Jim Croce – By Dave Thompson
By the summer of 1964, the American folk boom was at its peak. Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary were established chart toppers, and Bob Dylan had still to pick up an electric guitar. The Newport Folk Festival was among the biggest musical events in the entire country, and the Hootenanny TV show occupied an hour of primetime every week, both reflecting and encouraging fresh developments on the scene. It even had its own magazines.
It was a time of wild enthusiasm, but also of wild expression. Dylan had proved that a folk singer no longer needed to sing traditional folk songs in order to be taken seriously; was, in fact, writing an entire new canon that would, in time, become as ubiquitous as any doughty old favorite. And it was his example that fired an entire new generation of singer-songwriters to emerge: Tom Rush, Phil Ochs, the Farinas, Ian and Sylvia, Eric Anderson… and Jim Croce, who may have been all but unknown as he toured round the north-east during ’63, ’64, but was already raising eyebrows with his music.
The Cazenovia College Folk Festival was not the first event of its ilk that he played, then, but it is the only one that was both recorded and has survived to this day. Broadcast on local, Syracuse, radio, it captures Jim almost a decade before stardom grasped him, but already his music feels fully formed, even if his lyrics are still searching for something. Of the half dozen songs that he performed that summer’s day, one – the opening “Charlie Green” – would survive in his repertoire to reach his debut album, Facets, but Ingrid Croce, his girlfriend, singing partner and future wife, recalls all as being representative of Jim’s repertoire throughout these years.
He was not only a prodigious songwriter; he was also a veritable human jukebox. “He knew so many songs,” Ingrid continues. “And he was blessed with a photographic memory, so he could hear a song once and he would immediately be able to play it.”
It was a talent that held him in good stead through his early years of struggle; Jim’s reputation among the club and bar owners of the east coast was of a performer who could entertain an audience literally for as long as they wanted; they would run out of energy long before he ran out of songs, and the stories that frequently accompanied them. By the time Jim was ready for major league success, and the major league was ready for him, he had undergone a musical apprenticeship on the east coast club scene that Ingrid compares to the Beatles’s days in Hamburg.
The heart of this compilation is drawn from that later period, with Jim a household name across America, and Americana a visceral part of his musical DNA. His concert at Harper College on February 5 1973 took place just seven months before his death in a Louisiana plane crash, and we hear a performer at the very top of his game, drawing both from the wellspring of his own musical talents, but also that of his audience’s own demands.
More than any other aspect of his career, both before and after superstardom arrived, the live arena was where he was happiest. The studio, says Ingrid, was simply the place he went to record the songs that the concert environment had brought to life, and the live recordings here capture them bristling with excitement and enthusiasm.
He hits the first high point early on. “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” was written a couple of years or so before this performance was taped, seated at the family kitchen table in Lyndell, PA. He described it as his modern-day answer to the tough old rock and R&B songs he’d grown up with in the city, things like the Coasters’ “Big Boy Pete” and “Searchin’,” or Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” songs about street guys who you really didn’t want to mess around with.
it. (remove) Because, like Leroy Brown, they were bad, bad, bad.
There was a real life Leroy Brown, of course, one of Jim’s old army buddies; just like there was a real “Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy),” a real “Roller Derby Queen,” a real “Speedball Tucker.” In fact, that was one of the things that drew so many people to Jim, and continues to do so to this day.
A lot of singers claim to write about “real life,” and maybe a lot of them do. But Jim wrote about everyday life, as beautiful or ugly or mundane as it ever is. Like the night he got caught speeding in a car that… well, his license had expired, his registration was for a different vehicle, and the car itself was so run down that a junkyard would have looked twice at it. The cop could have thrown the book at him, and then thrown the bookshelf as well. Instead he let him go because he’d just met the ultimate “Hard Time Losin’ Man.”
“Jim poured everything he heard and saw into his music,” Ingrid confirms. “He was like a sponge, soaking up experiences and – sometimes it might take him a while, ‘Roller Derby Queen’ took him two or three years to write. But sooner or later, everything would make it into a song, and people recognized that.”
Sometimes, they even recognized themselves! Running Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar following Jim’s death, offering fine food in the shadow of wall-to-wall memorabilia, Ingrid lost count of the number of people who would introduce themselves by naming a song, and then insisting Jim wrote it about them. Just as Jim, shortly before his death, titled his third solo album for a song that he did not write, but which he believed could easily have been about him.
First performed by Jim as the theme to the movie The Last American Hero, “I Got a Name” was penned by Charlie Fox and Norman Gimbel. But, says Ingrid, “he felt really close to this song, because his dad had recently passed away, and he was now responsible to carry on his name.”
He was never allowed to carry out that task. In August 1973, still reeling from their child lost at birth, the Croce family moved out to San Diego, California. There, with his entire future seemingly brightly lit before him, Jim was scheduled to host The Johnny Carson Show, and make a movie with Cheech Marin- a pairing for which his years of often hilarious onstage storytelling had long since prepared him. The I Got a Name album was on the brink of release. He had just a handful of live shows to play, and then he’d be back to enjoy the couple’s new home, and the new life they had sworn to construct.
He never made it. But as much as any of the songs that he wrote; and more than all of the others that he made his own during the early years of struggle, “I Got a Name” is quintessential Jim Croce, moving, magical and heartbreakingly truthful. And maybe those are the qualities, in and around so many indefinable others, that explain why he remains as alive in our musical hearts today as he ever did when he lived.
Writer unknown, ©1973 ABC Records, Inc.
“I’m no missionary,” says Jim Croce about his songs, “and I can’t wear any armor, either. I just gotta be the way I am.”
Jim’s musical career started when he was five years old, learning to play “Lady of Spain” on the accordion. He says, “I was the original underachiever. I’d shake that thing and smile, but I was sort of a late bloomer.” He didn’t really take music too seriously until 1964, while he was attending Villanova College in Pennsylvania. There he formed various bands, doing fraternity parties and playing “anything that the people wanted to hear: blues, rock, acapella, railroad music…anything.” One of those bands was chosen for a foreign exchange tour of Africa and the Middle East. “We had a good time,” Jim recalls. “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.”
He returned to Philadelphia and he had decided to be “serious.” But it was hard to make a living playing in a band, and his previous employment experiences had lost their appeal: “I’d worked construction crews, and I’d been a welder while I was in college. But I’d rather do other things than get burned.” Like most underachieving accordion players, he had a hard time finding the right other things. His determination to be serious (“I even got a pair of shoes that look like the Ace of Spades, with holes in them”) led to a job at a Philadelphia R&B radio station, where he translated commercials into Soul. “I’d sell airtime to Bronco’s Poolroom, and then write the spot: ‘You wanna be cool, and you wanna shoot pool…(dig it).'” Increasingly frustrated, he quit to teach guitar at a summer camp (“to people who had to wear loafers ’cause they couldn’t tie their shoes'”) and even enlisted in the U.S. Army. He didn’t have a very illustrious military career, but says he’s prepared if there’s ever a war where we have to defend ourselves with mops.
Back to the radio station again, briefly (“that was about the end of my seriousness”), and then he tried teaching “special education” to discipline problem students in a Philadelphia high school. Finally he decided to give his music a chance.
He’d been playing some pretty tough bars (“I can still get my guitar off faster than anyone else”), then he and his wife, Ingrid, moved to New York and began working coffeehouses. Tommy West, who had attended Villanova College with Jim, introduced them to Terry Cashman, and in 1969, Cashman and West produced their album, Jim and Ingrid. They remained on the coffeehouse circuit for a year and a half, involving themselves in the music business and collecting guitars. But, they soon became discouraged by the agitation and pressures of city life, and moved to Lyndell, Pennsylvania, where they had their son, Adrian James. Ingrid learned to bake bread and to can fruits and vegetables and Jim, like a rich lady selling her jewels, sold the guitars he had accumulated, one by one. When the guitars ran out, he worked construction again and did some studio work in New York. “Mostly background ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ for commercials. I kept thinking, ‘maybe tomorrow I’ll sing some words.'”
His first album, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, was an instant success. Jim immediately became a top bill club and concert performer and the title song and “Operator” pulled from the album, were both highly successful singles. The friendliness and sincerity of Jim’s performances have endeared him to a wide variety of audiences.
“Well,” laughed Jim, “I’m glad I’m not running anymore jackhammers. It’s a lot easier to have a good time. I think music should make people sit back and want to touch each other…I just hope people get a kick out of it.”
Since the first album, things have been strictly uphill for Jim. “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” which was pulled from the second LP entitled Life and Times reached the top of the national pop charts before it went Gold. Jim’s latest album is called I’ve Got a Name and the title cut is part of the soundtrack for 20th Century Fox’s new film The Last American Hero. Many other things are being planned for the unlikely hero of Philly, including appearances in films as well as more soundtrack offers.
Jim Croce – “I’ve Got a Name.” He certainly has.