Jim Croce is one of those artists who slipped off the radar. He was once highly thought of, a star in fact – gold records, No. 1 hits, albums on the best-seller lists. Then mentioned in rock’n’roll death contests, and in the same breath as any number of one hit wonders. Two new releases from Shout! Factory go a long way towards recovering Jim’s credibility, and forcing us to reconsider his talent and catalogue.
Croce began playing guitar professionally at age 18 at Villanova University where he was a DJ on campus radio, and played in local garage bands. After graduating he worked in construction, where he broke his finger with a sledge hammer. This led to a radical reassessment of his guitar style. He drove trucks, worked odd jobs and tried playing coffeehouses as a duet with his wife Ingrid. They released an album together, Approaching Day (Capitol, 1969) … it went nowhere.
Jim’s love of country blues led to the development of his rolling, finger-picked guitar style. Accompanied by a fine picker and singer in his own right, Maury Muehleisen, Croce moved into his mature style. His album You Don’t Mess Around With Jim (ABC, 1972) set the tone for his career. Tender ballads, surrounded by humourous character studies of blue-collar America, all set to strong melodies played by carefully picked acoustic guitars, with Jim’s warm voice and Muehleisen’s close harmonies. The pattern continued on Life and Times (ABC, 1973), which had the hit “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” A plane crash in Louisiana took the lives of Croce and Muehleisen in September, 1973; they had finished work on another album I Got a Name (ABC, 1973). A fourth album was released later, called Time In a Bottle.
The material on the DVD Jim Croce Live is taken from a few different performances on network television (the Old Grey Whistle Test is one source, Rock Concert another) circa 1973. These performances are sequenced like a concert, but the changing set, shirts and guitars alert the viewer to the editing process. It’s simple stuff. Croce sets up a rhythm on his guitar and Muehleisen adds some delicate filligree, or bluesy riffing in accompaniment. Jim sings his lyrics about Roller Derby queens, gamblers, operators, or truckers, and Maury joins on the chorus. It’s folky, bluesy, even a bit jazzy. The hits are all here, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” “Operator,” “Working at the Car Wash Blues,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and when there was no live footage for a key song … the producers have created a collage to be played over the tune. “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” is presented in this fashion … and it works.
Croce in concert was a consumate performer. Friendly, engaging, he shared tales of the road, and the people who inspired these songs. He comes across as a fine human being in this footage. The Special Features section includes interviews with artists who worked with him including Loggins & Messina and Randy Newman, who verify his qualities. In fact Newman says that while they toured together for almost a year he “never heard Jim complain about anything,” and that he’s the only person he ever toured with he could say that about. Also included is an animated clip of Sonny & Cher doing “Leroy Brown,” a clip of Ingrid and Jim doing “Spin, Spin, Spin,” and bits of a documentary made by Rick Trow. The features are easily accessed and complement the concert footage.
All in all Jim Croce Live is a fine tribute to a talented and under-rated performer.
The second Croce item for discussion is a new CD entitled Home Recordings. It includes 15 solo recordings of cover tunes that Jim made in his kitchen on a Wollensak tape recorder given to him (and his wife Ingrid) as a wedding gift by his father-in-law. They date from the late 60s! It is subtitled Americana because the songs are the songs that people played in those days. Country songs. Blues songs. Even “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate!”
It’s real. Just Jim and his guitar, some country blues picking, and his friendly familiar voice. And the Wollensak captured everything beautifully. Sure there are mistakes, and a clumsy change here and there, but for the most part it sounds great. It’s a bit like a private concert, and it provides a look at the influences that led to Jim’s own songs that appear on the DVD. “Living With the Blues” is a Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee song; “In the Jailhouse Now” is the Jimmie Rodgers’ chestnut (recently rediscovered in O Brother Where Art Thou?). Lefty Frizell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” Harlan Howard’s “The Wall,” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” show Croce’s country influences. “Six Days on the Road” is described by son A.J. Croce in the liner notes as a direct inspiration for his father’s songs about the trucking life. The traditional tune “I Got Mine” is done in a gospel style. It’s just so darn real.
The sound is not digital or studio quality, but there’s a warmth and vitality to it that shows why people with Wollensaks don’t want to give them up! A.J. and Ingrid Croce have worked hard with the people at Shout! Factory to dig up these classic performances, to remind us of who Jim Croce was and why he seemed so special 30 years ago. He seems special right now as you listen to and watch these two recordings.
(Shout! Factory DVD, 2003)
(Shout! Factory, 2003)