Eric Clapton Discusses His Star-Studded J.J. Cale Tribute Album, 'The Breeze' — Exclusive Interview

by Damian Fanelli
Posted Jul 22, 2014 at 10:58am

This is an excerpt from the September 2014 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this story, plus features on the Black Keys, Judas Priest, 17 Amazing practice amps, columns, tabs and reviews of new gear from Epiphone, ESP Guitars, Visual Sound, Blackstar, G&L Guitars, Ibanez and more, check out the September 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.

Cool Breeze: In this GW exclusive, Eric Clapton pays tribute to his friend and inspiration J.J. Cale and talks about The Breeze, his new star-studded tribute to the late Oklahoma guitarist and songwriter.

Robert Johnson and J.J. Cale represent the yin and yang of Eric Clapton’s musical influences. On one side is Johnson, the famously troubled Thirties-era Mississippi bluesman who moaned about hellhounds on his trail, spooks around his bed and those lowdown, shakin’ chills. On the other side is Cale, the famously laidback singer-songwriter from Tulsa who penned laconic odes to singin’ whippoorwills, “chugalugging” and shakin’ tambourines.

Clapton has covered the music of both men on several occasions throughout his career, taking Johnson’s “Crossroads” to the heights of blues-rock jam-outs with Cream in 1968 and earning massive commercial success as a solo artist with his versions of Cale’s insanely catchy “After Midnight” in 1970 and breezy “Cocaine” in 1977.

Yet, when looking back at Clapton’s work as a whole, one can’t help but notice that the Cale-influenced side of the equation takes up a much larger chunk of the pie, which was probably the result of the fact that Clapton actually got to meet and hang with Cale. Their bond lasted from the Seventies until Cale’s death in 2013 at age 74.

[[ Eric Clapton Premieres New Song, "Train to Nowhere," from JJ Cale Tribute Album 'The Breeze' — Exclusive ]]

Clapton even had Cale’s phone number, something he’s still tickled about.

“Nobody had his phone number. You had to be in the inner circle to have that,” Clapton says with a laugh. “I’d call him, and sometimes I’d get his voice mail. Other times, I’d get him on the line and we’d talk for hours. I felt I had some kind of inside track, and that was a wonderful thing.”

On July 29, however, Clapton will release a bona-fide tribute to his friend and former collaborator: Eric Clapton & Friends: The Breeze, An Appreciation of J.J. Cale. The album features 16 Cale songs—from “Call Me the Breeze,” “Starbound” and “Lies” to “Magnolia” “Songbird” and “Crying Eyes”—performed by Clapton and a host of guests, including Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and Don White. Other friends include Albert Lee, Derek Trucks, David Lindley, Doyle Bramhall II and Don Preston, all of whom split up the six-string duties.

In the interview below, Clapton discusses Cale and the new album—which happens to be his only tribute album besides Me and Mr. Johnson, his 2004 homage to Robert Johnson.

It’s 1969. You’ve left behind Cream’s heavy blues-rock, extended guitar solos, freeform improvisation, high intensity and volume. Then you discover J.J. Cale’s music, courtesy of Delaney Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie. Before you know it, you immerse yourself in Cale’s “relaxed” Tulsa style, and the Clapton of Cream becomes a thing of the past. Did you see Cale’s music as the embodiment of something you had been seeking? Or were you not even looking for something new?

I think I was looking for someone to identify with. A lot of my musical growth and education came from players who weren’t around anymore. The Best of Muddy Waters [1958] was one of my primary sources of education, as well as a lot of the country blues guys who had been gone a long time. But even the Muddy album, which was an electric album—that band, by the time I got to hear that album, was long gone.

What I’m trying to say is, if I was looking for something current, there it was. He had the root and the understanding—the knowledge about all the music I loved—in the same way Delaney and Leon Russell did. These guys understood the history of this thing I was attracted to, so it was logical to me that I should keep an eye on them and follow what they were doing.

Sometimes you immerse yourself in your influences to the point that you ignore your own ego and delve into the artist’s style, even including the way he sings and plays. When that’s the case, do you consider it a learning experience or some type of comfort zone?

A bit of both, I think. With J.J., for instance, and trying to learn to play some of the Robert Johnson songs…when you put those two things side by side, my intention is always to try and leave my ego at the door and go in and learn everything I can about how they did it. That’s the starting point. That will be the aspiration. And what happens inevitably is that my ego gets back in and I adapt what I’m learning to suit what I want to do. So my will is always present.

Robert Johnson was the hardest thing to tackle because, in order to play any of the songs he put on tape exactly as he did it, that’s a life’s work in itself. Any one of his songs, they’re so strategically different in terms of technique and how to sing and play those things at the same time. It’s like master-class stuff. My approach is to get as far as I can and allow my will to come in and take over and make it so that I can play it now and not in five years’ time, because I’m too impatient to have to follow that through to its logical conclusion. And with J.J., it’s the same thing. So what I end up with, even if I’m trying to imitate and emulate, is a version, because my will has twisted me to make it easier for me.

How, when and where did The Breeze, An Appreciation of J.J. Cale come together?

Right after his funeral service, I flew from California back to Columbus, Ohio, where I have a house, and my wife’s family is there. At some point over the last couple of years, I started putting in a primitive little studio, and we started tracking there. I’d put rhythm tracks together and then I’d overlay guitars, and Walt Richmond came to play keyboards. Then, when we’d built enough with the artificial sounds, we went to L.A. I asked [drummer] Jim Keltner and [bassist] Nathan East to start putting down a proper rhythm section. Then we got some other players, including [drummers] Jamie Oldaker, David Teegarden, Jim Karstein and James Cruce. Then came [guitarists] Don White, Don Preston, David Lindley, Doyle Bramhall II, all to kind of build the sound.

This is an excerpt from the September 2014 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this story, plus features on the Black Keys, Judas Priest, 17 Amazing practice amps, columns, tabs and reviews of new gear from Epiphone, ESP Guitars, Visual Sound, Blackstar, G&L Guitars, Ibanez and more, check out the September 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.


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