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INTERVIEWS

A Conversation With A.J. Croce

As if the finality of Jim Croce’s abrupt 1973 death in a plane crash weren’t enough, for posterity we have the portrait of his two-year-old son—draped in his dad’s concert T-shirt and clutching his cowboy hat—that graced the inside cover of 1974’s Photographs And Memories. In the five decades since, A.J. Croce has carved out an accomplished career as a singer/songwriter, while keeping his father’s legacy alive with his “Croce Plays Croce” touring show. In February, he kicked off the 50th anniversary of You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, his dad’s 1972 breakthrough, with a guest DJ spot on SiriusXM. Next, he’ll hit the road for a series of full-band shows celebrating the album and its three hits: “Operator,” “Time In A Bottle” and the title track. BMG is planning a special reissue in the fall.

Based in Nashville these days, Croce was a toddler when his father died, so he doesn’t have much to add about the heartbreaking photo from his father’s greatest-hits collection. But he has acquired enough second-hand knowledge in his 50 years to become the foremost expert on his dad’s music.

Greetings from Chester County, Pa., your dad’s old stomping grounds.
Is that right? That’s funny. I’m home for 24 hours. I just flew in from Houston. I’m flying into Philly tomorrow, and I’ve been trying to get the address of our old house in Lyndell. My mom can’t remember, and I wrote to my uncle and godmother. My godmother lives in Phoenixville, and I’m hoping she’ll remember. We’ll see. I think there’s supposed to be some historical marker there, but it hasn’t been put up yet. I’m looking because CBS News Sunday Morning wants to get some footage of that.

Is there anything you can tell us about that time?
I remember the ducks. I got bitten by a duck, so it stuck in my head. I’ve been in the area at least once a year since we left in 1973. The last time I was at the property, a carpenter had converted the place into a workshop. The archway from the [You Don’t Mess Around With Jim album cover] is right there—it’s the outbuilding. My parents moved there in 1970 from New York City. Before that, they’d both lived in Philadelphia. They were pretty discouraged at the time. Then my mom got pregnant, so it was a bit scary. While my dad was really on a tear as songwriter, I think he pretty much felt like he had one more chance. They really didn’t know what the future would hold.

You Don’t Mess Around With Jim cost just $18,000 to make and spent 93 weeks on the charts. That’s impressive.
By the standards of 1972, it wasn’t a bad budget. It wasn’t recorded much differently than the way I’ve recorded albums over my career, which is live. They did a couple takes and kept the best one. All the songs were written, recorded and toured in 18 months—and that was the complete duration of my dad’s professional music career. Before that, he had different odd jobs and played music on the weekends. He recorded the demos for those songs at the farmhouse in Lyndell—some by himself and some with Maury (Muehleisen), who’d come over sometimes and they’d figure out his part. 

What is it about “Time In A Bottle” that makes it so unique?
About 20 years ago, I was transferring some of my dad’s music to digital for archival purposes, and I found this tape. On one side, he’s practicing all these songs he played at the Riddle Paddock, his weekend gig. On the other side, he starts “Time In A Bottle.” It was an epiphany for him—that point where he found his voice, or a voice. It was as if everything came into focus after writing that. I think it was the uncertainty of where he was in his life that allowed him to take some chances that he might’ve been afraid to take when he was a little younger.

Your dad was a part of select group of singer/songwriters who basically invented Americana, drawing on so many disparate influences while doing such a remarkable job of personalizing it all. Do you feel he’s gotten the recognition he deserves?
I don’t think he would’ve cared any more than I care about the recognition. It’s about feeling proud of the work you do.

Do you think your perspective on your dad’s music would’ve been different had you known him?
I grew up with his record collection. Until I was 15 and our house burned down, I listened to those records. I still have two that survived: Fats Waller and Bessie Smith. They’re a little charred, but the vinyl still plays. In my 30s, when I found the tape with songs he was practicing for gigs, they were songs I’d played since I was probably 12 years old. The Fats Waller song (“You’re Not The Only Oyster In The Stew”) was on my first demo for Columbia Records. I had no idea they were part of his repertoire, and it gave me chills to hear his voice and his guitar playing these songs I grew up playing. It connected me to him. That was the impetus for “Croce Plays Croce”—the connection between my father and I, the connection between all of us and our children, our parents and our friends. There are all these very real and sweet connections I like to share as part of the show. 

What’s your plan for celebrating You Don’t Mess Around With Jim in the coming months?
I’m going to play a different show, where the first set is You Don’t Mess Around With Jim from beginning to end. I really thought it would be fun to stage it with a good-sized group. The second set will be some of the songs that aren’t on there, some of my stuff and some other stuff that connects us. 

If your father were alive today, would he still be making music?
Music made him what he was—not just for the outside world but for himself. He didn’t go places without a guitar. It was part of him, and I have no doubt that it would still be part of him. We don’t change that much.

—Hobart Rowland