"BIO" From an ABC/Dunhill Records promtional kit, 1973.
"I'm no missionary," says Jim Croce about his songs, "and I can't wear any armour, either. I just gotta be the way I am."
Jim's musical career started when he was five years old, learning to play "Lady of Spain" on the accordian. He says, "I was the original underachiever. I'd shake that thing and smile, but I was sort of a late bloomer." He didn't really take music too seriously until 1964, while he was attending Villanova Collage in Pennsylvania. There he formed various bands, doing fraternity parties and playing "anything that the people wanted to hear: blues, rock, a capella, railroad music... anything." One of the bands was chosen for a foreign exchange tour of Africa and the Middle East. "We had a good time," Jim recalls. "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."
He returned to Philadelphia and had decided to be "serious". But it was hard to make a living playing in a band, and his previous employment experiences had lost their appeal: "I'd worked construction crews, and I'd been a welder while I was in collage. But I'd rather do other things than get burned." Like most underachieving accordian players, he had a hard time finding the right other things. His determination to be serious (I even got a pair of those shoes that look like the Ace of Spades, with holes in them") led to a job at a Philadelphia R&B radio station, where he translated commercials into Soul. "I'd sell airtime to Bronco's Poolroom, and then write the spot: 'You wanna be cool, and you wanna shoot pool... (dig it)'." Increasingly frustated, he quit to teach guitar at a summer camp ("to people who had to wear loafers 'cause they couldn't tie their shoes'") and even enlisted in the U. S. Army. He didn't have a very illustrious military career, but says he's prepared if there's ever a war where we have to defend ourselves with mops.
Back to the radio station again, briefly ("that was about the end of my seriousness"), and then he tried teaching "special education" to discipline problem students in a Philadelphia high school. Finally he decided to give his music a chance.
He'd been playing some pretty tough bars ("I can still get my guitar off faster than anyone else"), then he and his wife, Ingrid, moved to New York and began working coffee houses. Tommy West, who had attended Villanova Collage with Jim, introduced them to Terry Cashman, and in 1969, Cashman and West produced their album, "Jim and Ingrid". They remained on the coffee house circuit for a year and a half, involving themselves in the music business and collecting guitars. But, they soon became discouraged by the agitation and pressures of city life, and moved to Lyndell, Pennsylvania, where they had their son, Adrian James. Ingrid learned to bake bread and to can fruits and vegetables and Jim, like a rich lady selling her jewels, sold the guitars he had accumulated, one by one. When the guitars ran out, he worked construction again and did some studio work in New York. "Mostly background 'oohs' and 'ahhs' for commercials. I kept thinking, 'may'be tomorrow I'll sing some words".
Terry Cashman and Tommy West, who knew that Jim's talents could be put to better use, were still trying to convince him to do another album and get back into performing. Life in Lyndell was calmer than it had been in New York and Philadelphia and finally Jim decided that he could resume playing and still have time to write songs and be with his family.
His first album, "You Don't Mess Around With Jim", was an instant success. Jim immediately became a top bill club and concert performer and the title song and "Operator," pulled from the album, were both highly successful singles. The friendliness and sincerity of Jim's performances have endeared him to a wide variety of audiences.
"Well," laughed Jim, "I'm glad I'm not running any more jackhammers. It's a lot easier to have a good time. I think music should make people sit back and want to touch each other... I just hope people get a kick out of it."
Since his first album things have been strictly uphill for Jim. "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," which was culled from the second LP entitled "Life and Times," reached the top of the national pop charts before it went Gold. Jim's latest album is called "I've Got A Name" and the title cut is part of the soundtrack for 20th Century Fox's new film, "The Last American Hero." Many other things are being planned for the unlikely hero from Philly, including appearances in films as well as more soundtrack offers.
Jim Croce-- "I've Got A Name". He certainly has.
Jim Croce From Guitar Player Magazine, May, 1973
If you've followed the career of singer/guitarist/songwriter Jim Croce (CROW-chee), you know about his highly successful ABC album, You Don't Mess Around With Jim (ABCX-756). You also know about his hit single of that name and another "Operator," from the same album.
And you also know all the stories about Croce working as a truck driver, a telephone lineman, a tractor operator, construction worker, etc. You've read that "...he is a gruff Italian laborer...with hands which are broad like a baseball catcher's."
Sure, Croce has worked at all those jobs, and like many of us he thoroughly enjoys physical work. But he's hardly the bullish Cretan we're led to believe. To the contrary. While his features are lined, his drooping mustache is full and his hair is wildly curly, he probably doesn't weigh more than 130 pounds, and he's not even six feet tall.
What Jim Croce is, though, is a very soft-spoken Philadelphian with a wry sense of humor. He has a deeply felt love of the ordinary in life, and of the extra-ordinary in music. On the one hand his lyrics are inspired by truckers he's known and laborer's he's bumped into; on the other his favorite guitarists include Christopher Parkening, Merle Travis and Jerry Reed.
"Like all kids in South Philly," he says, "I learned to play accordian. By the time I was six, I was shaking the bellows to 'Lady of Spain' just like everyone else." When the thirty-year old performer was eighteen he was working in a toy store where two other employees spent spare minutes hidden in the stock room playing the blues. With this inspiration he bought an old Stella 12-string for $5.00, but strangely enough the instrument immediately warped.
It was while Croce was at Villanova University that the folk music boom hit. Interested in going into radio, Jim worked on the school station, doing a three-hour folk and blues show where he was able to interview such guests as Mississippi John Hurt and Son House. Hearing this music constantly triggered his recollections of the music he listened to while he was growing up. His father loved traditional jazz, and the phonograph was seldom without a stack of Turk Murphy, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith or Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti records.
While in collage, Jim formed a variety of bands, his 12-string in hand, and played whatever music the various fraternities wanted to hear. In his third year, the government tapped him to do an Embassy tour of Middle East and African nations, an experience he still relishes today. "We couldn't speak any of the languages," he recalls, but the music got across all the barriers. We ate just what the people ate, except I remember having a little trouble downing a cooked calf's foot once."
After graduation Croce took whatever gigs came along. He spent some time selling ads for a black R & B radio station, then worked a while at laboring. He was still playing guitar, though, a Gibson 12-string, and after listening to a lot of Joan Baez and Chet Atkins he began learning to fingerpick. Unfortunately that was about the time he busted his right index finger with a sledge hammer. But, undaunted, he worked assorted country bars, developing a picking technique that would ultimately include thumb and three fingers. Always 12-string, however, at least until 1970 when he turned his attention to the 6-string.
In 1966 he got married, and he and his wife Ingrid spent the summer at a children's camp in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania teaching ceramics and guitar. "My wife was into the ceramics and leather thing while I was trying to show ten year old kids who had been studying harmony and theory for years that music could still be fun."
In October he landed a job teaching Special Education classes at a South Philadelphia junior high. "I've still got scars on my hands from the knife wounds," he says. "I was the seventh teacher since that September." It's no wonder that he quit after that first year. It is a wonder, however, that he lasted as long as he did. "My job was, essentially, to teach the unteachable. They couldn't even read, so I'd tape songs by Supremes and the Drifters, then we'd study the lyrics as I played the tunes on the guitar. They loved it and were really getting somewhere, but it was a little too unorthodox for the Administration."
After a period in Mexico where Ingrid had a fellowship to study traditional pottery techniques, Jim was encouraged to try New York's coffeehouses by a Villanova friend, Tommy West (of Cashman and West, performers themselves, who later produced Croce's albums).
After doing the Village thing, he went on the road playing collages across the country. There followed a little studio work in New York and a first album (Approaching on Capitol) which died an anonymous death ("It sold six copies in PX's in Thailand," he has said).
Let down with the way his career wasn't taking off, Jim and his wife returned to Philadelphia to live on an old farm. Things didn't fall together much better there, however, though they did have a son, Adrian. In the good weather Jim found work as an excavating contractor and then as a truck driver, but the winters were rough. In order to pay the rent many of those months in '69 and '70, Croce was forced to sell his valuable collection of old Martins, Gibsons and Nationals one at a time.
But one thing all that truck driving did was allow for a lot of solitude during which Jim could think over what life held for him and his family. He went back to working occasional bars, some of which were pretty rough ("I can get my guitar off faster than anyone you ever saw"). And he went back to writing songs. When he had what he thought were a half dozen good ones, he taped them on a cassette, sending it to Cashman and West. As a result the fall of 1971 found Croce and Maury Muehleisen, his accompanist, recording You Don't Mess Around With Jim at the Hit Factory in New York. From there on, things have been coasting along pretty well. "Having a good time, is sure a lot better than hauling concrete," he says, "At least for a living."
While Jim was working a few free lance studio jobs in New York he was asked to play backup guitar a Capitol album called Gingerbredd by Maury Muehleisen. Released in 1970, the album met the same fate as Croce's first. Total sales were barely 11,000. But when Jim began getting into music again a couple of years ago he searched out the 21 year old Maury to work with.
At the age of nine Muehleisen was studying piano, the lessons continued for 10 years. At seventeen he picked up a harmony classical guitar and began playing those folk songs that somehow didn't sound right on the piano. Changing to a Yamaha steel-string, Maury landed his first job - $25 per night in a New Jersey coffeehouse. The interest in piano disappeared while he was at Glassboro State in South Jersey, though he says he would like to get back to it again.
When they play concerts as a duo, Jim generally stays with the rhythm figures, leaving the leads and fills to Maury, though they'll sometimes swap the duties or mix them up.
Maury and Jim work quite closely together on Croce's tunes. In the studio Maury will write out chord charts for the backing musicians, and neither he nor Jim will read notation.
(Since this article was written, Jim Croce released another album, Life and Times, on ABC. The number is ABCX-769. Again, Maury Muehleisen plays lead acoustic guitar while Jim plays rhythm and occasional fills.)