After Midnight by Eric Clapton: Who Did It First?

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Song: After Midnight (1965 Liberty Records: Liberty #55931, 1972)

Artist: J.J. Cale

Album: Naturally (Shelter Records 1972))

Imagine living in your car while Eric Clapton has tremendous success with your song and slowly becomes a legend. Imagine earning royalties from this that allow you to not only eat but to go on recording music. Now imagine he has big hits with not just one, but two of your songs. That is what happened with two of Eric Clapton’s most famous songs, both of which were originally written and recorded by J.J. Cale. The biggest of these songs is a staple on radio and seems to never go away: After Midnight. The other is Cocaine, but what can I say about a song that glorifies drugs?

After midnight was originally recorded by J.J. Cale in 1966. It didn’t manage to make the charts. Although the public didn’t notice it, Eric Clapton did. He covered it in 1970 and his version reached no. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1970. After already having a tremendous career playing with the Yardbirds, Cream, and John Mayall, After Midnight marked the beginning of Clapton’s solo career and helped propel him to super-stardom. Clapton has J.J. Cale to thank for that, especially since it is well known that he was reluctant to begin a solo career. It was certainly not Clapton’s biggest hit, but we can say it is one of the tunes that made him who he is today.

J.J. Cale playing in 2006, Image by Louis Ramirez

But that laid-back style that Clapton, in my opinion, sometimes over-does? J.J. Cale had that, except even more-so and if you listen to his rhythms you might hear not only their influence in Eric Clapton’s music, but also that of Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), and others.

Born Jean Jacques Cale in Oklahoma City in 1938, J.J. Cale played in various rock and roll bands and Western Swing outfits before moving to Nashville in 1959. He even played in one group that also featured the legendary Leon Russel, who at one time played with Eric Clapton and, well, everyone else. Cale played with the Grand Ole Opry touring club before returning to Tulsa where he was raised. There he took up with Leon Russel again, playing local clubs before the two moved to Los Angeles along with Carl Radle.

After playing with Delaney & Bonnie for short period (who Clapton later toured with in 1969) in 1965, Cale began his solo career and recorded the first version of After Midnight, released as the B-side of teh single Slow Motion. It never charted and Cale returned to Tulsa again where he cut some more demos. Through Radle, he ended up being signed to Shelter Records, a new label being formed by Denny Cordell and Leon Russel, in 1969.

Then in 1970, Clapton recorded his version of After Midnight to great success. The exposure, not to mention the royalties, was a big help. According to Cale, when he first heard Clapton’s version of After Midnight on the radio “I was dirt poor, not making enough to eat and I wasn’t a young man. I was in my thirties, so I was very happy. It was nice to make some money.” And with the urging of friends, he released his first solo album on Shelter Records, Naturally. On Naturally was a new version of After Midnight, which almost made it to the Top 40, reaching no. 42 on the Billboard charts in July 1972. However, on that album was also Crazy Mama, which went to no. 22 in April 1972.

Also on Naturally was the song Call Me the Breeze, which Lynrd Skynyrd later recorded in 1974.

Cales’s second minor hit, Lies, came from his second album, Naturally With Really, reaching no. 42 in December 1972. After this, Cale seemed to avoid the spotlight, although it is not clear that this had been his intention all along, as many sources seem to suggest. He began making albums every couple of years, enjoying moderate cult success. On his fourth album, Troubadour, released in 1976, came Cocaine, the second song that Eric Clapton later took to the charts. His next album didn’t come until 1979. After this, he departed from Shelter records and signed with MCA and then Mercury.

Cale became an example of an artist who is important not in his seeking of fame, but in his influence on generations of music to come. Eric Clapton called him “one of the most important artists in the history of rock.” In 2006, Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale teamed up for an album, The Road to Escondido. On this album were many other famous musicians, including Billy Preston and John Mayer. Clapton and Cale won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2008.

Below is the version of After Midnight recorded in December 1971 and released in 1972 on the Album Naturally:

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