Hit-Songwriter Albums from the Lost and Found (Part 3): Naturally

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

The late J.J. Cale isn’t necessarily obscure, but he was never quite a household name, either, and he’s quietly made his way into more record collections in the form of cover versions than through his own albums.

Do you own a J.J. Cale album? Unless you’re a fairly hardcore music buff, you likely don’t. Do you own an Eric Clapton or Lynyrd Skynyrd album? If so, you’ve almost certainly heard a J.J. Cale composition. Clapton’s first-ever solo hit, “After Midnight,” is a Cale tune, as is the Top 40 hit and classic-rock-radio staple “Cocaine.” “I’ll Make Love to You Anytime” from Backless similarly comes from the pen of Cale, as does “Call Me the Breeze” from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Second Helping and “The Sensitive Kind” from Santana’s Zebop!

Cale’s solo debut, 1972’s Naturally, released on Shelter (the Leon Russell-owned boutique label that introduced the world to such talents as Phoebe Snow, Tom Petty, and the Dwight Twilley Band), is a cult classic.

It’s here that you’ll find Cale’s own renditions of “Call Me the Breeze” and “After Midnight.” Cale’s rendition of the latter is an altogether different kind of beast from Clapton’s fiery take and boasts a much more lazy groove and a more soulful and jazzier vibe that makes it seem more fitting for late-late-night listening. Cale’s version also basically sets the template for Cale’s own distinctive formula as a performer, one that only sporadically deviated from easygoing bluesy grooves, but it’s a sound that always worked quite well for him, and one listen to this disc will also make it quickly apparent where Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits got the idea for his own band’s sound. Simply, there would be no Dire Straits had there never been a J.J. Cale.

Other highlights from this superb debut include the breathtakingly beautiful “Magnolia,” which would become something of a standard, being covered by everyone from Poco (who do an excellent version of their own on their very underrated album Crazy Eyes) to Beck and Iron & Wine; “Clyde,” later covered by both Waylon Jennings and Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show; the fun “Call the Doctor”; and “Bringing It Back,” later covered by Kansas on their self-titled debut.

The disc even gave Cale his first – and, sadly, only – Top 40 hit as a performer in the lazy, ambling blues of the great “Crazy Mama.” Like several of the other songs here, the song features a very primitive drum machine for rhythmic accompaniment and it almost sounds like a demo, making it a slightly unlikely candidate for a Top 40 hit, but its crude nature actually works in the song’s favor, giving it an extra bit of charm that it might have lacked with more polished production.