Jim Croce was like a streaking comet in the rock ‘n’ roll sky, but his young life was cut short in an airplane crash on Sept. 20, 1973.
Ten of his songs charted on the Billboard Hot 100, with five of them placing in the top five and two reaching No. 1. Six of his songs charted after his death. He released five studio albums between 1966 and 1973, according to Billboard.
The singer-songwriter, 30, had performed at Northwestern State University that night, and his charter plane, a Beechcraft E18S, crashed shortly after takeoff in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
The crash also killed Croce’s performing partner Maury Muehleisen, comedian George Stevens, manager Kenneth Cortese and tour manager Dennis Rast.
The crowd was less than 1,000 that night, possibly because of the prime-time telecast of the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, 225 miles away at the Houston Astrodome. Croce played 10 songs over a 42-minute set, NOLA.com reported.
Croce and his group then headed to Sherman, Texas, to play a concert at Austin College, according to Biography.com. According to officials, the plane did not gain enough altitude and was unable to clear a small grove of pecan trees about 250 feet from the end of the runway, NOLA.com reported.
The official report of the crash stated that the 57-year-old pilot, Robert Elliott, had suffered a heart attack during takeoff.
“Everybody dies sooner or later,” A.J. Croce, the singer’s son, who was just shy of 2 years old when his father died, told NOLA.com. “What interests me is how they lived.”
In 1989, Croce’s wife, Ingrid and A.J. visited Natchitoches to research material for the biography of the singer, “I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story,” which was published in 2012, NOLA.com reported. Ingrid, now 77, who has been married to Jimmy Rock for 37 years, was given the key to the city. She was told by the mayor, “You’ll be glad to know we cut that damn tree down,” according to the news outlet.
Born in South Philadelphia, Jim Croce grew up in Drexel Hill and graduated in 1960 from Upper Darby High School in Upper Darby Township, Pennsylvania, according to Ted Olson, a professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time and Roots Music Studies at East Tennessee State University.
He entered Villanova University in 1961 and graduated in 1965, Olson wrote.
On Monday night, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame & Northwest Louisiana History Museum hosted a program to honor the singer, Photographs and Memories: A Salute to Jim Croce, according to the Natchitoches Parish Journal.
Croce’s career in the mainstream was short, but he had some memorable hits. For a brief time, he caught time in a bottle. Here are six of them.
Bad, Bad Leroy Brown (1973)
This breakout song from Croce’s album, “Life and Times,” was released in July 1973. This breakout song opens with a raucous piano opening and tells the story of a Chicago man that you had better not cross, because he was “badder than old King Kong” and “meaner than a junkyard dog.”
That is, until Leroy “started messin’ with the wife of a jealous man.”
The story tells of the bad man’s comeuppance, as he looked like “a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone” after a barroom fight.
The song spent 22 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 after debuting on April 21, 1973, and peaked at No. 1 for two weeks in July. It earned Croce two Grammy Award nominations for record of the year and best pop vocal performance.
Time in a Bottle (1973)
This song is from Croce’s third album, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”
Croce’s plaintive lyrics tell the listener that “there never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them.”
“Time in a Bottle,” while appearing on the 1972 album, was released as a single posthumously and became Croce’s second No. 1 hit.
The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on Nov. 17, 1973, and spent 15 weeks on the charts, reaching No. 1 for two weeks the following month.
You Don’t Mess Around With Jim (1972)
This song, from the album of the same name, could be called the older brother of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” The theme is similar, only this time the scene is New York City and not the South Side of Chicago.
Big Jim Walker is a “pool-shooting son of a gun,” and Croce sang the catchy lyrics about fooling with the 6-foot-4 man who is “stronger than a country hoss.”
“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape/You don’t spit into the wind
“You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger/And you don’t mess around with Jim.”
That is, until Willie McCoy, nicknamed “Slim,” comes to recover money he believes was stolen from him by Jim. And Big Jim’s fate is similar to Leroy Brown’s.
The song spent 13 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 during the summer of 1972, peaking at No. 8.
I Got A Name (1973)
Beginning in August 1973, Croce entered the studio to work on songs for a new album.
“I Got A Name,” was released posthumously on Dec. 1, 1973, and soared to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart in 1974.
The title track, “I Got A Name,” debuted as a single on Nov. 17, 1973, and reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. It stayed on the charts for 17 weeks.
Opening with a gentle guitar lick, the song builds to a crescendo as Croce sings that he has a dream, and that people “can change their minds but they can’t change me.” He adds that he is “movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by.”
I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song (1974)
Another posthumous release from the “Time in a Bottle” album, “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” is a quiet ballad. Croce sings that every time he tried to say how much he loved her, “the words just came out wrong.” So he figured singing -- rather than speaking -- his feelings was the next best thing.
The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on March 2, 1974, and stayed on the charts for 14 weeks. It got as high as No. 9 and was Croce’s last top-10 hit.
Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels) (1972)
From the album, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” “Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels) is a slow, sad song that vaguely has the same theme as Chuck Berry’s song “Memphis,” which went to No. 2 in a 1964 cover version by Johnny Rivers’.
It is much more introspective that Berry’s rollicking tune, however.
Croce tells the operator that he only wished that his words could convince him that the relationship he was trying to mend was not real.
“But that’s not the way it feels,” Croce sang.
The song entered the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1972 and reached No. 17. It spent a dozen weeks on the charts.
Croce’s death was another in a long line of airplane crashes that took the lives of musical performers. They include Glenn Miller, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, Patsy Cline, Otis Redding, several members of Lynyrd Skynyrd including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, Ricky Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Four days after the crash, a letter from Croce reached his wife. He had written it on the day of the crash, NOLA.com reported.
He closed his note by writing, “Remember, it’s the first 60 years that count, and I’ve got 30 more to go.”
That did not happen.
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