‘Croce Plays Croce’ is a legacy worth hearing

Unless you lived under a rock in the 1970s, you were familiar with the music of Jim Croce. And if you were familiar with it, it was really difficult not to fall head over heels for it. His ballads such as “Operator,” “I Got a Name,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “Photographs and Memories,” “These Dreams,” “One Less Set of Footsteps” and “New York’s Not My Home” are among chart toppers that resonated with college crowds from coast to coast. 

Sadly, Jim Croce never truly realized the reach of his music. 

The evening of September 20, 1973, after a performance in Natchitoches, Louisiana, he boarded a chartered plane with five others. Tragically, the single-engine plane hit a tree on takeoff. There were no survivors. Jim Croce was only 30 years old.

Mary Rita and John at the Croce show.

In December, my husband John and I heard an advertisement on the radio for a “Croce Plays Croce” concert. Jim Croce’s son A.J. would be on tour to perform some of his original music along with some of the favorite songs that brought his father notoriety. 

Since both of us have been long-time Jim Croce fans, John secured tickets for the April 3rd performance at the Holland Civic Center Place. The show opened with video footage of A.J. Croce with his parents at their Lyndell, Pennsylvania, farmhouse.  A.J. then took the stage and began to play a wide range of musical genres, which showcased his musical savvy; vocals at the piano, keyboard, and guitar. Without a warm-up band or intermission, he held a packed audience in the palm of his hand as he called to life an array of melodies for more than two hours.

He seemed to have an instinct for the perfect blend of storytelling, his own music, and the vintage classics of his late father. Beyond the usual entertainment aspect of a concert, there was a palpable energy on stage – almost as if the spirit of his father intertwined with his own. 

Interestingly, A.J. had resisted playing his father’s music for many years. He had a desire and need  to make his own name rather than walk in his father’s shadow. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago as A.J. worked on a project to celebrate what would have been his father’s 70th birthday that he discovered demo recordings of his father playing cover songs. Many of the songs were uncommon, obscure songs like those of Pink Anderson and Bessie Smith. In a serendipitous moment, A.J. realized one song in particular by Fats Waller, “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew” was one they had both chosen for their respective demo tracks.  A.J. had recorded the song for Columbia Records when he was 18. “It felt surreal to discover we had the same taste in music. I realized that he’s part of my life and I’m a part of his legacy, and it was time to embrace it.” 

As a youngster, the piano was A.J.’s playground. He listened to the music that played on his transistor radio and schooled himself at the piano to recreate the sound. And though he says he didn’t start to play guitar until he was 30, he seems just as playful and equally accomplished on the guitar as he is sitting at the piano. “My mother gifted me one of my father’s guitars – a 1933 Gibson L-OO. It was then that I began to play guitar in earnest. It was the guitar my father used to write his songs.”

Now at 52, A.J. talks about the father he lost just eight days before he celebrated his second birthday. He acknowledges — with gratitude — that some people only have photographs as keepsakes of their loved ones, and he has much more than photographs by which to remember his father. There is one song in particular that carries more emotion than any other. “Time in a Bottle” was written for him when his father sat at the kitchen table the night he learned his wife Ingrid was pregnant.

“If I could save time in a bottle

The first thing that I’d like to do

Is to save every day

Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever

If words could make wishes come true

I’d save every day like a treasure and then

Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time

To do the things you want to do 

Once you find them

I’ve looked around enough to know

That you’re the one I want to go

Through time with …”

Besides the good times, both father and son shouldered their share of hardships. In fact, much of A.J.’s life resembles the lyrics of a sad country song. At age four, A.J. was brutally beaten at the hands of his mother’s then-boyfriend. It cost him his sight, which only partially returned six years later. When he was 15 years old, his family home in San Diego burned down. And in 2018, he unexpectedly lost his beloved wife Marlo of 24 years to a rare heart virus, while he struggled with his own health scare. He became a single parent to their two children, Camille and Elijah.  Nobody would have faulted A.J. had he become cynical and bitter after all he’d been through, but he chose a higher ground; his music.

A singer-songwriter’s path to success is rarely paved with gold as Jim Croce revealed in an article published in Rolling Stone magazine October 25, 1973. “I’ve had to get in and out of music a couple of times, because music didn’t always mean a living. I still have memories of those nights, playing for $25.00 a night, with nobody listening.”

Friends had urged Jim to try the New York coffeehouse circuit. He did and later cut an album in 1969. When it failed to sell, he became a truck driver for a time. And when he and Ingrid moved to a farm in Lyndell, Pennsylvania, he went back to construction work, singing on the side.

It was during this time that he received a rejection from ABC/Dunhill that informed him that his songs were “not strong enough for us.” He framed that rejection and later hung it next to his first GOLD record.

Eventually The Dunhill label signed him and he cut a couple of songs he’d written in a truck cab on his construction job: “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and “Operator.”

At the Croce Plays Croce concert, A.J. mentioned that his father’s career spanned only 18 months. Yet he did more in those 18 months than some people do in 80 years. When asked if playing his father’s music helps him process the layers of loss, A.J. responded, “If it’s not the cure, it’s a really good remedy.”

Jim Croce was known for his down-to-earth demeanor and genuine humility. A.J. seems to come by those same traits honestly. Two months before he passed, Jim was quoted as saying, “It’s a nice feeling having a Number One record. It’s a strange feeling. After having played for such a long time, I don’t even know how to describe it.”

A week after the tragic plane crash, Ingrid received a letter from Jim. It expressed how he wished to reconnect with her and their son. Touring and the time away from home had taken its toll. He wished, not for more fame, but to be closer to his family. The poignant letter ended with these words: “Remember, it’s the first 60 years that count. And I’ve got 30 to go. I love you.”

More than 50 years later, Jim Croce’s music and legacy live on. This is in part, because his son A.J. embraces and celebrates the music of his late father, along with his own.  Count yourself lucky if you get to experience “Croce Plays Croce.” It’s a legacy worth listening to.