As well as learning to play the guitar he began studying the principles of sound engineering while still living with his parents in Tulsa, where he built himself a recording studio. After graduation he was drafted into military service, studying at the Air Force Air Training Command in Rantoul, Illinois. Cale recalled, “I didn’t really want to carry a gun and do all that stuff so I joined the Air Force and what I did is I took technical training and that’s kind of where I learned a little bit about electronics.” Cale’s knowledge of mixing and sound recording turned out to play an important role in creating the distinctive sound of his studio albums.
Along with a number of other young Tulsa musicians, Cale moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, where he found employment as a studio engineer. While living in Los Angeles he cut a demo single in 1966 (in those days professional demos were actual 45 rpm vinyl singles) with Liberty Records of his composition “After Midnight”. He distributed copies of this single to his Tulsa musician friends living in Los Angeles, many of whom were successfully finding work as session musicians. Although he managed to find a regular spot at the Whisky a Go Go (which is where, according to his own testimony, Elmer Valentine suggested he call himself J.J. Cale to avoid confusion with John Cale of the Velvet Underground he found little success as a recording artist and, not being able to make enough money as a studio engineer, he sold his guitar and returned to Tulsa, where he joined a band with Tulsa musician Don White.
In 1970, it came to his attention that Eric Clapton had recorded a cover of “After Midnight” on his debut album in 1970. As a result of this, it was suggested to Cale that he should take advantage of this publicity and cut a record of his own. His first album, Naturally, established his style, described by Los Angeles Times writer Richard Cromelin as a “unique hybrid of blues, folk and jazz, marked by relaxed grooves and Cale’s fluid guitar and laconic vocals. His early use of drum machines and his unconventional mixes lend a distinctive and timeless quality to his work and set him apart from the pack of Americana roots music purists.”
In his 2003 biography Shakey, Neil Young remarked, “Of all the players I ever heard, it’s gotta be Hendrix and JJ Cale who are the best electric guitar players.” In the 2005 documentary To Tulsa and Back: On Tour with J.J. Cale, Cale’s guitar style is characterized by Eric Clapton as “really, really minimal“, and he states precisely, “it’s all about finesse”.
His biggest U.S. hit single, “Crazy Mama“, peaked at #22 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1972. In the 2005 documentary film To Tulsa and Back, Cale recounts the story of being offered the opportunity to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand to promote the song, which would have moved it higher on the charts. Cale declined when told he could not bring his band to the taping and would be required to lip-sync the words. Though he deliberately avoided the limelight (being temperamentally averse to celebrity) his influence as a musical artist has been widely acknowledged by figures such as Mark Knopfler, Neil Young and Eric Clapton who described him as “one of the most important artists in the history of rock”. He is considered to be one of the originators of the Tulsa Sound, a loose genre drawing on blues, rockabilly, country, and jazz.
Many songs written by Cale have been recorded by other artists, including “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” by Eric Clapton; “Call Me the Breeze” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Mayer, Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare; “Clyde” by Waylon Jennings and Dr. Hook; “I Got The Same Old Blues” by Captain Beefheart, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Freddie King; and “Magnolia” by Beck, Lucinda Williams and Iron and Wine by Jose Feliciano and Ben Bridwell.
Cale often acted as his own producer, engineer and session player. His vocals, sometimes whispery, would be buried in the mix. He attributed his unique sound to being a recording mixer and engineer, saying, “Because of all the technology now you can make music yourself and a lot of people are doing that now. I started out doing that a long time ago and I found when I did that I came up with a unique sound.”
In 2008 he, along with Clapton, received a Grammy Award for their album, The Road to Escondido.
J.J. Cale died at the age of 74 in La Jolla, California, on July 26, 2013, after suffering a heart attack.