Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Gentle love songs and humorous character songs are the legacy of Jim Croce, whose tragic death occurred just before the release of what would become a top-selling album. His music, like his stage manner, was accessible and warm—the common man singing of the commonplace in such a way as to make it all new for his audience. According to Time, Croce was “a lean, needling, fun-poking man in work boots and work shirts … He took a mad kind of joy in the commonplace, and tomorrow was always the best of all possible times.”
Born in Philadelphia on January 10, 1943 (some sources say 1942), Croce began playing the accordion at the age of six. Later, he purchased a 12-string guitar and learned to play it while attending Villanova University, where he earned a degree in psychology in 1965. It was also in college that he became emcee on the school radio station, hosting a three-hour blues and folk show. His early musical attempts, including coffeehouse performances and the recording of an album with his wife, Ingrid, proved less than profitable. By 1970, after settling on an old farm in Lyndell, Pennsylvania, Croce’s financial situation became so difficult he was forced to pawn off his guitars and go back into the construction business, doing only occasional studio work for commercials. Despite the fact that his musical talent was being used mostly for “background ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’” Croce remained optimistic: “I kept thinking, maybe tomorrow I’ll sing some words.”
Driving trucks gave Croce time alone to think, and out of those hours came a number of songs, many of which would later become hits. Traveling the country again, Croce played at coffeehouses and on college campuses, where his slightly nasal tenor voice delivered a series of well-received songs, most of which featured tight melodies and combined folk, blues, and pop styles. It was just such a trip he was making on September 20, 1973, when his chartered plane crashed in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
In the wake of his death, his first solo LP, You Don’t Mess around with Jim, rapidly tripled its sales, selling over one million copies by February 1974, and reached the number one slot on Billboard’s chart of best-selling LP’s in the same month. The album yielded two hit singles: the title track, featuring one of the humorous Croce “characters” (“You don’t step on Superman’s cape / You don’t spit into the wind / You don’t pull the mask off the ole’ Lone Ranger / And you don’t mess around with Jim”); and “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels).” Also included on the album was “Time in a Bottle,” which featured the kind of sensitive lyrics and melody that only hinted at Croce’s great potential as a
Born January 10, c 1943, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in a plane crash September 20, 1973, in Natchitoches, Louisiana; married wife Ingrid, 1966; one son, Adrian. Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology, Villanova University, 1965.
Awards: Croce earned gold records for You Don’t Mess around with Jim, Life and Times, I Got a Name, and Photographs and Memories.
composer. Issued as a single in 1973, it too achieved hit status.
I Got a Name, recorded just a week before Croce’s death, was released posthumously and yielded three hit singles: the oft-covered ballad “I Got a Name” in 1973; and in 1974, “I’ll Have To Say I Love You in a Song” and “Working at the Carwash Blues.” The album joined You Don’t Mess around with Jim on the charts early in 1974, occupying the number two slot, while Life and Times (featuring the well-loved “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” who was “Badder than ole’ King Kong / And meaner than a junkyard dog”) occupied the twenty-second spot. All three albums were certified gold during 1973, as was Photographs and Memories, released in 1974.
Commented Time magazine in 1974, “Croce had the gift to sing evocatively about a genuine slice of life: the young working class of Middle America.” Sadly, his songs of hope and of tomorrow’s possibilities surged into popularity only after his last recordings had been made. The haunting top-selling ballad “Time in a Bottle” explains the ultimate irony of Croce’s late-arriving success: “There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them…”
You Don’t Mess around with Jim, ABC (later on Lifesong), June 1972.
Life and Times, ABC (Lifesong), February 1973.
I Got a Name, ABC (Lifesong), November 1973.
Photoqraphs and Memories: Greatest Hits, ABC (Lifesong), September 1974.
The Faces I’ve Been, Lifesong, October 1975.
Time in a Bottle: Greatest Love Songs, Lifesong, February 1977.
Bad, Bad Leroy Brown: Greatest Character Songs, Lifesong, October 1978.
Nite, Norm N.. Rock On, Vol. 2, Harper & Row, 1978.
Stambler, frwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, St. Martin’s Press, 1974.
Time, February 11, 1974.
—Meg Mac Donald
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