone from Sheryl Crow to Slash, Grace Potter to Band of Horses. And a tribute album titled The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale, was released in August of this year, with appearances by Clapton, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, and other friends and admirers.
While Cale likely would have hated all the attention, it’s been a long time coming for the man they call ‘The Breeze.’
Cale will be inducted posthumously to the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame on Saturday night at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. Other inductees to the 2014 class include R&B performer Lowell Fulson, blues guitarist Elvin Bishop, and drummers Jim Keltner and Chuck Blackwell.
We'll have reports on the other inductees throughout the week.