…If you mean what you’re singing, people understand” Jim Croce
Forty-four years ago today, the Italian-American singer/songwriter, Jim Croce passed away. If you are a millennial, you may not know that name, but almost everyone knows his music. Songs like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “Time in a Bottle” are still heard on radio stations and department store speakers across the world. No oldies radio station could be so-called without playing at least a few of his songs on a daily basis.
Who was Jim Croce? Born in South Philadelphia, PA in 1943 Croce’s musical life began when he learned to play “Lady of Spain” on the accordion when he was five years old and eventually taught himself to play the guitar. Influenced by the, perhaps, culturally paradoxical combination of Rag Time and Country music, he didn’t begin to take his music seriously until his days at Villanova University in the 1960s. He began playing in college bands and was fortunate enough to be part of a foreign exchange tour in Africa. He described his time on the continent by saying “We just ate what the people ate, lived in the woods, and played our songs. Of course, they didn’t speak English over there, but if you mean what you’re singing, people understand”
“If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty, except for the memory of how they were answered by you”
Croce married the love of his life, Ingrid Jacobson, in 1966 and the two tried to make it as a duo for a time. The two eventually gave it a shot in New York which led to their first album, Croce in 1968. The two grew tired of the music business and moved back to Pennsylvania where they went on living the lives of everyday people. Jim drove trucks and worked in construction but continued to write music in his spare time. This continued interest in his music eventually led Croce to a collaboration with Maury Muehleisen, a classically trained musician from New Jersey. The two made recordings of their music and sent them to ABC Records. In 1972, ABC signed Croce and he released his first solo album You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.
Croce’s solo work was an instant success with songs like “Operator [That’s not the way it feels]”, “Photographs and Memories”, “Time in a Bottle”, and “New York’s Not My Home”, Jim struck music gold with his album like few before or since. The personal and intimate nature of his singing and lyrics were perfect for early ’70s America. The 1960’s had been one of the most tumultuous times in the history of the country and many people were seeking peaceful retrospection wherever they could find it. This was reflected in the nation’s pop culture. Where the ’60s were filled with a menagerie of politically oriented psychedelic rock music, the early and mid-seventies saw a push toward the singer-songwriter, which offered quieter but immensely powerful personal narratives to an ever-increasing audience. James Taylor, Carol King, Jodi Mitchel, Jackson Browne, and John Prine were all making names for themselves during this time and Jim Croce was taking this style of music to pop stardom.
“Every time I tried to tell you the words just came out wrong
so I’ll have to say ‘I love you’ In a song”
Another album quickly followed. In 1973 Croce released Life and Times. As with his earlier efforts, it contained what have become classics of the early 1970’s. “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”, like it or hate it, is one of the iconic songs of the period. Inspired by a friend in the Army, the song is a tale about a character from South Side Chicago who has a reputation as the “baddest man in the whole damn town” who makes a pass at a women in a bar but instead gets his comeuppance when the woman’s husband promptly beats Leroy to a pulp. That sounds grotesque but if you haven’t heard it before, do it now. It’s surprisingly upbeat and undeniably catchy.
Unfortunately for the music world, Jim Croce was killed in a plane crash on September 20th, 1973. However, he did have one more musical gift for the world. His third solo Album, I Got a Name was released in December of that year. As before, this album contains some of the absolute classics of the decade. The title track, “Working at the carwash blues”, and “I have to say I love you in a song” (a sweet tribute to the power that music has to say things mere words cannot) were all Billboard top ten hits. In the year following his death, songs from previous albums also made it onto the charts; a tribute to the artist’s ability to connect with his audience.
“I got a name, I got a name
And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I’m living the dream that he kept hid”
So why, you may ask, does this matter? After all, there seem to be countless musicians who died before their time and in plane crashes specifically. Why is Croce so special? The answer is in his music. To quote Whitman, Croce was able to “contribute a verse” to this world despite the short time he was given. He was only thirty when that plane crashed but in those few years, he was able to reach millions of people and touch their lives, not through simple pop music and catchy chord combos, but through personal stories he wrote and told himself.
Unlike the psychedelic pop rock of the sixties, the early metal rock of the 70s, and the Grunge music of the 90’s, the seventies singer-songwriter genre does not tend to have many martyrs or stars who died before their time. There are few unfinished stores like that of Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Moon, and Cobain within this field of music. Most of the giants of that era are still alive and touring today. (Taylor, Browne, Mitchell, and King are all still making music). But Croce was the exception. He touched and still touches, the hearts of his listeners with the substance of a finite set of albums. There is no flash or melodramatic romance to his story. There is only the music, and with that music, Jim Croce was able to contribute his verse to the world. We should be so lucky to strive to do the same.