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Jim Croce and Me
50 years ago today, the gifted singer-songwriter died in a plane crash
Fifty years ago today, on September 20, 1973, singer-songwriter Jim Croce died in a plane crash when his chartered Beechcraft E18 collided with a tree during take-off from a small airfield in Louisiana.
Croce, only 30 years old, had just given a concert in Natchitoches, and was flying to another gig in Sherman, Texas. This wasn’t the big time, just the college circuit. But Croce was a rising star with a growing audience and high hopes—the very next day, his record label would release a new single called “I Got a Name.”
It became a top 10 hit posthumously. Croce’s album of the same name, released on December 1, climbed to second place on the Billboard 100, and eventually went gold.
The song is not only about having a name, but also making your name in the world. You can hear Croce’s own life, up to that time, in the words, which tell about singing songs and chasing dreams “down the highway.” He was literally on a grueling road trip when he died.
Two months later, Croce’s label released “Time in a Bottle”—a bittersweet love song written by the artist after his wife Ingrid told him she was pregnant. The song rose to number one on the chart. At the time, only two other artists had achieved that distinction after their death, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding.
But if most fans were surprised by this posthumous fame, I wasn’t one of them. That’s because, just a few months before his death, I had encountered Croce in the flesh, and by pure chance.
It happened two weeks after my 15th birthday.
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I had zero interest in Jim Croce back then.
But I still traveled an hour from home to see him perform—because he was opening act for Woody Allen, who was touring (for the last time, I believe) as a standup comedian.
My high school buddy Dean, a Tarantino-esque entertainment junkie and aficionado of the offbeat, had learned about Woody Allen’s show, and we were both excited about attending. Even in those distant days, Allen was better known as a filmmaker, but Dean owned Allen’s two standup comedy records, and we had listened to them over and over.
I haven’t heard them in years. But in our early teens, we laughed ourselves silly over that stuff.
The logistics were daunting. But Dean somehow scored tickets for us, and then we focused to the next challenge—namely, getting from our home town of Hawthorne, California to the Valley Music Theater in Woodland Hills.
Neither of us was old enough to drive. And the venue was an hour away.
But Dean, once again, arranged everything. His mother would drive us to Woodland Hills the day before, put us up for the night, and get us back home—although she had no interest in joining us at the event itself.
The upshot is that Woody Allen was a disappointment. He just repeated the same routines we had already heard on his comedy albums, word-for-word. There wasn’t a single new joke or anything spontaneous in the entire performance.
But Jim Croce was a revelation.
Croce had already enjoyed a radio hit which made the top ten a few weeks before the concert. But this song “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” was a honky tonk novelty tune, and not my kind of music. If you’d asked me about Croce before the concert, I would have described him as a one-hit wonder
In an era of sensitive singer-songwriters, Croce was the odd man out. That first radio hit and the follow-up “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” (released three months after the concert) sounded like roadhouse music, not the hot new thing in pop.
Based on what I’d heard on the radio. I would have never guessed Croce was such a fine guitarist. That was the first thing I noticed at the concert. (I played a little guitar myself back then.) Croce didn’t really need a backup band.
And that was good—because he didn’t have one. He just brought one other musician with him on the road. This sole accompanist was fellow guitarist and songwriter Maury Muehleisen, sadly forgotten nowadays, who died in that same plane crash—just 24 years old at the time.
The irony is that Muehleisen helped launch Croce’s career—then became his backup player. He had legit aspirations for stardom himself. Capitol Records had signed Muehleisen back in 1970, and released a little-known album called Gingerbreadd. This generated some gigs, and Croce was hired as a second guitarist.
But with Croce’s rising profile, the roles were now reversed. At the Valley Music Theater that afternoon, Croce was the boss, but even out in the audience you could tell that the two shared a deep friendship. Croce often told long stories between songs—he was quite a skilled raconteur—and they sometimes involved his exploits with Maury on tour.
Like the narrator of “I Got a Name,” Croce had been chasing his dream on the road for more than a decade, since launching his music career while a student at Villanova. That’s where he met his future wife and collaborator Ingrid Jacobson. In the late 1960s, they toured relentlessly—traveling some 300,000 miles over the course of two years—and played wherever they could find an audience.
Croce was almost thirty before he got a real break. Along the way, he took more than his share of bad day gigs. But finally. ABC Records signed him to a contract in 1972. And though his songs started getting airplay, he wasn’t making much money. The label had fronted cash to make his debut record, and he had to pay them back out of royalties.
There wasn’t much left for Jim, so his non-stop touring continued. That’s what brought him to the Valley Music Theater as a warm-up act in late 1972.
My biggest surprise that day was Croce’s skill and range as a songwriter—he could do a lot more than the honky tonk story songs that put him on the charts. He opened the concert with “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” which immediately grabbed the audience and left it hushed and expectant.
In one way, “Operator” did resemble “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim”—but only because both were story songs. The “Operator” narrative, however, struck me as far more poignant, and not just because my mother worked as a telephone operator for more than two decades.
Every detail of the story is told indirectly. The singer never actually connects on the phone with the woman who broke his heart, and we can piece together the tale only via the scattered details he reveals while trying to place the call. Even more intriguing, we only hear one side of the singer’s conversation—the operator doesn’t have a single line to say in the entire song.
A lot of care and craft went into this three-minute gem. Sad to say, the details are filled with obsolete technologies and vanished items—pay phones, bar matchbooks, and operator-assisted calls. But even if you’ve never spoken to an operator in your life, this song makes a person-to-person connection at a deep emotional level.
I still don’t know why the label hadn’t issued this as Croce’s debut single. It did, eventually, become a hit—but most of the airplay happened after the singer’s death.
Croce did not have movie star looks or a glamorous persona. He hardly looked like a professional musician—and certainly not a young music star. He was still in his twenties when I saw him, but you could already see the wear and tear from all those miles on the road. I would have probably guessed he was at least in his mid-30s, if not older.
While still a teen, I worked in construction, and Croce reminded me of the working class guys on the job site. I later learned that Croce had actually done construction work, not long before I saw him perform—but you could almost tell just by watching him on stage for a few minutes. He felt very real and toughened by life—and those qualities came across in both the music and his banter with the audience.
Thinking back on it, he reminds me a bit of Harrison Ford, born almost at the same time as Croce. Ford also did many physical work-a-day jobs before getting a break—which came later than usual for a movie star. In both cases, they managed to hold on to that blue collar vibe even after they got a dose of fame, and this was part of what endeared them to fans.
My recollection, at this long distance in time, was that Croce spent close to a quarter of the performance telling stories and chatting with the audience. He was like a guy at the neighborhood bar—but more affable and with an amazing musical gift. His likability quotient was high, and I could have easily imagined Croce as emcee or radio deejay or even a talk show host.
But the music eclipsed all that. During the course of the next 40 minutes, Croce continued to perform outstanding songs that almost nobody in the audience had heard before. The audience was there to see Woody Allen, and included some Hollywood stars—I recall that Jack Benny was sitting nearby. It wasn’t the right audience for a rising singer-songwriter. (Dean and I may have been the youngest people in the audience.) But Croce won them over.
Even at first acquaintance, you had to admire songs like the sassy break-up tune “One Less Pair of Footsteps” or the comic “Roller Derby Queen” or the quasi-Christmas carol “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way.” And when he slipped in a barrelhouse song like “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” you started to realize that Croce could cover the full range, from love ballad to funk to country.
Dean and I left the Valley Music Theater well pleased with what we had received for our $5.50 tickets. But in the coming weeks, we talked more about Jim Croce, and less about Woody Allen. We tracked down all his albums, including the forgotten pre-fame Jim and Ingrid Croce release.
And then during the summer of 1973, Dean had more news for me. Jim Croce was coming back to Southern California in a few months. We agreed that we would get tickets, and somehow handle the cumbersome logistics of travel without a driver’s license, to see him a second time.
But we never got the chance.
I was shocked when I read the news about his death. I’m now familiar with the grief I feel after a favorite musician dies—but Croce’s death was perhaps my first experience with the senseless death of a young artist I’d actually seen in concert.
But if there was any consolation, it came via the huge posthumous fame this artist soon enjoyed. For months after his death, Croce’s music was on the radio all the time—at least a half dozen of his track were in frequent rotation on the airwaves.
And one last sense of happy connection occurred, some two decades later. When I saw another unexpected lead-in artist at a music festival. The name of the young musician was A.J. Croce, and I learned he was Jim’s son.
My first impression with A.J. (just as with his father) was that he was a honky tonk player. But I later learned that he, too, is a versatile artist, and a triple threat—on piano, vocals and guitar.
Do you remember when I told you above that “Time in a Bottle” was written when Croce learned that his wife was expecting? That means that the song was about A.J.
So that represents a kind of immortality. You can achieve it with your song, or with your child. They’re both ways of keeping time in a bottle and storing it for posterity. Croce managed to do both. And, fifty years after the artist’s death, this vintage has aged very well.