Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The 50th Anniversary of Jim Croce's Death

Tonight is will have been fifty years since singer/songwriter Jim Croce died in a plane crash. On the night of Thursday, September 20 1973, the plane on which Jim Croce was a passenger crashed into a tree upon take-off from  Natchitoches Regional Airport in Natchitoches, Louisiana. The crash also killed pilot Robert N. Elliott, Mr. Croce's manager and booking agent Kenneth D. Cortese, pianist, guitarist, and Mr. Croce's accompanist Maury Muehleisen, his road manager Dennis Rast, and comedian George Stevens. Jim Croce left behind a legacy of songs that remain popular to this day.

Jim Croce was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a small town near Philadelphia. He wouldn't develop a serious interest in music until he was attending Villanova University, where he was a member of the college singing group, The Villanova Singers. The group performed at various venues around Philadelphia, and even toured Africa, the Middle East, and Yugoslavia.

Jim Croce's debut album, Facets, was released in 1966. The album was self-financed, using $500 Jim and Ingrid Croce had received as a wedding gift from Jim Croce's parents on the condition that the music be used to finance an album. Jim Croce's parents had hoped the album would fail, so that he would give up on music and pursue a more stable career. As it turned out, all 500 copies of Facets sold out.

It was from the mid-Sixties to the early Seventies that Jim and Ingrid Croce performed as a duo. It was during this period that Jim Croce began writing his own songs. They proved successful enough to record an album for Capitol Records, Jim & Ingrid Croce. The album contained an early version of the song "Age," which Jim Croce would later re-record for his album I've Got a Name. It was not long afterwards that Jim and Ingrid Croce gave up on the music business. Jim Croce would work a number of jobs, from construction work to truck driving, as well as giving guitar lessons, to pay their bills.

Fortunately, after working various jobs, Jim Croce decided to return to music as a career. It was in 1970 that Jim Croce met  Maury Muehleisen. The two began performing together, with Jim Croce accompanying  Maury Muehleisen. Over time Maury Muehleisen began backing Jim Croce, as Mr. Croce took the lead. It was after they learned that Ingrid Croce was pregnant that Jim Croce sent a tape of their music to a producer he knew in New York City. It was then in 1972 that Jim Croce signed a contract for three albums with ABC Records.

Jim Croce's first album, You Don't Mess Around with Jim, was released in April 1972. It produced two hit singles in 1972, "You Don't Mess Around with Jim" and "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)." A song from the album, "Time in a Bottle," would later prove to be one of Jim Croce's biggest hits. You Don't Mess Around with Jim was followed by Jim Croce's second album with ABC Records, Life and Times. If anything, Life and Times proved even more successful than You Don't Mess Around with Jim. It went to no. 7 on the Billboard album chart. It produced the hit single, "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," which became Mr. Croce's first no. 1 single.

Sadly, Jim Croce's death while on tour occurred the day before the release of his single, "I Got a Name." The single proved to be a hit, reaching the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. The album I Got a Name was released in December 1973, and went to no. 2 on the Billboard album chart. In addition to the title song, it also produced the hits "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song" and "Workin' at the Car Wash Blues."

As well as "I Got a Name," "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song," and "Workin' at the Car Wash Blues" performed on the charts, it would be an older song that would prove to be his biggest hit following his death and possibly his best remembered song. As mentioned above, "Time in a Bottle" appeared on his 1972 album You Don't Mess Around with Jim. Even though it had not been released as a single, "Time in a Bottle" received airplay from the beginning. The song was used in the closing credits of the television movie She Lives!, which aired on ABC on September 12 1973. This only increased demand for the song even more. Jim Croce's death gave "Time in a Bottle" even more poignancy than it had before, and as a result it was played even more frequently after he had died. It was then in November 1973 that "Time in a Bottle" was released as a single. The song reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1973.

Since Jim Croce's death, several compilation albums have been released, including material that had not been released before. Three live albums have also been released posthumously. A collection of Jim Croce's live appearances was released on DVD in 2003, Have You Heard: Jim Croce Live.

If Jim Croce remains popular fifty years after his death, it is because of his sheer talent as a singer and a songwriter. Jim Croce was essentially a storyteller, who told his stories through song. This is certainly true of many of his biggest hits. "You Don't Mess Around with Jim" centred around a pool hustler, Big Jim Walker, who gets his comeuppance from a rival pool player, Willie "Slim" McCoy. "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)" was a conversation with a telephone operator, of which we only hear the side of the caller, who is a man seeking the phone number of a lost love. "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" focuses on the character of the title, a tough guy from the East Side of Chicago who makes the mistake of messing with the wife of a jealous husband. Jim Croce was able to tell stories, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, in the format of a three to format song that would stick with people for a long time.

Of course, another thing that made Jim Croce's songs great, whether they told stories or not, is that he understood the human condition perfectly and could translate that into song. This can particularly be seen in his love songs, such as "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song" and "Time in a Bottle." Jim Croce's songs were made even more touching by the fact that he had a powerful voice, capable of emoting whatever feeling the song called for.

Like many, I have to say that Jim Croce has had an enormous impact on my life. I was not very old when he died, but I remember the day well. I had heard his songs on the radio, and I have to say that I was a fan even then. "Time in a Bottle" remains one of my all time favourite songs, even though since 2018 I cannot listen to it without breaking down crying. I am certainly not alone. Jim Croce still maintains a legion of fans, some of who weren't even born when he died. There can be no doubt that Jim Croce will still have a legion of fans fifty years from now.

1 comment:

Billy Hogan said...

I remember learning the news of Croce's death while watching the Today Show the next morning after his plane crash. My parents kept me out of school that day because my Dad had to travel to a military base to renew his military ID card in order to keep his military retirement benefits. I was getting dressed in my room while I had my 12" b/w TV on when the TV reporter on the Today Show read the story about his death. It was a big shock for me too because I loved his music. The only musical storyteller I like a little better than Croce was Harry Chapin.