J.J. Cale, a quietly influential singer-songwriter who stayed in the background while better-known musicians had hits with his songs, including "After Midnight," "Cocaine" and "Call Me the Breeze," died Friday at a hospital in La Jolla, Calif. He was 74.
He had a heart attack, his manager, Mike Kappus, told the Associated Press.
Mr. Cale was never as well known as Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Cash or many of the other musicians who recorded his songs. But if his career was unsung, his songs were not.
He had been a working musician since the mid-1950s but was struggling -- "dirt poor," as he put it -- and about to quit when he was driving through Tulsa, Okla., in 1970 and heard Clapton singing "After Midnight" on the radio.
The song, which Mr. Cale had written about four years earlier, made the Billboard Top 20 and was Mr. Clapton's first major hit as a solo artist. It also secured Mr. Cale's musical and financial future.
"I went, 'Oh, man, I might stay with the music business,' " Mr. Cale told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. "I was about ready to get out of it. I was playing Friday and Saturday nights and looking for a day job."
Mr. Cale won a Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album for "The Road to Escondido," a recording he made in 2006 with Mr. Clapton, but for years he was content to live in obscurity and let his understated songs speak for themselves.
"In my humble opinion," Mr. Clapton wrote about Mr. Cale in his 2007 autobiography, "he is one of the most important artists in the history of rock, quietly representing the greatest asset his country has ever had."
Mr. Cale and his fellow Oklahoman Leon Russell were credited with developing the "Tulsa sound," a relaxed style of bluesy country rock with minor chords, simple lyrics and a shuffling beat that helped define a decade of roots-based, Southern-style rock 'n' roll.
Mr. Cale's "Call Me the Breeze," which was recorded in 1974 by Lynyrd Skynyrd and later by the Allman Brothers and Cash, became a classic guitar-driven anthem to the open highway: "Well, now they call me the breeze / I keep blowin' down the road."Other well-known performers who recorded his songs include Carlos Santana ("The Sensitive Kind"); Cissy Houston ("Cajun Moon"); Captain Beefheart and Bobby "Blue" Bland ("I Got the Same Old Blues"); Chet Atkins and Jerry Garcia ("After Midnight"); and Tom Petty ("I'd Like to Love You, Baby").
John Weldon Cale was born on Dec. 5, 1938, in Oklahoma City and grew up in Tulsa.