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A.J. Croce bringing his father’s legacy to Cedar Rapids concert
‘Croce Plays Croce’ blends music, memories from 2 generations
A.J. Croce, now 51, was eight days shy of his second birthday when his father died in a plane crash following a concert in Natchitoches, La.
But Jim Croce left Adrian James the gift of music, along with a love letter he penned for him — the sadly prophetic “Time in a Bottle.”
“Having any song written for you, whether it's a famous song or not, is really an honor and humbling,” Croce said by phone from his home in Nashville, shortly before launching another leg of his “Croce Plays Croce” tour.
The concert — a mix of his father’s music, his own music, and stories — is coming to the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on March 23.
If you go
What: “Croce Plays Croce,” featuring A.J. Croce
Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: 7:30 p.m. March 23, 2023
Tickets: $38 to $46, creventslive.com/events/2023/croce-plays-croce
Artist’s website: ajcrocemusic.com/
What he remembers of his father is “a sense of being held and safety. And I remember what's sort of become my mantra — I don't know if you can print this or not — something that he said to me, which was important. He said it jokingly but seriously, and that was: ‘Don’t be an (expletive).’
“Those are my memories.”
It’s the music that has kept the father alive for the son.
Jim Croce was nearly a decade into his career when he died Sept. 20, 1973, at age 30, but his flame burned brightest in the 18 months before the crash. He topped the charts beginning in 1972 with “You Don't Mess Around with Jim,” “Operator,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “I Got a Name,” then “Time in a Bottle” in 1973, and continuing posthumously in 1974 with the release of “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” and “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues.”
“His songs are his legacy,” Croce said. “His storytelling was really unique, and his way of portraying everyday people as heroes was really unique. You just don't see or hear that many artists that are able to really express those ideas very often.”
He grew up with his father’s eclectic album collection, which influenced both artists’ songwriting.
“What became really powerful and inspiring were the things that he listened to,” Croce said. “Whether it was R&B or soul music, or old rock ’n’ roll or folk or country — didn't matter. Blues and jazz — it was all in that collection.”
Croce carved out his own successful career, and said he decided long ago the best way to honor his father was not to play his songs, but to work behind the scenes as the publisher for his music.
“That was how I felt like I could pay homage to his legacy — making sure that his music was heard, and part of that was making sure that it gets on TV shows like ‘Stranger Things’ or in movies.”
It also gave him a wonderful surprise.
During the archiving process, Croce discovered an old tape with the cover songs — some known, some obscure — that his father intended to play “at a little club on the weekends,” before his star began to rise.
Call it a twist of fate or divine intervention, those songs were the same ones A.J. Croce put on his first demo for Columbia Records at age 19.
“It was really eerie and beautiful, and I realized we had a connection that was really deep,” Croce said. “It wasn’t taught to me in a normal fashion — it was discovered by me, and I had the same sort of inclination towards what I loved about (the music). And clearly, he felt that way.”
Over the years — especially early in his career — others had encouraged Croce to do a tribute concert with his father’s music.
“I didn't feel like there was integrity in performing my father's music,” he said, “so I put it aside. Also, being a piano player and not having picked up the guitar yet, it didn't seem as interesting musically, for me.”
But in his early 30, he started playing guitar, so when he discovered that father and son had recorded the same songs decades apart, he “saw that there was a way to be able to put a show together that might be interesting at some point.
“Ten years ago, I played a show that would have celebrated his 70th birthday. That was the first time I really played any of his music, and I thought, ‘Well, this is fun, but I don't think I’d want to do a night of just being a cover band of my father’s music.’ As much as I love parts of it, I recognized that it wouldn’t be quite satisfying.”
Then about five years ago, he started putting together what would become “Croce Plays Croce,” incorporating not only his father’s hits, but also the deeper cuts people might not know, along with A.J.’s own music that shows their similar influences, as well as the music by those musicians who influenced father and son.
“And in doing that, I came up with something that’s really fun and entertaining,” he said, “because people get all the hits that they come for, but they also get the stories of where it came from.”
Finding his art
Songwriting was in his DNA, since his mother, Ingrid, wrote with his father.
In a childhood fraught with tragedy, continuing through the loss of his wife to a rare heart virus in 2018, music became his salvation.
Shortly after his father died, Croce and his mother moved from Pennsylvania to San Diego. Two years later, he spent about six months in the hospital, blinded by severe physical abuse from his mother’s then-boyfriend.
Just 4 years old, Croce ended up with optic nerve damage and scars on his eyes. It would be six years before his eyesight began to return in his left eye. In the interim, he turned to the piano, inspired by such blind pianists as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.
At age 15, his family’s home burned down, and he had to watch as the firefighters picked through his father’s memorabilia instead of fighting the fire. Fortunately, most of the mementos, like gold records, were displayed at his mother’s restaurant, but personal items still at home were lost to the blaze.
“That was that was pretty overwhelming at the time,” Croce said.
Music helped him cope.
“Music was my solace,” he said. “And when things happen to you as a kid, you’re pretty resilient. Surprisingly, it’s not until you get into your teen years and you tell someone about what you’ve gone through that you recognize that it's even different than anyone else. It’s just the way life is. It’s a struggle. There’s so much beauty, and it comes with the opposite.”
At 15, he also was playing in jazz and blues clubs, as well as small rock ’n’ roll venues, and catching industry attention. By 16, he was opening for blues player Floyd Dixon in the southern California area.
“He would give me this advice after the show: ‘Always dress up for the audience, always get paid cash,’ and he would tell me great stories.”
After that, Mae Axton, who wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley, heard Croce play, and called Sun Records producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who hired Croce to play in a recording session, filling in for Jerry Lee Lewis.
“A year later, B.B. King heard me and asked if I’d go on the road with him,” Croce said. “And that was the launching point, really. I didn’t have an agent or manager or record company or any of that stuff — I was 18. By the time I got from Vancouver to Los Angeles, I had an agent, a manager who was starting to look for labels, and so one thing after another.
“Of course, being able to tour with Ray Charles was a huge honor. Ray Charles was my gateway drug,” he said.
“I had the opportunity to play with a lot of my musical heroes over the years, and in the process really discovered what was unique about what I do. I think when you’re young, you wear your influences on your sleeve, and as you get older, you understand which parts are original and the parts you’re borrowing from the greats.
“Everyone begins on the shoulders of giants.”
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