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The Short Happy Life Of Jim Croce
As Honest As The Day Is Long . . . Jim Croce was one-of-a-kind in the world of rock music. He had that bushy mustache working, but was otherwise a clean-cut guy. Moms might pick up his album covers and say, “Now Johnny, if you would only wear your hair like this young man…” But something moms should’ve perceived most was Jim Croce’s authenticity. No pretense was called for as he was happy and comfortable in his own skin.
Jim Croce’s happy life came to an untimely end on September 20, 1973, just one day after country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons’s death. Croce was 30 years old. The singer-songwriter and five others, including his second guitarist, Maury Meuhleisen, were killed in Natchitoches, Louisiana when the twin-engine plane they were riding crashed on takeoff. Croce and Meuhleisen had just given a concert at Northwestern State College, 75 miles southeast of Shreveport, and were headed to their next gig in Sherman, Texas.
Best known as the birthplace of Buck Owens, Sherman is a small town 60 miles north of Dallas and 12 miles south of Lake Texoma. It appears a rather pleasant place but it was apparent Croce and Meuhleisen would soon be devoting more of their time playing America’s bigger cities. The country was quickly gaining appreciation for Croce’s music. He had just recently bagged a Billboard number one single with “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” a sprightly song about a larger-than-life tough guy who took no lip, that is, until he ran into someone tougher. Leroy Brown was just one of the characters Croce created for his songs, which gave him quite a kick as they were mostly inspired by people he met in a life that took him to very interesting places.
A Generous Spirit . . . While a student at Villanove University in the mid-’60s, Croce played in various bands at frat parties, coffee houses, and other universities around Philadelphia. The bands would play “whatever the people wanted to hear,” Croce remembered, “blues, rock, a capella, railroad music… anything.” One of the bands he played with was chosen for a foreign exchange tour of Africa and the Middle East. On the official Croce website, he’s quoted about his experience, saying, “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.”
Jim Croce absorbed life worlds away from South Philly and came away with memories and most especially, a sense about life that was reflected in his generous spirit. His worldview may have widened while traveling overseas, yet there was much to learn back home. Working construction jobs, driving trucks, serving in the U.S. Army, giving kids guitar lessons at summer camps or selling radio time to pool halls in Philadelphia may not have been as exotic as singing along the African continent, but everywhere he went, even in the most common places, people with intriguing lives abounded. Croce took in his surroundings and came up with vast material for his music. “The jobs I’ve had attract characters,” Croce said, and through his songs, millions got to know the colorful types that left an impression on him.
In a review of Croce’s recording career, Jon Landau wrote in the March 14, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone that Croce’s best songs were “sung with unmistakable compassion and a determination to enjoy life.” That determination was obvious to most anyone who ever saw Croce, whether in performance, or backstage after a show. He possessed an ability to squeeze great joy from each moment, no matter how ordinary.
In August of ’73, Jim Croce was basking in the glow of his chart-topping “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” while working a 5-night engagement at The Great Southeast Music Hall, the venue eventually best known for hosting the first American concert by the Sex Pistols (Jan ’78). 5 straight nights, 2 shows nightly. That can be tiring, but Croce approached each moment with great zest. As he and Maury Muehleisen created vibrant sounds with their acoustic guitars, Croce ushered in his livelier songs and their string of characters, including Leroy Brown, Rapid Roy the stock-car racer, the heavy-handed Hackensack mama, the trucker “poppin’ them West Coast turn arounds,” and Big Jim Walker, “a pool-shootin’ son of a gun.” The crowds loved Croce’s characters: the average sorts working both ends against the middle to get by, as well as the self-pronounced tough guys who got their just desserts.
Jon Landau concluded that Croce wrote only two kinds of songs: “fragments of modern folklore (about his unique collection of oddball street characters) and sentimental love songs.” Here Landau, despite having expressed admiration for Croce’s work, overlooks the expanse and discernment of his songs. Yes, the approach on some of his love songs might’ve been effusive at times, not so uncommon in that era of the singer-songwriter, but Croce would often impart a sense of detachment in songs about relationships, offering a learned acceptance of what can go wrong between two people.
The Future Is Tomorrow. . . On his third Top 40 single, “One Less Set Of Footsteps,” Croce surveyed the cold war between a couple that resulted in a break-up. The mood of the song isn’t celebratory, but with its upbeat folk-rock style, Croce gives the song a positive spin: recognition of a sour relationship meeting its demise signals optimism for the days ahead.
But tomorrow’s a dream away
Today has turned to dust
Your silver tongue has turned to clay
And your golden rule to rust
If that’s the way that you want it
Well, that’s the way I want it more
There’ll be one less set of footsteps
On your floor in the mornin’
Here, the sensitive songwriter takes a realistic view and works up a civil kiss-off.
It was fair to question who might be enjoying a Jim Croce performance the most: the audience or Croce himself. Landau was precise in recognizing Croce’s determination to enjoy life. The songs in his sets, picked from the three albums he recorded in less than two years for ABC-Dunhill, provided various takes on life in its most thoughtful moments as well as those calling for laughter and hoopla. Jim Croce squeezed a lot of living out of his 30 years and his audiences came away with much of what he absorbed.
Those Are The Breaks . . . Croce’s demeanor on stage was warm, enthusiastic and humorous. He had his songs the people wanted to hear, plenty of funny stories and, more importantly, the sense of someone who was thrilled to just wake up that day. The great singer-songwriter Randy Newman, who was on the road with Croce for about a year, described Croce as a “genuinely modest person,” who was “surprised at what was happening to him and was grateful that he was there.” Farrell Roberts, perhaps the key employee at the Great Southeast Music Hall for all seven years of its existence, worked with hundreds of acts, but has some of the fondest memories for Croce, calling him “as real and down to earth as could possibly be.”
From time to time the personnel at the Music Hall would have to insure ample privacy for the performers* between and after shows. Frequently the dressing room doors were closed and locked to fans wishing to meet the artists and get autographs. Not with Croce. His door was wide open and he was just as excited to meet his fans as they were to meet him. He really wanted to know if they liked the show and what they liked best. On the road it was just Croce and Muehleisen, playing guitars; no other musicians. Croce wanted to know if that was okay, asking, “What about it just being us two, without the band? Did it sound okay?” They were both assured the sound was great, in fact, better than on the albums. It wasn’t that Croce wanted praise; he simply wanted people to enjoy his shows. The gratitude that Randy Newman said Croce possessed revealed itself often.
The Music Hall had a small record shop; so on the nights Croce performed, patrons bought the albums, peeled off the wrapping, and took them back for Croce and Muehleisen to sign. The performers wanted to make sure they got the names right for signing and would offer personal messages with their signatures. A common wish imparted in the autographs was to “Have a good life.” One of the fans that night, Phil Hudson, took home such an autographed album for he and his wife, Gwen. In the early to mid ’80s, the Hudsons worked as Christian missionaries to feed the starving during the East African famines. They felt fortunate to be able to serve in such a way. Jim Croce and Maury Muehleisen would know the Hudsons have had good lives.
*While there were performers at The Music Hall who sought “down time” between and after shows, there were many others, besides Croce and Muehleisen, who were pleasant and quite conversant with their fans. Jeff Hanna and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would not only shake your hand and sign albums, they would discourse on many subjects. Doc and Merle Watson, Steve Goodman, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sandy Denny, and Jimmy Buffett (pre-Parrothead era) were also among the friendliest with their fans, adding to the homey atmosphere of the Music Hall.
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