At least one thing Eric Clapton has in common with Don White and scores of musicians from Tulsa: J.J. Cale was their hero.
“The thing about him was he was cool,” said White, who grew up in Tulsa and looked up to Cale, even when Cale was a guitarist in one of his bands. “No matter what, who he was around, he was always the coolest person in the room. Always.”
Cale, the Tulsa native who helped to develop and spread what would be known as the Tulsa Sound, died one year ago on July 26. He was 74.
To pay tribute to the man whose songwriting credits include “Cocaine” and “After Midnight,” White, Clapton, several of those Tulsa musicians and more who appreciated the pioneering rock icon recorded a new album of Cale songs.
“The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale” was released Monday featuring 16 Cale songs. It is named after the song and first track, “Call Me The Breeze.” The album was put together by Clapton, who said it was important to have the Tulsans who were with Cale from his beginnings there to contribute.
Tulsans or those with ties to Tulsa who performed include White, Jimmy “Junior” Markham, Jim Keltner, Jim Karstein, Jamie Oldaker, Walt Richmond and David Teegarden.
Other musicians featured on the album include Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, John Mayer and Willie Nelson. But the whole project started with Clapton, who, on a flight to Los Angeles after Cale’s death, started mapping out the album and choosing the songs.
The first person he called to work on the album was White. The two had never met until Cale’s funeral.
“He introduced himself to me and said, ‘I would like to say hello. I’m the guy that gave John his first job,’” Clapton told NPR in an interview that aired last weekend. “It turned out that J.J. played in his band until he decided that he wanted to make a record, and then he excused himself. I was really impressed with this guy. He was a gentleman, you know?”
White recalled the phone call as just an invitation to come play in the band Clapton was putting together. It turned out that White would sing and play guitar on three of the songs, the only Tulsan of those who flew out for the album to be featured so prominently.
White said he would have been thrilled to play just some rhythm guitar on one of the songs on the album.
“That was way more than I expected,” White said. “I guess I pulled off the gig.”
White grew up in Tulsa as Cale and others were playingaround town, playing a style that mixed rock, blues, country, rockabilly styles into the Tulsa Sound.
“There wasn’t no Tulsa Sound — that’s just the way we played,” White said, quoting Cale. “Cale said, ‘Yeah we used to hear those blues guys and we’d try to play like them and we couldn’t, so it kind of came out like this.’ That’s the best explanation of the Tulsa Sound I ever heard.
And who said it? Cale.”
The first time he saw Cale play was at the opening for a clothing store at 33rd Street and Harvard Avenue. His band was outside, and White and his friend went to listen. That’s when they first saw Cale’s coolness and his guitar prowess.
Their friendship/mentor relationship grew over the years, with White and others playing with Cale around Tulsa.
After Clapton had already
recorded Cale’s “After Midnight,” Cale was coming through Tulsa and met up with White, who had just quit his job with an oil company to start his own band.
“He said what kind of band are you going to have? I said, ‘I’m going to sing country music, but I’m going to play like we play,’” White said. “He said, ‘That sounds fun — I’d like to play in a band like that.’ I said ‘OK.’ Real fast, I said ‘OK.’”
He would occasionally go on tour with Cale through the years, which he said was always his favorite thing to do, to share the stage, watch and interact with Cale as he coolly played the guitar.
White said Cale always touched base with his Tulsa friends through the years, keeping the town where he got his start a highly regarded place.
Cale never saw the widespread notoriety that Clapton or others who recorded his songs got with them. But that never was his goal. He was too cool for that.
“He didn’t want to be any more famous than he was,” White said. “He could have been if he wanted to. But I think he was fine just the way he was.”
That’s what makes Clapton’s project with these Tulsa musicians more special: Clapton, White and the others can help bring their hero to more people, inspiring more people with his songwriting and style.
“He wants people who have never heard of Cale to listen to this record to get an idea about the music his did,” White said about Clapton. “It’s really a nice thing he’s doing.”