It’s been a little over 42 years, September 20th 1973, since Jim Croce lost his life in a plane crash while on tour. He was just a little over thirty years of age.
I still have vivid memories of Jim sitting on a stool center stage at the Guthrie, just him and his guitar, making music, singing songs that he would continue to polish and eventually record; but in those days Jim Croce was just an opening act waiting, hoping for the break through.
I know that prior to his solos at the Guthrie, he and his wife, Ingrid, were a singing duo, songwriting team, and recorded an album together; but she never came with Jim to the Guthrie because she was a stay-at-home mother. It was during this time period that Croce began to work with Maury Muehleisen, an excellent guitarist with a classical music background, and the person credited with guiding Jim’s recording and musical career. Muehleisen also accompanied Croce on the successful recordings and on tour. But he never appeared with Croce at the Guthrie. It was just Jim, center stage, and his guitar.
When he finished his opening set, he would come up in the lighting booth and sit next to me. He wanted to see the main act, but after listening to a song or two, he would talk to me. He was lonesome for his wife and son. I saw quite a few pictures of his wife, and he always had a coat pocket full of pictures of his son and a mountain of questions about raising a son. Knowing my wife and I had five sons, he figured that I would have all the answers. Boy was he wrong!
In spite of the fact he was upper middle class city with a strong musical background, and I was working class country and could only play a phonograph, we did have a lot in common. I was only a few years older than he was. There was a period when he wasn’t making it as a musician he worked driving truck and construction, both of which I had done before I became a stagehand. Jim liked writing and telling stories as did I.
And we were both in the Army, albeit I had gotten my discharge six years before Jim had even enlisted. I had volunteered draft, two years active, two in the reserves, and two inactive to complete my six year obligation.
Jim went National Guard. Nam was going strong and as soon as he got married he enlisted. He spent six months active, five and one half years doing monthly weekend duties and yearly two weeks summer camps. Jim said he never could get use to all the bossing around and even had to do Basic Training over again.
He didn’t think if fair for giving medals for shooting a rifle and not a medal for mopping floors. He figured he would have gotten an Expert medal. He bragged that the latrine floors he mopped were the best looking in the whole camp.
‘You know Jim,’ I said, ‘Your service time reminds me of a guy in basic. He was from west Louisiana, but went by the nickname Tex. He could sing like Hank Williams and play guitar like Chet Atkins; but what he really wanted was to play jazz guitar like Johnny Smith, always played Moonlight In Vermont just after Lights Out. And he wasn’t much on Army life either.
‘Got caught sleeping on guard duty. The Old Man called him out at Morning Formation. Ordered him to recite the 11 General Orders for sentries.
‘Well, sir,’ Tex said, ‘I don’t rightly know if I can recite them. But if you let me get my gitbox, I think I can pick out a tune and sing ‘em for you.’
‘What did they do to him?, Jim asked. ‘Latrine duty?’
‘Nope, not Tex. He was already pulling extra duty for goofing up and sentenced to playing every Saturday night at the Officers’ Club, so they sentenced him to playing a gig every Friday night at the NCO Club. Pushed him through basic and put him in Special Services.’
‘Lucky dog,’ Jim said. ‘Playing a guitar sure beats swinging a mop. Of course if they had put me in Special Services I never would have met LeRoy Brown.’
Like I said, we liked to swap stories, so he told me the backstory of a song he recorded and was getting some airplay. He had high hopes for it.
Both Jim and I had gone to Signal School after we finished Basic. He went to Fort Jackson and I went to Fort Gordon. In Signal School the ones that drew the short straws ended up as telephone/telegraph linesmen. Rough job. Strap side-gaffs on your boots, wrap your shinny belt around the pole or tree and climb up hoping all the time you don’t slip up with a gaff or your belt and end up sliding down, a painful mistake that usually involves taking slivers out of your chest and belly.
LeRoy Brown had drawn a short straw. He got a set of side-gaffs and the largest shinny belt they had. LeRoy was big, very big. LeRoy was also mean, very mean. He said he wasn’t scared to climb a pole; but on the second day of training, he saw a man screw up and slid down a pole. Before the ambulance arrived, Brown was gone. He quit the Army. Headed back home to the south side of Chicago. He was listed as AWOL.
But when he got back home he decided that the Army still owed him some pay, and so he came back on payday to collect. He was arrested, took about a half a squad of MP’s to do it, and told he would have to stand court martial for being AWOL. LeRoy argued that he wasn’t AWOL. He had quit the Army. He got sentenced to thirty days in the stockade, at the end of which he would be sent home with an Unfit For Service discharge.
Sounded good to LeRoy; but by the second day he was fed up with the Army’s way of treating a prisoner, and he began to terrorize the guards and prisoners alike. He got released after about ten days. The official word was he got time off for ‘good behavior’. Big, bad ass LeRoy Brown.
Jim was right about his song. It hit #1 on the charts and started him on his road to success. To this day, everytime I hear Bad, Bad, LeRoy Brown, I can’t help but think of Jim’s story.
Then there was the time Croce introduced a song he had been working on since the last time he played the Guthrie. He explained he got the idea when he and Don, the lighting man, and he pointed to me in the booth, were talking about our Army days. Jim said he was always fascinated by the long line of soldiers lined up every Saturday waiting to use the barrack’s pay phone to call home or their girlfriends. And admitted that he was always in that line.
And he sang his Operator, (That’s Not The Way It Feels), for the first time to an audience. When he came up to the booth I told him he had another hit on his hands.
Jim felt that the Guthrie audiences and Sue Weill, the promoter who kept giving him gigs, even if they were just opening act, were responsible for his new found confidence and the push to keep working at his music. He made Sue a promise that if he ever made it big he would come back and do shows at the Guthrie no matter what. James Taylor, another one of Sue’s favorite opening act had made the same promise and lived up to it.
But Jim didn’t get a chance to live up to his promise. On his first big tour, selling out wherever he and Maury Muehleisen played, and just ten days from his promised appearance back at the Guthrie, the plane crashed. A small plane used to hop from gig to gig. Leaving Louisiana, bound for Texas, the pilot had a heart attack just as the plane was leaving the runway. It hit the tops of the trees. All on board were killed outright.
We lost a major singer/songwriter just as he hitting it big. A wife and son lost a man who loved them both above everything, even his career. In a letter that reached his wife just after his death, Jim Croce expressed his dislike for the music career that was taking him from being with his wife and son. He said he was seriously considering just staying at home, writing stories and scripts, so he could be with the two people he loved the most.
This song he wrote upon finding out his wife, Ingrid, was pregnant. Released as a single after his death, it was his second song to hit #1 on the charts. While a lot of his songs were written with tongue-in-cheek, this one was written from the heart:
Time In A Bottle
If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day
‘Til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you
Forty two years ago, another day when the music died.
R.I.P. Jim. It was a pleasure knowing you.