He shied away from attention, but legendary songwriter/guitarist J.J. Cale, who died Friday after suffering a heart attack, had a huge impact on people—none more so than his longtime booking agent, manager and friend Mike Kappus.
“Not a lot of people knew him, but everybody knew his music and realized how real and unpretentious he was,” says Kappus. “He wasn’t about changing any trends, but giving everybody comfort.”
October would have marked the 30th year that Kappus began representing Cale, who is best known for composing Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” and “After Midnight,” but also wrote songs recorded by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Santana, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and The Allman Brothers.
“He was my favorite person, my best friend, I feel,” says Kappus, whose San Francisco-based Rosebud Agency has also worked with the likes of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, and currently represents Mavis Staples and Trombone Shorty.
“He was much more popular outside the U.S.—Europe, in particular,” he continues. “He hadn’t toured in years, but there’s been a constant flow of emails from people from all over the world invariably saying how nobody means as much to them, and that they’ll fly to California just to shake his hand. People grew up with his music, and he touched people everywhere and connected with them more than anybody else I’ve worked with.”
People who never met him felt a real and close personal connection with Cale, reiterates Kappus. “They loved the guy.”
Ironically, Cale, whose heart “wasn’t in the best of shape,” had sounded “the best I’d heard him in ages” the last time the two talked.
“I keep coming back to how he was so real,” Kappus says. “There was no b.s. with him, and there was never any self-promoting: He didn’t put a picture of himself on his album covers for years, and he could be playing with six or seven guys on stage and you wouldn’t know which one he was—except that he’d be playing in the back.”
Cale also didn’t like doing interviews.
“It felt unnatural to him,” says Kappus. “Then you’d talk him into doing one and he’d say, ‘My music pretty much sounds the same.’ So be careful what you wish for: He did interviews that pretty much unsold his records—though if he found common ground with an interviewer he could talk for an hour! But it was so foreign to him to promote himself.”
He also didn’t tour very often.
“I got really significant offers for him to tour Europe, and he wasn’t swayed by that at all,” notes Kappus. “He wasn’t a big fan of flying, and only did what was comfortable.”
Cale, who was born in Oklahoma City, lived near San Diego in Escondido, Calif., and was an originator of the so-called “Tulsa Sound” blend of rockabilly, country, rock ‘n’ roll and blues, didn’t even care about being honored where he lived.
“He wasn’t interested to get a Hall of Fame award in Tulsa, and if he was offered an honor in San Diego, he wasn’t interested in going downtown to get that!” says Kappus. “He just wasn’t into standing up and saying, ‘Look at me!’ All he cared about was making great music.”
Cale also enjoyed being behind the sound board, for others as well as himself.
“He was as much into engineering and production as any kind of performing,” says Kappus. “He actually engineered for [pioneering 1960s heavy metal band] Blue Cheer, and later engineered and produced his own albums under the name Mike Test. He didn’t even put his own name down! But he was very proud of the Grammy he won with Eric Clapton [The Road to Escondido, which won for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2007], because it had him down as engineer as well as performer. Sitting at home and dealing with knobs and dials gave him as much joy as anything else.”
Cale appreciated all kinds of music.
“Upstairs one time at [Santa Monica music club and guitar shop] McCabe’s, somebody mentioned something about rap, expecting Cale to look down his nose at it,” recalls Kappus. “He started talking about its positive production values! But he’d listen to how people handled different means of production: He’d buy Van Halen, Britney Spears or Juvenile—whatever was in the Top 10–and appreciate whatever they’re doing rather than generically looking down at it. He’d find the positive in people who were doing a great job on their role on a record, whatever it was.”
Kappus recalls a particularly “cute moment” at McCabe’s, when Cale fans Tom Petty and his Hearbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell–who would do Cale songs at Petty concert sound checks–wanted to sit in with Cale and play his song “I’d Like To Love You Baby,” from his 1974 album Okie, which Petty and the Heartbreakers’ had covered.
“Cale said he hadn’t played it since he recorded it, so Petty had to teach his own song to him in the dressing room!” says Kappus, who also remembers Campbell’s “incredible playing” that night on “Crazy Mama,” Cale’s biggest hit single as an artist.
As for Cale’s own guitar playing, Kappus concludes, “If you saw him live, he’d circle around the intro of a song, and it was beautiful. Beautiful. Some of those intros could be recordings! He had such an incredible and natural facility with the guitar.”
Subscribe to my usedview.com pages and follow me on Twitter @JimBessman.