“Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown, baddest man in the whole DAMN town…”. We loved to sing that song at the top of our voices. Mainly because we got to swear “legally” because it was words to a song. I was 11 years old, my sister 8 and my brother 5.
Philadelphia-born folk/rock singer/songwriter Jim Croce wrote and sang that ever popular song, the only chart-topping #1 hit in the lifetime of the storied performer’s brief but powerful career. Leroy Brown was a real guy, a fellow Jim met while in basic training for the US Army. The song was released in 1973, 6 months before the fateful plane crash that took the life of the thirty-year-old husband and father.
Jim Croce’s superstardom only spanned about eighteen months, and three albums. It wasn’t until his third album, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” that his international fame kicked into high gear. The number one song “Time In A Bottle” was released just after his death, and other iconic tunes followed, including, “Operator,” “I’ll Have To Say I Love You,” and “I Got A Name”.
Like countless other music fans around the world, I grew up on those sing-a-long radio hits. They are those types of songs that immediately prompt a turning-up of the radio volume knob, and best-intending baritone renditions are blaring as we drive down the highway on a sunny day with the windows down.
Although he was only two when his father died, A.J. Croce has always felt the connection. His mother, Ingrid, was Jim’s early writing partner. Between home and on the radio, he was surrounded by his music and memories. And at 16, he began writing and performing his own music. He achieved great success, and critical acclaim.
But all along, the blanket of his father’s legacy remained. Although he was keenly focused on his own music, performing his father’s hits was always on his mind. He did this for twenty-five years, establishing his own loyal fan base. But the sheer joy he experienced from his audiences when he played his dad’s tunes was enough for A.J. to create a show entitled, “Croce Sings Croce,” combining his versions of his father’s songs along with his own fan favorites.
I have been recently fortunate to be able to present his show at my theatres, and they have been fantastic. A.J. is a true gentleman and gives the audience more than their money’s worth of music and memories. Rare video footage and behind-the-scenes stories make for an extra-sensory experience, leaving the audience with a connection to Jim they did not have before the show.
As I have been truly blessed with the opportunity to work with icons, legends and legacies on a regular basis, I on many occasions find myself just hanging with them in the dressing rooms before their respective shows. I get a chance to chat with them and sometimes I am able to ask a question or two. At heart, I am a giddy fan who loves the backstories.
Before A.J.’s recent show at our Des Plaines Theatre, I asked him a simple question, the same one I have asked countless celebs. “What is your most prized piece of memorabilia of your dad’s?” I asked.
“It’s got to be his guitar,” he said. “My dad used it on all his albums. It was a time when everyone was using all the ‘big’ guitars, but he liked his that was a bit smaller.” In 1989, A.J. lost almost everything he had in a fire, but one of the only things to survive was that guitar. Amazing since it was old and brittle-almost tinder!
“When I was about two years old, my dad had two leather jackets made in Amsterdam, one for me and one for him. I lost mine in the fire, but his was saved,” A.J. said. Amazing!
One of Jim’s hobbies was leathercraft. He would make bags and belts for himself and others. The bag he made that he carried around his finger picks, guitar strings and other “paraphernalia” in was strangely the only thing that survived the plane crash. A.J. treasures it to this day.
I asked if he had any of his clothes. “My dad hardly had any,” he said. “He wasn’t on the road for very long, really. He owned two shirts, one pair of pants and one pair of boots. And that’s all Maury (Jim’s on-stage guitar player) had as well. And they would trade shirts just so as to appear they had more than they really did. Their buddy Randy Newman was so tired of seeing them in the same shirts on stage, he bought them new shirts. But after a while, THOSE were the only shirts they would wear, and he got sick of those, too!”
Getting to know A.J. a bit and witnessing the show, the music, the stories and the videos, I feel I am closer to Jim Croce than I could ever imagine being.
Jim sang about “Time In A Bottle.” His music is timeless, his legacy ageless. September 20, 2023 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of that tragic day. But still, Jim Croce lives on in his music, his son and in our hearts. Jim, we ALL “Have To Say We Love You, in a Song.”