The singer’s life is like a blues track, a catalog of loss. AJ Croce lost his father before he was two years old, saw him when he was 4, and then his house burned down and his wife had a rare heart condition. “Dude, it used to be, it was a wild ride, I’ll tell you,” he said.
“When we lose someone we love, whether it’s my father, my wife, my sight, we can decide how we want to bring it into our lives. Want to stay with it? Do we want to find the best part of that person, that experience, and keep it with us?”
It’s a question he’s grappled with for decades. Now, at 50, he’s got the answer he’s sharing on stages across the country, playing songs that sound as familiar as the name: Croce, as in Jim Croce, singer/ musician/balladeer of the early 1970s whose hit streak included “Photos and Memories, “I Have to Say I Love You In a Song” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”:
“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” topped the charts in July 1973, two months before Croce died in a plane crash after a show in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Reporter Jim Axelrod asked, “Do you have a memory of your father?”
“You know, you have this memory of the warmth of an embrace, you know?” AJ replied. “And while it’s not intuitive to me, it’s palpable.”
“And strong, anyway?”
There’s nowhere stronger than at a farm outside Philadelphia, where AJ lived with his parents while his father’s career was taking off – where album covers were inspired by farm buildings. AJ shows Axelrod the structure featured on “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”, “It was originally used for pigs. Later, it was used for chickens!”
The ranch is where Jim Croce wrote his biggest hits: “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”, “New York’s Not My Home”, “Operator”, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “Rapid Roy” (The Stock Car Boy).”
But the security that his father promised to succeed also seemed lost on the night of September 1973. AJ said, “It was a very dark and violent period in my life, and it was very traumatic.”
His father died, and his mother, Ingrid, was implicated in a man who brutally beat AJ, leaving him blind. “During that time, I sat at the piano, I played along, whatever was on my little transistor radio, whether it was ELO or McCartney or Stones or Elton John.”
There’s only one man’s song that he won’t touch. He said, “There were times when as a teenager it was very difficult to get in the shadow of my father. People have asked me to record my father’s music since I was 16, 17, and I really did. didn’t care.”
Over the next 35 years, he will regain some of his vision; playing the piano with everyone from Ray Charles to Willie Nelson; and develop his reputation as a musician. If he couldn’t find a way to escape his father’s shadow, he found a way to live near it.
Axelrod asked, “Having your own success in your own way is liberating?”
“And you don’t have anything to prove to anyone, and so maybe it’s a little easier to hug your dad’s stuff?”
“It’s a lot easier.”
That’s how the singer finally made it to this stage, where Croce now plays Croce.
“Then I realized that he was part of my life and I was part of his legacy,” AJ said. “And I feel it’s important to be at a certain age and at a certain maturity to embrace it.”
“Yes. It’s simple.”
So now, nearly 50 years later, AJ Croce is discovering his connection to a father he barely knows. He said, “Most people, if they’re lucky, they have a photo. And I feel lucky because there’s more to it.”
And so does his audience. Everyone who loves Jim Croce’s music has a song they’re most attached to. AJ is no different, although his reasons are certainly the same.
Axelrod asks, “When you’re performing, is there any song by your dad that’s more meaningful to play and sing than another?”
“Yeah. Definitely ‘Time in a Bottle’. It’s emotional.”
Why? “Well, because, you know, it was written for me, and it sums up the feelings he has for my mother and for myself.”
“I feel everything,” AJ said. “I feel joy, a thoughtful feeling.”
“I’m sure you will suffer this loss for the rest of your life,” Axelrod said.
“We all do. Yes.”
“Did playing his music help you deal with the loss?”
AJ replied, “If it’s not a cure, it’s a really good remedy.”
Listen to AJ Croce’s new single, “Very happy”
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The story is produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Lauren Barnello.