Jim Croce was the great musician of my youth. He was born in 1943. It’s hard to believe, but he was only 30 years old when he died.
He looked, and still looks like he had been beaten up by life. He was a great storyteller and that came across in his songs. I was only 9 when he died, but it was terrible. I remember my older sister calling me to tell me the news. Another one of my projects (and perhaps the one that I am most excited about) is a one-man play, “Deconstructed.” It is simply a number of deconstructions of various things. One of them is a deconstruction of Croce’s song, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”
It may surprise you, but I get ten minutes out of it. You see, I know every song off Croce’s three official albums by heart. I even know many of them on guitar. So I’ve thought about them in much more depth than any sane person should. And I have decided that he totally screwed up on that particular song. I’m not going to go into it. You will just have to wait until I start my tour. But if you listen to the song carefully — and I mean 100 times carefully — all will be revealed.
But see if you can find the many problems with the story that is told in the song.
That Time Jim Croce Made the First Issue of People (He Was Dead)
In 1974, the first issue of People was released. It was then referred to as People Weekly. I know that issue very well. When my parents owned a 7-11 store, my father was in the habit of grabbing of the first issues of everything that came in. That included Hustler, as I recall. But the reason that I most remember People is because it had an article in it, “Jim Croce: Million Dollar Music Legacy.” This was about 6 months after Croce had died. And people were apparently still not tired of him, given that he was a whole lot more popular after he died than before.
But the cover featured Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in the 1974 filmed version of The Great Gatsby — you know: the Robert Redford one. I remember seeing it on television later and being surprised at how much my 11-year-old self liked the film. I’ve seen it since. I missed a lot when I was a kid. I don’t much care for the look of the film. But I think the movie captures the book perfectly. And Farrow was perfect as Daisy.
People Weekly: It Was All About Sex
When I was having tea with my cousin yesterday, we discussed the nature of romance and how it was doomed. Well, that was my conclusion anyway. The problem is that two people who are really compatible don’t tend to generate that romantic spark (or let’s be real: sexual) that “love” requires. The kind of person who I could stand to live with would never be the kind of person who I would be attracted to in that way. Now, it would be easy enough to just write this off as my own neurotic nature. But I’ve seen it too much in others to think that I’m not representative of the vast majority of people.
Anyway, I doubt that I’ve opened another copy of People since that first one. The only magazines I open these days have either recipes or Sudoku puzzles inside. Yes, I suppose I’m old.
Croce’s Number 1: Maury Muehleisen
Maury Muehleisen is best known as Jim Croce’s lead guitarist. In fact, Croce always toured as a duo with Muehleisen. Before that, Croce was playing guitar for Muehleisen, but after the poor sales of his first album, Gingerbreadd, that changed. Most important, Muehleisen was a huge influence on Croce’s writing. Until he started working with Muehleisen, Croce wrote pretty standard, three chord, folk songs. Muehleisen taught him a more sophisticated approach to composition — with leading tones and jazz chords. The results are striking. Just check out the album, The Faces I’ve Been. Compare the writing before and after Muehleisen showed up on the scene.
Here are a couple of Muehleisen songs. The first is “I Remember Mary,” which was the first song of his I had ever heard him sing. (I had, of course, heard Jim Croce’s performance of Muehleisen’s song “Salon and Saloon” — still one of my favorites.) It’s quite good:
And here is another off Gingerbreadd, “Free To Love You”:
Muehleisen, of course, died with Jim Croce in that plane crash at the age of 24. It’s very sad. He certainly would have gone on to do great work.
Jim Croce’s Music
I used to do a morning music feature on this blog and I featured Jim Croce on a number of times. I’ve put them all together here.
Old Man River
For no good reason, I thought that I would spend the week listening to Jim Croce singing songs that he didn’t write. This is probably because I’ve had “Old Man River” going through my head all day. I first heard it on the album The Faces I’ve Been — a reference to his song “The Hard Way Every Time.” It was released after his death (like pretty much everything else). It was kind of a biography of him.
According to the extensive liner notes, they had Croce record “Old Man River” to show to the record companies that he could perform other people’s music. And it’s very true. Croce had an amazing ability to make whatever song he sang his own. Or at least that was true in the later years. Sadly, The Faces I’ve Been has never been released on CD. But you can get it on 8-track!
For those interested, the entire album, The Faces I’ve Been, is on YouTube.
I Got a Name
Jim Croce was a singer-songwriter during that period when that was the thing to be on Top 40 radio. And he was a great songwriter — especially so because he was a great storyteller. If you’ve listened to him perform live, you know that he easily spent more time telling stories than singing. But one thing that often surprises people is that Croce’s hit song “I Got a Name” was not written by him. It was written by two movie theme hacks (great hacks, but hacks nonetheless) Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox for the film The Last American Hero.
Because Croce did almost exclusively his own music, people don’t appreciate his amazing ability to make other people’s writing his own. This is quite apparent on Old Man River and the Maury Muehleisen song Salon and Saloon. But here he is performing “I Got a Name” live with Muehleisen on lead guitar and producer Tommy West on piano:
Working at the Car Wash Blues
As my sister was getting ready for work today, she mentioned one of my favorite Jim Croce tunes, “Working at the Car Wash Blues.” It was off his last album, I Got a Name. It’s a very funny song — very much in the tradition of Roger Miller. The singer is talking about his new job working at a car wash after having been released from jail for “non-support” (not paying child support). In one way, it’s a very nasty song because the singer does not come off well.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to love the guy. He’s just gotten out of jail — basically for not having any money — but, as Croce says in the introduction to the song, he “thinks he should be ruling the universe.” I have a certain love for these kinds of people because I think I’m kind of the opposite. Yes, I have a lot of skills, but I probably should be working at the car wash.
And especially in this country, can we say that the man is wrong? I’ve met lots of rich people in my life and very few of them are worthy of their wealth. The film Trading Places had it right. Some old meth addict could well be running a Fortune 500 company while some superstar executive in an air conditioned office with a swivel chair might be more correctly working at the car wash.
Ball of Kerrymuir
In 1989, Jim Croce Live: The Final Tour was released. It was very exciting, because I had never seen Croce live (he died when I was 9 years old) or even heard anything live except one song on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. The amazing thing about the disc is that roughly half of it is Croce telling stories. He was a great storyteller, which is hardly surprising given his many great story songs.
Today, we listen to “Ball of Kerrymuir.” It is a humorous song. Croce had quite a good sense of humor. An early song from his folk days was “Pig Song.” But also many of Croce’s own songs were funny like “Speedball Tucker” — with the line, “95 was the route you were on, it was not the speed limit sign.” In fact, on this live album, Croce introduces the two minute song with a seven minute story.
According to Croce, “Ball of Kerrymuir” was written down by Robert Burns. I think this is a common belief, but it isn’t true. Regardless, it is an old and very bawdy song:
On Jim Croce’s last official album, I Got a Name, there was a song “Thursday” by this mysterious guy named Sal Joseph. It turns out that Joseph (real name: Joe Salviuolo) was a college friend of Jim Croce’s. He was later a communications professor at Glassboro State College, where he taught Maury Muehleisen. So Joseph introduced Muehleisen and Croce. You can read all about it at Sound Click, where you can also hear a number of Joseph’s songs including “Groundless,” which appears to be about Jim Croce’s death.
“Thursday” is very much a Jim Croce kind of song. It’s a man’s lament that he loves a woman more than she loves him. There’s also a fair amount of bitterness — similar to Croce’s own songs “Lover’s Cross” and “One Less Set of Footsteps.” But the refrain is nicely understanding, “I was looking for a lifetime lover, and you were looking for a friend.” It’s good when people can see that truth.
Chain Gang Medley
We have another song off the album The Faces I’ve Been. Or rather, it is a medley of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” Butler, Carter, and Mayfield’s “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You),” and Leiber and Stoller’s “Searchin’.”
I believe that the musicians on the song are — at least in part — Tommy West and Terry Cashman who produced all his albums and were a well known songwriting team. I’ll point out Tommy West later in the week. In general, when you hear a piano in a Croce tune, it is West.
Salon and Saloon
On Jim Croce’s last official album, I Got a Name, he performed three songs by other writers. The best of them was “Salon and Saloon” by his lead guitarist and friend Maury Muehleisen. It’s totally unlike any other song that Croce ever performed. Even though he was much younger, Muehleisen had a profound impact on Croce’s song writing. He taught Croce basic music theory. Up to that point, Croce’s music had all been very much in the folk tradition of of I-IV-V chords.
The song is harmonically complex, with lots of dominant, minor, and even major sevenths. But it is also interesting in how it plays with time signatures. When I was ten years old, I didn’t like it. I just couldn’t hear it. But when I rediscovered it in my mid-teens, it blew me away. It’s such a beautiful song.
Jim’s Son: Adrian James Croce
Not surprisingly, Jim Croce had a son who is an incredibly talented musician. (It isn’t just jim; his wife Ingrid is also a talented musician.) He does rather different music from his father, and almost never does his father’s songs. Below, we get a real treat: Jim and Ingrid’s son performing one of Jim Croce’s big hits: “Operator.”
His name is Adrian James Croce (usually known as AJ Croce) on the 40th anniversary of its release. (Well, that’s what he says. The performance is on 8 June 2012 and according to Wikipedia, the song was released on 23 August 1972. Maybe he means it was recorded that day. Or first performed. Or maybe it means AJ is just wrong, given that he was less than a year old.)
AJ Croce as His Own Man
AJ Croce is a great musician. I heard a whole concert of his many years ago and I was very impressed. I especially remember his cover of Bernie Taupin and Elton John’s “Take Me to the Pilot.” Anyway, AJ Croce has stayed very much away from riding on his father’s shirttails. For example, he does not sing like him and doesn’t write the same kind of material. Actually, I think he’s a much greater musical talent than his father — but obviously, he had many advantages.
Operator: The Story
Like a good fraction of Croce tunes, “Operator” tells a story. In this case, it tells the story of a man trying to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend who ran off with his best friend. But as the song continues on, it is clear that the singer does not wish to reconnect; he only wishes for someone to talk to. It’s like in the the Janis Ian song “In the Winter” where she sings, “And for a dime I can talk to God.” In Croce’s case, it is the operator.
The song is outdated. Not only is a payphone call a lot more than a dime, you can hardly find a payphone anymore. What’s more, there are no longer human operators. Hell, there are very few human anythings. Soon, you’ll have to hire a prostitute just to have someone to talk to. And yet, I think that “Operator” works as well today as it did 40 years ago. It all comes down to the story, which is eternal, and Croce’s performance, which sounds like he’s lived it.
But here is Jim’s only son singing his father’s hit. And it is well worth a listen.