Remembering Jim Croce

Late July and most of August proved to be a busy period for me, so I ended up taking an unplanned hiatus from posting to “Finding Classic Cowjazz R&B.” Instead of writing about music, I played some music – and some golf, and I listened to quite a bit of music, new and old. I saw a great performance on “Austin City Limits” by Parker Millsap, which reconfirmed that he’s one of the most compelling high intensity vocalists of the last forty of fifty years. I also stumbled across an old favorite from the early 1970’s.

Jim Croce first began to emerge from South Philadelphia in the early to mid 1960’s as a folk singer. Mind you, most singers who emerged from South Philly from the late fifties to the mid-sixties were the teen idol pop rock ’n’ rollers like say, Fabian. Croce was a mold breaker.

He finally burst onto the big time during the singer-songwriter period of the early to mid seventies. This was the era of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Harry Chapin, Paul Simon and even erstwhile rockers like Stephen Stills. Croce shouldered his way into this mix with a combination of great character songs like “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” mixed with broken-love songs like “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels”) and “Lovers Cross.”

He also did odes to the  “everyman” like one of my all time favorites, “Working In The Car Wash Blues.” And he had a sidekick guitar virtuoso, the classically trained Maury Muehleisen. Today, such a lineup would be labeled Americana.

What separated Croce then, and what still gives him punch nearly fifty years later, is his singular vocal style, clever while sometimes ironically biting wordplay, and a smidgen of south Philly attitude. He put out less than a handful of albums before perishing in a plane crash in Louisianna, the same fate that befell Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ricky Nelson and Patsy Cline among many others. I fear he’s largely forgotten today, overlooked on most lists of seventies stars. Yet those few albums yielded a treasure trove of wonderful songs and masterful performances.

Jim Croce – I’ve Got A Name

If I were to recommend one album by Croce, I’d be tempted to go with the posthumously released Photographs and Memories, His Greatest Hits, because of course it includes all of his hits including two of my four favorite songs by Croce, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Operator.” And you wouldn’t go wrong with that album. Still, I’d also recommend I’ve Got A Name. The title track was the theme song in the movie about NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero,” starring Jeff Bridges, and it’s the rare recording by Croce of a song he did not write. The album also includes the aforementioned “Working In The Car Wash Blues” and my other favorite “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song.”

All of the songs I’ve mentioned are on the greatest hits collection. The reason I love this particular album, however, is the pleasures derived from lesser known tunes like “Salon and Saloon,” “Five Short Minutes,” “ Top Hat Bar And Grille,” and “The Hard Way Every Time” to name a few.

Over the years I’ve developed a soft spot for singer songwriters: Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett. But coming out of the sixties, the period when I was almost totally absorbed in Atlantic/Stax/Motown soul, the first singer-songwriter who really grabbed my attention was Jim Croce. I saw him on TV a few times but never in person. The closest I came was a 1973 show in Richmond, Virginia, on a bill with The Doobie Brothers and Loggins and Messina. A bad storm delayed Croce’s flight, so he was a no show. Sadly, not long after, an ill fated flight between one gig and the next ended his life at the age of 30 along with Muehleisen and three others. I Got A Name, completed the week before and released three months after the crash, reached number 2 on the Billboard Album Charts. Enjoy the gift he left behind.