In the golden age of the singer/songwriter, there was perhaps nobody better than Jim Croce. His songs are more like vibrant vignettes set to music, often highlighted by his numerous nefarious characters. The clever compositions cover everything from the intricacies of love to the plight of the common man. With his combination of urban blues swagger and country-tinged boogie-woogie, his sound was unlike anybody else. September 20 marks fifty years since Croce died in a plane crash in Louisianna. He was 30 years old.
Born in South Philadelphia, PA in 1943, James Joseph Croce hails from Sicilian heritage. While attending college, Jim actively pursued music for the first time. After graduating from Villanova University in 1965, he decided to give it a go as a professional musician, though his degree was in Social Studies. Croce, who began playing guitar at age 15, made a living performing cover tunes encompassing all genres including country, blues, folk, and rock and roll. During this time, Jim performed with wife Ingrid, whom he wed in 1966. After a few unbountiful years and a series of odd jobs, Jim signed a three-record deal with ABC Records as a solo artist.
In April of 1972, Croce released You Don’t Mess Around with Jim, his breakthrough album and formal introduction into the mainstream. The effort boasts several of his classic tunes including the title track, “Operator”, and “Photographs and Memories”. Jim’s biggest commercial success came with his fourth studio album, Life and Times, released in July 1973. Life and Times contains Jim’s most celebrated tune, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”, which went to #1 on the Billboard charts. Croce’s follow-up album was called I Got a Name. It was released December 1, 1973 – almost two months after his death.
Guitarist Maury Muehleisen was introduced to Jim in 1970. Together, the two musicians carved out the rollicking rhythm that became their signature sound. Muehleisen was one of five casualties that perished along with Croce in a plane crash after performing at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisianna. Maury was just 24. The official cause of the crash is cited as pilot error.
In addition to wife Ingrid, Jim left behind a son named Adrian James. A. J. was born in September 1971. Croce the younger has grown into an accomplished musician in his own right. He regularly includes his dad’s tunes in his live sets.
The legacy of Jim Croce is a muddled one. He wrote and sang some of his generation’s best-known songs yet, he remains largely unknown. His recognition is dreadfully disproportionate to his ability. His is, of course, another one in the long line of tragically premature rock and roll deaths. Croce’s mistake was holding out until age 30 to meet his unfortunate fate. Neither Buddy Holly nor Hank Williams made it out of their 20s. Nobody forgets them. Or perhaps if Croce was a member of the illustrious “27 Club”, with the likes of Joplin, Morrison, and Hendrix, he would be better remembered.
The suddenness of his death helps cement Croce’s brilliance and sustain his relevance. He was quite literally the shooting star that burned out rather than fade away. Also, the fact that he is one of a select few celebrities to succumb to aviation catastrophe helps. But even among musicians who have died in plane crashes, Jim remains relatively anonymous. Like Holly, Ritchie Valens, Patsy Cline, and Otis Redding all died in plane crashes. They were all younger than Croce. They all died before Croce. And they continue to be better known in death than Croce was in life.
The tragic truth is that the best of Jim Croce was never realized. At the time of his death in the fall of 1973, he had five studio albums and six singles to his credit. Jim’s widow Ingrid remarked, “After all these years of hard work and traveling, Jim had died with just his work shirt on his back and no bank account. I was angry that he had not been able to realize his financial success. It would have meant so much to him”. After Jim’s death, his 1972 tune “Time in a Bottle” was reissued as a single. It hit the top of the charts in January of 1974 becoming just the third ever posthumous Billboard #1 hit.
50 years after his death, Jim Croce is still not a household name. His songs are better known than he is. But his songs endure because he was just that good. The melodies are crisp and inventive. The imagery is rich and detailed. When asked what he loves about his dad’s music, A.J. responds, “The honesty of it. He wasn’t worried about being cool. And he made heroes of everyday people in the songs he wrote. That was really important to him”. Jim Croce never embraced the label of genius songwriter; he was just another one of the people he was writing songs about. Perhaps that’s why people don’t remember him.