by Ryan McKeeman
The late JJ Cale comes to mind for me as the most famous not-so-famous musician – the quintessential cover(ed) artist. And by that I mean he’s known for not being known… he’s behind the scenes somewhere in the liner notes of several of the classic albums we love. He was a modest dude ever since the beginning. He avoided putting his face on his album covers for 12 years and when he finally did, it was a high-contrast, black and white image that is hardly recognizable.
[Note: We will cover a lot of material in this one. Check out our Spotify playlist that goes with this article to find it all in one place. And check out Clapton’s tribute album to JJ Cale, The Breeze, released last year for more insight on the depth of Cale’s influence on Clapton’s career.]
JJ CALE’S FIRST 8 ALBUM COVERS | 1971-1983
NOTABLE ALBUMS FEATURING AT LEAST ONE JJ CALE COVER | 1970-2014
Now I know this is oversimplifying but he’s basically the guy behind Eric Clapton’s fame. No big deal. After Midnight was released on Cale’s debut album, Naturally, in 1971. And Cocaine was released on his 1976 album, Troubadour. Yet most of us know these songs to be recorded by Eric Clapton. Hell, After Midnight was released on Clapton’s self-titled debut album in 1970 before Cale recorded and released it the following year. The story goes that JJ Cale did not even know his song had been covered until it became a radio hit. And Cocaine is the opening track on Clapton’s iconic 1977 bluesy-rock masterpiece, Slowhand.
In both cases, Cale’s original version is more raw and stripped down. Shorter. Less “produced.” Modest. Sparse even. And fucking awesome. Hearing these songs for the first time made my ears do a double take. I was like, “who is that dude covering Eric Clapton?!?” After some discovery, I found JJ Cale and a whole new world of music was opened up for me. Like the time I first had the Rico (Mexican Vanilla, graham cracker, strawberries and cinnamon) at Amy's Ice Cream - there was very clearly a before knowing JJ Cale part of my musical life and an after knowing JJ Cale.
Of the two examples, After Midnight is my favorite because it’s the most different. You can tell that Clapton’s interpretation of Cale shares some of the same musical DNA, if you will, but it also brings in something new: Cale’s original raspy ballad ramps up into a relentless Rock / R&B jam complete with female backup chorus in Clapton’s version. It really gets to the point where you feel a totally different song.
So for me, a great cover is one that respects the original or at least calls back to the original in a recognizable way… AND one that finds its own voice by adding something new to the mix. It becomes a new piece of art through its interpretation. In that spirit, eight excellent covers (and their originals) are below in chronological order of the cover release year. What are some of the ones you love?
1969 | Wilson Pickett’s cover of Hey Jude by The Beatles
1974 | Lynyrd Skynyrd’s cover of The Breeze by JJ Cale
1977 | Devo’s cover of [I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones
1994 | Jeff Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen
2001 | Gary Jules’ cover of Mad World by Tears for Fears
2011 | Bonnie Raitt’s cover of Right Down the Line by Gerry Rafferty
2012 | Poolside’s cover of Harvest Moon by Neil Young
2014 | Sturgill Simpson’s cover of The Promise by When In Rome