After releasing a series of unsuccessful records in the late 60s, Jim Croce’s fortunes took a turn in 1972 with the release of his third album, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim. Its follow-up, Life and Times, was similarly successful, and for a short while, it looked like Croce was going to be the next big thing in rock. Then tragedy struck. On September 20, 1973, at the very peak of his popularity, Croce was killed in a plane crash. But while the man may be gone, his music is still with us. Here, we pay tribute to his legacy with our pick of the 10 best Jim Croce songs of all time.
10. Speedball Tucker
Speedball Tucker might not be one of Jim Croce’s biggest hits, but it’s an underrated gem, showcasing Croce’s superb gifts as both a songwriter and a singer. As classicrockhistory.com notes, his guitar playing may not have been up there with the likes of Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, but it was still masterful, and here, it perfectly suits the tone of the song.
9. I Got A Name
Croce was always too gifted a songwriter to bother much with covers, but here, he does, and it’s a stunner. Speaking to Billboard magazine years after Croce’s death, I Got A Name’s writer, Norman Gimbel, explained why Croce decided to record the song. “Jim liked it because his father had a dream for him but had died before his son’s first success,” he said. Tragically, the same story applied to his own son, A. J., who eventually followed in his late father’s footsteps by becoming a singer-songwriter. Released as Croce’s first posthumous single, it peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
8. It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way
It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way was originally released in early 1973 as the B-side of One Less Set of Footsteps, but after Croce’s untimely death in September that year, ABC re-released it as a standalone single. This time around, it reached No. 64 on the Billboard Hot 100. A tender tale of a man reminiscing about the times he spent with a former lover, its wintery images have made it a popular song during the holiday season, despite the somewhat unfestive message of the lyrics.
7. Time In A Bottle
According to societyofrock.com, Croce began working on Time In A Bottle after his wife told him she was pregnant. Lyrically, he’s rarely been in better form, while the haunting melody complements the emotion of the lyrics perfectly. ABC didn’t plan on releasing the song as a single at first, but after Croce’s death, the song’s lyrics, which find Croce contemplating his own mortality and wishing to have more time, resonated enough for them to change their minds. It became his second and final No.1, and only the third posthumous Billboard number-one hit in history.
6. Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy)
Rapid Roy was inspired by Roy Hall, a pioneering American stock car racing driver who, in between competing in three events in the NASCAR Strictly Stock Series, spent his time running moonshine. His antics got him sent to prison repeatedly over the years – sometimes, he’d even resort to competing in races under an assumed name to evade arrest. True to its inspiration, Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy) is a lively, life-affirming romp, underscored with a youthful sense of rebellion and a big helping of swagger.
5. Photographs and Memories
Photographs and Memories is a poignant, hauntingly beautiful song that finds the narrator reflecting on an old love as he flicks through old photographs. If you’re in the mood to wallow, this piece of sad nostalgia is the song to do it to. Originally released as the B side to You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, it’s since become one of Croce’s most enduringly popular songs.
4. Bad Bad Leroy Brown
Bad Bad Leroy Brown was the last No. 1 single of Croce’s career, and unquestionably one of his greatest ever songs. From the first piano lick to the last, it’s a triumph. Recorded for his 1973 album Life and Times, it spend two weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in July that year and went on to pick up two Grammy Award nominations for Pop Male Vocalist and Record of the Year.
3. You Don’t Mess Around With Jim
Croce couldn’t have picked a better way to introduce his third album to the world than with its titular track, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim. According to Croce’s widow, Ingrid, the song’s central character was inspired by a real-life experience. “Jim actually did run into this guy, Big Jim Walker, pool-shootin’ son of a gun. And so that story really comes out of an experience that he kind of put the story together,” she explained to SongFacts. Released in April 1972, it soared to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
2. I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song
Narrowly missing out on the number one spot on our roundup of Jim Croce’s best songs is I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song. As iloveclassicrock.com notes, Croce’s mellow guitar arrangements evoke a peaceful feeling throughout the length of the song, subtly masking the nervous energy of the lyrics. Since hitting the No. 9 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, it’s become one of Croce’s most covered songs.
1. Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)
The number one spot on our list of the 10 best Jim Croce songs of all time belongs to Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels). The song consists of a one-sided conversation with a telephone operator in which the narrator is trying to get the telephone number of his former lover, who’s run off to Las Vegas with his best friend. He wants to tell them both that’s he moving on with his life and is over the betrayal, but when the operator finally gives him the number, he finds he can’t read it because of the tears in his eyes. According to Wikipedia, the song was inspired by Croce’s time in the army, in which he heard dozens of soldiers calling their wives and girlfriends to see if their Dear John letters were true. A poignant heartbreaker, it reached No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100.