In 1970, Jim Croce wrote “Time in a Bottle” about his unborn son, A.J. Croce, who salutes his father this Sunday with “Croce Plays Croce” at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland.
“I do these ‘Croce Plays Croce’ concerts a dozen or so times a year,” Croce told WTOP. “It’s really fun. I get to play my father’s music, my music, and the music that really connects us. It’s been a pleasure to do, it’s always unique and different, my band is great, some legendary players in the group. It’s just energetic and nostalgic for a lot of people.”
Born in 1971, A.J. was a toddler when his dad was killed in a plane crash in 1973.
“I was just 2 years old, so I never really knew him,” Croce said. “Very dim memories of being with him, but I heard a million stories from the family and friends and got to know him from his own home recordings where he recorded everything he was writing and practicing before he got to record. … I got to know him that way and I feel fortunate.”
He listened extra closely to his father’s records due to vision issues as a kid.
“I went blind when I was 4,” Croce said. “I gradually got my sight back over six years. During that time, I got turned onto Ray Charles and I listened to my father’s record collection. … Even though I couldn’t see which albums I was pulling out, I would see which ones I liked. It was diverse: Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Stevie [Wonder], Woody Guthrie.”
He learned the piano at a pretty young young and went touring at age 18.
“B.B. King heard me play and asked if I’d go out on the road,” Croce said. “I played with a lot of R&B, blues and soul artists: Ray Charles, Aretha [Franklin], James Brown and the Nevilles. I toured all over the world. … It was really diverse who I played with, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and country artists, but a lot of roots music, soul and R&B.”
For a while, he was self-conscious about escaping his father’s shadow.
“I wouldn’t touch it, talk about him, do any of that stuff for the first 20 years of my career,” Croce said. “After I had 15 or so Top 20 singles of my own, I felt like I had made my mark and established myself in my own right and could come back to embrace the legacy.”
That legacy began with his dad’s self-released debut album “Facets” (1966) and his major-label debut for Capitol Records, “Jim & Ingrid Croce” (1969), named after his wife.
He became a household name with his third album, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” (1972), featuring the hit song of the same name that reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, teaching us all that you don’t tug on Superman’s cape and you don’t spit into the wind.
“He was able to make heroes out of normal folks — that was really his gift,” Croce said. “At the time, he was selling radio time for a radio station in Philadelphia. There was this pool hall he would go to regularly that would buy advertising on this R&B station, and there were some characters in there that were sort of inspirational for the writing of that tune.”
The same album featured the No. 17 hit single “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels).”
“My dad was in the Army and he was waiting to use the payphone,” Croce said. “It had a long line, because everyone wanted to talk to their girlfriends and families and what not, so he just heard all of these phone calls. I don’t think he put it all together until 1971.”
His fourth album “Life and Times” (1973) saw his first No. 1 hit, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”
“They’re these tongue-in-cheek, very funny almost caricatures of people,” Croce said. “The perfect example is [Jerry] Leiber and [Mike] Stoller, those character songs they wrote for The Coasters [like] ‘Charlie Brown.’ … I hear Jimmy Reed, I hear Leiber and Stoller, all of that stuff. … We all stand on the shoulders of giants, right? No one creates in a vacuum.”
His fifth album, “I Got a Name” (1973), was sadly his last due to his tragic plane crash, but several hits took off posthumously, including “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.”
“I think there was a sincere apology to my mother in that song,” Croce said. “I think he felt guilty about a number of things, feeling that he wasn’t really able to express himself outside of music. He was still very young, still learning and so that’s really it in a nutshell.”
Still, his biggest posthumous hit was “Time in a Bottle,” which went all the way to No. 1.
“Obviously, it’s a very personal song to me,” Croce said. “It was something that was written for me. … It was the first song that was his ‘ah-ha’ epiphany of no longer just wearing his influences on his sleeve, but being very original. ‘Time in a Bottle’ was the breakthrough. After that song, the rest of his music was written in a six-month period of time.”
It’s a flourish of songwriting genius that rivals the best in music history.
“The same thing happened with Chuck Berry; so many of those songs were written in a year or less, it happened with Little Richard, it happened with a lot of different artists who had this brief moment of just being connected to whatever it is and just having the good fortunate to be in the right place in the right time to have it recorded,” Croce said.
Today, it’s bizarre for A.J. to realize that he’s outlived his father, who died at age 30.
“I’m 20 years older than my father at this point,” Croce said. “That’s something you consider, especially because his career was so stratospheric in such a short period of time; 18 months flies by. … He only had an 18-month career and mine is 30 years now.”
Still, he’s managed to learn important life lessons from his father beyond the grave.
“What is most recognizable that may not be heard in the songs is his sense of humor,” Croce said. “There’s a lot of things in life that are pretty hard, but sometimes laughing is better than crying. Having a sense of humor about things and taking the world with a grain of salt instead of letting it weigh on your shoulders is something that I got from him.”