By: Joseph Suto
The story of Jim Croce is not glamourous. Croce, a singer-songwriter from South Philly, died at the young age of 30, just as his career was really beginning to take off. It was a long hard road for Croce who never really had the chance to enjoy his success.
Croce tried so hard but remained a struggling artist in the 60s. He retreated back to Pennsylvania where he took construction jobs and drove truck to make ends meet. It was while working those jobs where he used those experiences to sharpen his writing skills. Jim and his wife Ingrid released an album Jim & Ingrid Croce in 1969 which failed to chart. After touring in support of that album, Croce’s fortunes changed. He met Maury Muehleisen another singer-songwriter, and soon thereafter his fortunes changed.
In 1972 Croce signed a three-record contract with ABC Records and released You Don’t Mess Around With Jim. That album climbed to number one on the strength of the singles “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels”, the title track and the chart topper “Time In A Bottle”.
Croce followed that up with Life And Times which hit #7 in mid-1973 spawned by top-40 hits “One Less Set Of Footsteps” and another number one song in “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”.
Croce toured for the album and realized he missed being away from home and his family too much. The tour was to be his final one. On September 20, 1973 tragedy struck. Following a concert at Northwestern State University’s Prather Coliseum, a chartered Beechcraft E18S crashed into a tree after takeoff killing all aboard in the Croce entourage, including Croce and Muehleisen. After an investigation it was determined that pilot error was the cause of the crash.
A little known fact is that Croce played Buffalo on September 5, 1973, a mere fifteen days before he died in the Louisiana plane crash. A small crowd just short of 400 were lucky to have seen him perform in the old Century Theater on Main St. Croce was headlining the evening which also featured opener Mimi Farina, the sister of folk singer Joan Baez.
An excerpt from Croce’s final Buffalo show from Buffalo News reviewer Jim Bisco:
“South Philadelphia’s produced Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and an ex-truck driver named Jim Croce who was singing in between driving assignments “in places like the Dew-Drop Inn and the Elbow Room” for a number of years before he hit it big last year with his funny tough-guy song, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”
With dark eyebrows, drooping moustache and a face that looks like he should have been a Marx brother, Croce went through a set of similarly-veined numbers commenting on the notorious people he met at various truck stops, pool halls and small-town bars.
Besides his musical sense of humor, he’s a droll, often bawdy, monologist. An especially funny bit had him recalling his truck-driving days and the times when a Volkswagen, for example, would abruptly cut ahead of him whereupon he’d take his 50-ton semi on a revenge trip by tailgating the car at about 75 mph. “Watching the expression on the guy’s face in his rear-view mirror was priceless,” Croce recalled.
In all, an easy-to-take composite of charm and artistry from both halves of the concert bill. It was odd to find Croce, one of the hottest performers of the moment, not attracting a wider audience. Just points up the fact that no matter how great the potential is, the concert promotion business is very risky.”
Croce achieved a lot of success in such a short period of time. It is hard to fathom the body of work he managed to produce and release in a mere two-year period. In all 8 Top-40 singles including two number ones, 3 Top-10 albums are just the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what would have happened if he didn’t leave us too soon. He had just finished recording I Got A Name his final album, one week before the plane crash.
Croce missed his wife and young child so much he decided that he would finish what was left of his tour and then settle down and withdraw from the public eye. Unfortunately, that never happened. Instead Croce leaves behind a legacy of songs along with not knowing how bright his future would have been.