The singer’s life seems like a blues song, a catalog of losses. AJ Croce lost his father before he was two, his eyesight when he was four, and later his home to fire and his wife to a rare heart condition. “Man, it’s been, it’s been a wild ride, I’ll tell you,” he said.
“When we lose someone we love, be it my father, my wife, my vision, we can decide how we want to bring them into our lives. this person, this experience, and keep it with us?”
It’s an issue he’s struggled with for decades. Now, at age 50, he has an answer he’s sharing on stages across the country, playing songs that sound as familiar as the name: Croce, as in Jim Croce, the early 1970s singer/songwriter/balladist whose series of hits included “Photographs 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 concert in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Correspondent Jim Axelrod asked, “Do you have any memories of your father?”
“You know, I have this memory of the warmth of the hug, you know?” AJ replied. “And while it’s not visual to me, it’s palpable.”
“And powerful, even so?”
Nowhere more powerful than in a farmhouse outside of Philadelphia, where AJ lived with his parents while his father’s career was taking off – where the album covers were inspired by farm buildings. Showing Axelrod the structure that was featured in “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”, AJ said, “It was originally used for pigs. And then it was used for chickens!”
The farmhouse is where Jim Croce wrote his greatest 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’s success seemed to promise was also lost that night in September 1973. AJ said, “It was a very dark and violent period in my life, and it was very traumatic.”
His father is gone, his mother, Ingrid, got involved with a man who brutally beat AJ, leaving him blind. “During that time, I sat at the piano, played the radio, whatever was on my little transistor radio, whether it was ELO or McCartney or Stones or Elton John.”
There was only one man’s song he didn’t play. He said, “There were times when maybe as a teenager it was a little difficult to get around my dad’s shadow. People have been asking me to record my dad’s music since I was 16, 17, and I really wasn’t interested.”
Over the next 35 years, he would regain partial vision; play the piano with everyone from Ray Charles to Willie Nelson; and develop his own reputation as a songwriter. If he hadn’t found a way to completely escape his father’s shadow, he’d found a way to live alongside her.
Axelrod asked, “Was having your own success on your own terms liberating?”
“And you had nothing to prove to anyone, so maybe it would be a little easier to embrace your dad’s things?”
“It was much easier.”
And that’s how this singer finally got to this stage, where Croce now plays Croce.
“Then I realized that he is part of my life and I am part of his legacy,” said AJ. “And I felt it was important at a certain age and at a certain maturity to embrace him.”
“Is it time?”
So now, nearly 50 years later, AJ Croce is exploring his connection to a father he barely knew. He said, “Most people, if they’re lucky, have a photograph. And I feel fortunate that there’s so much more to it.”
And the same goes for your audience. Almost every lover of Jim Croce music has a song they connect with most strongly. AJ is no different, though his reasons certainly are.
Axelrod asked, “When you’re performing, is there any song by your father that has more meaning to play and sing than another?”
“Yes. Certainly ‘Time in a Bottle’ yes. It’s incredibly emotional.”
Because? “Well, because, you know, it was written for me, and it sums up this emotion he felt for my mother and me.”
“I feel all kinds of things,” said AJ. “I feel joy, a sense of consideration.”
“I’m sure you’ll process this loss for the rest of your life,” Axelrod said.
“We all do. Yes.”
“Does playing his music help you process the loss?”
AJ replied, “If it’s not a cure, it’s a very good medicine.”
Listen to AJ Croce’s New Single “So Much Fun”
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcão. Editor: Lauren Barnello.