Croce, Jim (1943-1973)

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Croce, Jim (1943-1973)

Singer and songwriter Jim Croce is remembered for beautiful guitar ballads like "Time In a Bottle" and, in contrast, his upbeat character-driven narratives like "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" that deftly combined folk, blues, and pop influences. Croce's brief but brilliant musical career was tragically cut short by his death in a plane accident in 1973.

Born to James Alford and Flora Croce in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Croce's interest in music got off to a slow start. He learned to play "Lady of Spain" on the accordion at the age of five, but didn't really take music seriously until his college years. He attended Villanova College in the early 1960s, where he formed various bands and played parties. One such band had the opportunity to do an Embassy tour of the Middle East and Africa on a foreign exchangeprogram, which encouraged Croce to focus on his music. He earned a degree in psychology from Villanova in 1965.

The music career came slowly, though, interrupted by the other odd jobs he took to make a living. Croce worked in construction, welded, and even joined the army. He spun records as a university disc jockey on a folk and blues show in Philadelphia and wrote ads for a local R&B station. He married Ingrid in 1966, and the two spent the summer teaching at a children's camp in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania. He taught guitar, and she taught ceramics and leather crafts. The following autumn he served as a teacher for problem students at a Philadelphia High School.

Finally becoming truly serious about a career in music, Croce moved to New York in 1967 where he and his wife Ingrid played folk clubs and coffee houses. By 1969, the pair were signed to Capital Records where they released an album called Approaching Day. The album's lack of success led the couple to give up New York and return to Pennsylvania. Jim started selling off guitars, took another job in construction, and later worked as a truck driver. Ingrid learned how to can foods and bake bread to help stretch the budget. On September 28, 1971, they had a son, Adrian James Croce.

But Croce never lost his love of music, and he played and sang on some commercials for a studio in New York. His break came when Croce sent a demo tape to Tommy West, a Villanova college pal who had found success as a New York record producer. West and his friend Terry Cashman helped Croce land a contract with ABC records. He also had a fortuitous meeting with guitarist Maury Muehleisen while working as a studio freelancer. Croce had played backup guitar on Muehleisen's record, Gingerbread. The album flopped, but Croce remembered the young guitarist and called him in to work with him. The two worked closely in the studio, trading rhythm and lead parts. The first album, You Don't Mess Around with Jim, was a huge success, giving Croce two top ten hits with the title track and "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)." Before long Croce was a top-billing concert performer, known as much for his friendly and charming personality as for his songs.

His second album, Life and Times, had a hit with the July, 1973, chart topper "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." This first blush of success turned bittersweet for his family and friends, however. Leaving a concert venue at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana on September 20, 1973, Croce's plane snagged the top of a pecan tree just past the runway, and he and Maury Muehleisen, as well as four others, were killed. Croce is buried at Haym Salomon Memorial Park in Frazer, Pennsylvania. The third album, I've Got a Name, was released posthumously, and the hits kept coming. The next chart hit was the title track, and "Time In a Bottle" was the number one hit of the year in 1973. The following year, "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song" and "Workin' at the Car Wash Blues" hit the charts. The ongoing string of hits only highlighted the tragic loss of a performer who was just coming into his own.

Jim's widow Ingrid opened Croce's Restaurant and Jazz Bar 1985 in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter in Jim's memory. The restaurant features musical acts nightly and is decorated with Jim Croce memorabilia. Ingrid Croce also wrote a book of recipes and memories called Thyme in A Bottle. Son A. J. Croce started his own musical career in the 1990s. He released his eponymous first album in 1993, a 1995 follow-up,That's Me in the Bar, and 1997's Fit to Serve. He said of his father, "I think the most powerful lesson I learned from him was the fact there is no reason to write a song unless there is a good story there. He was a great storyteller and, for me, if there is any way that we are similar, it's that we both tell stories."

—Emily Pettigrew

Further Reading:

Crockett, Jim. "Talking Guitar." Guitar Player. April, 1973, 18.

Dougherty, S. "Don't Mess Around with A.J." People. August 17,1992, 105-06.

"Epitaph for Jim." Time. February 11, 1974, 56.

"Jim Croce." February 1999.

"Jim Croce: The Tribute Page." February, 1999.

Makarushka, Mary. "At Last, He Got a Name." Entertainment Weekly. September 15, 1995, 124.

Nelton, S. "A Legend in Her Own Right." Nation's Business. December, 1992, 14.