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Updated: August 2, 2013 16:39 IST

The background man

ANURAG TAGAT
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AP "I’m not a household person," Cale used to say this often

JJ Cale, who passed away last week, was happy his songs were made famous by other singers

“We used to say when we were 20 years old, that when you reach 30, you gotta hang up your guitar and get a real job. Here I’m 65 and I’m still good. I still can’t believe that,” John Weldon ‘JJ’ Cale said in 2004, when he played at the legendary Crossroads Festival with Eric Clapton. There’s an interesting insight into the relation between Clapton and Cale as songwriters and guitarists when you look at a video of their Crossroads performance of ‘After Midnight’ – Clapton’s first big hit in 1970, which was written by Cale. You see both guitarists starting, waiting for each other’s lead, but Clapton signals for Cale to sing the song, probably in a gesture of due credit. Cale chuckles and takes the mike.

The world’s best rock & roll artists, from Clapton to Waylon Jennings to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Cash, Santana, The Allman Brothers and Captain Beefheart have taken Cale’s songs to global popularity. And this is apparently how Cale wanted it. “I’m a background person,” Cale said in 1990, in an interview with the Chicago Sun Times. “I’m not a household name. People have heard my music, but all my famous songs were made famous by somebody else…But that was my goal.”

Cale passed away last week, on July 26, in La Jolla, California, after suffering from a heart attack at the age of 74. As much as he was a background person, it’s important to remember Cale for the kind of figure he cut in the music industry. His online biography contains an interesting gem of a quotable quote from what he told his old producer and friend Audie Ashworth, “I’d like to have the fortune, but I don’t care too much about the fame.”

Cale openly admitted he wrote songs for money, but he was more of a recluse and a bedroom guitarist, not at all averse to new technology in guitar gear and recording, even at the age of 70. His last album appearance was on Clapton’s album Old Sock, where he sang on the laid-back blues rock number, ‘Angel’.

In fact, Cale did well to stick around with Clapton straight from 1970, and their collaboration album, The Road to Escondido, won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Blues album in 2008. “As far as I’ve tried, I’ve never really got a record to sound like him (Cale). I mean, before I go under the ground, I want to make a JJ Cale album,” said Clapton during the recording of The Road to Escondido, which turned out to cover genres ranging from blues, rock, reggae, country and folk.

While members from Lynyrd Skynyrd thanked him for all his talents, the band Black Crowes paid tribute by posting online, “Another one of our heroes has joined the great band in the sky.” While Cale’s biggest solo hit, 1970’s ‘Crazy Mama’ was about the typical topic of that era – chasing after women – it was his swan song, ‘Bring Down the Curtain’, from his 2009 album Roll On that carried a heart-warming message: “Sometime you do, sometime you don't/Sometime you will and sometime you won't/Sometimes it's better to leave it alone/Slow it down, ease it, you let it be gone, gone, gone/Bring down the curtain, we’ve been movin’ on.”

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