Jim Croce is one of my all-time sentimental favorites, the first of several artists I fell in love with by picking up a CD I found on my dad’s bookshelf, putting it into my boombox, and pressing play.
Croce released five albums in the 1960s and early 1970s, and almost all of his songs of note were released during an incredible period of productivity in 1972 and 1973. His three albums from the ‘70s — You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, Life and Times, and I Got a Name — are all jam packed with absolute gems.
Unfortunately, Jim only escaped the 27 club by three years. In 1973, Croce died in a freak plane accident in Louisiana. He was less than a year removed from a #1 Billboard hit, a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year, and was in the midst of his peak creative period.
After reading about his achievements and popularity, you may be surprised at how insular and folksy Croce’s music is. Critic Robert Christgau wrote that Croce had a “short-haul trucker persona; world-weary machismo with a heart of gold and a soul of beaten copper.” It’s as accurate a description of the feeling of Croce’s music as you’ll find, I think.
Almost all of Croce’s music is powered by his expressive acoustic guitar and distinct voice, which is halfway between James Taylor and Tom Petty. His compositions varied from blues tracks to pensive ballads to folk covers, all of which do a good job showcasing his charisma.
Unfortunately, the mustachioed Croce has a middling critical reputation. Part of this is that — like other sensitive singer-songwriters of the time — he invokes a gentle, thoughtful tone that’s viewed by some as too timid. Part of it, also, is that, of his three most famous tracks, two are bar fight story anthems and one is a sappy, motivational ballad: “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and “I Got a Name.” These are hardly the type of songs that critics champion, great though I consider each of them.
More insightful and piercing are his longing, romantic ballads. The minor-key “Time in a Bottle” has emerged as perhaps his greatest and most enduring song, with extra poignancy given his early death. “Operator” is a fantastic track, as Croce tells the story of a flighty lover to a phone operator. “One Less Set of Footsteps” is a great middle finger track that’s always been my favorite Croce song.
But even if you dig past these minor hits and into his album tracks and B-sides, Croce is a delight. Life and Times, in particular, is incredible from end to end. “Next Time, This Time” is one of Croce’s harshest ex-love songs: “A woman like you ought to be ashamed of the things that you do to men.” Everyone who has a bad night drinking should be required to listen to amusing sobriety anthem “Careful Man” the next day.
A few other favorites that you’re unlikely to hear on the radio: “Alabama Rain” is the type of effortless romance that peppers Croce’s discography. “Working at the Carwash Blues” is one of Jim’s hookiest songs, the upbeat melody undercutting the goofy, bummed-out lyrics. “Roller Derby Queen” shows that Croce probably could have been a stand-up comedian if his singing didn’t work out.
Frankly, I could go through each of Croce’s albums from the ‘70s and extol the virtues of almost every track. You can’t go more than a track or two without some inspired touch or moving lyric. So I’ll end this post with his most romantic moment, the beautiful “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.”