Cale, who was raised in Oklahoma, first tasted success in 1964 when singer Mel McDaniel scored a regional hit with Cale's composition "Lazy Me". From there Cale moved to California and worked at Leon Russell's home studio as a chief engineer and began performing at places like the Whisky a Go Go. With Johnny Rivers already performing there regularly, club co-owner Elmer Valentine rechristened Cale as J. J. Cale to avoid confusion with the John Cale in the Velvet Underground. In 1966, Cale cut an unsuccessful single for Liberty Records called "Slow Motion", but it was the B-side, "After Midnight", that would have long-term ramifications for Cale's career when Eric Clapton recorded the song and had a Top 20 hit. Cale, who was languishing in obscurity at the time, had no knowledge of Clapton's recording of "After Midnight" until it became a radio hit in 1970. Cale recalled to Mojo magazine that when he heard Clapton's version playing on his 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. " Cale's friend and producer, Audie Ashworth, encouraged Cale to record a full album in order to capitalize on the success of his song.
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