The singer’s life reads like a blues song, a catalog of loss. AJ Croce lost his father before he turned two, his sight 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, whether it was my father, my wife, my sight, we can decide how we want to bring it into our life. Do we want to dwell on 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 wrestled with for decades. Now, at 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/balladeer whose string 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 of 1973, two months before Croce died in a plane crash after a concert in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Correspondent Jim Axelrod asked, “Do you have memories of your dad?”
“You know, I have this memory of the warmth of embrace, you know?” AJ replied. “And while it’s not visual for me, it’s palpable.”
“And powerful, nonetheless?”
Nowhere more powerful than at a farmhouse outside Philadelphia, where AJ lived with his parents as his father’s career was taking off – where album covers were inspired by farm buildings. Showing Axelrod the structure that was featured on “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” AJ said, “It was originally used for pigs. And then it was for chickens!”
The farmhouse was 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 his father’s success seemed to promise was also lost on that September night in 1973. AJ said, “It was a very dark and violent period in my life, and it was very traumatic.”
His father gone, his mother, Ingrid, got involved with a man who brutally beat AJ, leaving him blind. “During that time I sat at the piano, I played along to 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 music he wouldn’t touch. He said, “There were times when maybe as a teenager where it was a little bit hard to get around the shadow of my father. People had asked me to record my father’s music since I was 16, 17 years old, and I really was not interested.”
During the next 35 years, he’d regain partial sight; 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 fully escape the shadow of his father, he figured out a way to live adjacent to it.
Axelrod asked, “Having your own success on your own terms was liberating?”
“And you didn’t have anything to prove to anyone, and so maybe it was a little easier to embrace your father’s stuff?”
“It was a lot easier.”
Which is how this singer finally got to this stage, where Croce now plays Croce.
“Then, I realized that he’s part of my life and I’m a part of his legacy,” AJ said. “And I felt it was important at a certain age and at a certain maturity to embrace it.”
“It was time?”
So now, nearly 50 years later, AJ Croce is exploring his connection to a father he barely got to know. He said, “Most people, if they’re lucky, they have a photograph. And I feel fortunate that there’s a lot more than that.”
And so do his audiences. Just about every lover of Jim Croce’s music has one song they connect with most tightly. AJ is no different, though his reasons certainly are.
Axelrod asked, “When you’re performing, is there any song of your dad’s that has more meaning to play and to sing than another?”
“Yeah. Certainly, ‘Time in a Bottle’ does. It’s incredibly emotional.”
Why? “Well, because, you know, it was written for me, and it sums up this emotion that he felt for my mother and for myself.”
“I feel all kinds of things,” AJ said. “I feel joy, a sense of thoughtfulness.”
“I’m sure you’ll process this loss the rest of your life,” said Axelrod.
“We all do. Yeah.”
“Does playing his music help you process the loss?”
AJ replied, “If it’s not the cure, it’s a really good remedy.”
Listen to AJ Croce’s new single, “So Much Fun”
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Lauren Barnello.