Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

September 25-October 1, 2003

music

Time in a Bottle





Remembering Jim Croce, a Philly folk hero 30 years gone.

By the time his chartered, twin-engine plane crashed in Natchitoches, La., on Sept. 20, 1973, Jim Croce was just beginning to crystallize a legacy as America's blue-collar balladeer. With a blunt, nasal tenor voice, ever so sad and sweet, Croce sang evocatively about the young working class of Middle America: neighborhood toughs, sassy barflies, big-rig drivers, car wash attendants and poor-broke troubadours. "They're people I've met, all of them are real people -- from the Army, from jobs I've worked, all over," Croce once said in an interview with ABC/Dunhill Records about the cast of characters in his songs. It was a milieu he knew well.

Croce's lifelong touchstone was South Philadelphia, particularly the Italian-American enclave surrounding 10th and Reed, where he was born in 1943. When Jim was four, his family moved to the Bywood section of Upper Darby, and later, to Drexel Hill. His mother was a fastidious housekeeper and his father was a manufacturer's representative for the Associated Steam Specialty Company, formerly located at Eighth and Race.

He would refer to his father's firm as the "ASS" Company, laughs Steve Angelucci, Croce's first cousin on his father's side, who currently lives in Ocean City, N.J. "When Jim was growing up, his father would take him down to the office on Saturday afternoons to teach him about the business. But Jim didn't care. He'd go roaming the streets of Chinatown to check out the tattoo parlors and pawnshops."

It was on Race Street that little Jimmy procured his first guitar; he traded in his brother's underused clarinet for an old Harmony F-slot to take lessons from two old black men who played six-string on the streets.

"Jim's father and mother, deeply concerned about their son's studies, told him that ćonly bums make a living at playing music,' stressing the importance of getting a good education," recalls the late singer-songwriter's widow, Ingrid Croce, from her home in San Diego, Calif., where she runs a restaurant called Croce's.

So Jim Croce attended Villanova University. It was on Philadelphia's waspy Main Line that Croce met Ingrid, his future producer, Tommy West (formerly Tommy Picardo), dear friend and collaborator Mike DiBenedetto and a host of others who would profoundly impact his musical and personal life. One of them was Don McLean, who attended Villanova for a brief stint. His 1971 ballad, "American Pie," commemorated the tragic plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, two years before Croce would meet the same fate.

"A couple of times a week, Jim and I would cut class and go to Don's dorm room to jam, share songs and learn licks together," shares DiBenedetto, now a teacher at West Philadelphia Catholic High School. At Villanova, the two hosted a Sunday-night folk-music radio show, one of the first of its kind in the Philadelphia area.

During this time Croce honed his musical act at dimly lit downtown dives, coffeehouses and smoky steak-and-ale houses in rural Pennsylvania. He was a regular at The 2nd Fret on Sansom Street, The Gilded Cage in Rittenhouse Square and The Main Point in Bryn Mawr.

"As a songwriter, Jimmy was a great observer," DiBenedetto asserts. "He was always discovering things." Croce kept a notebook to journal his observations about people and places, which he would later incorporate into his songs.

On an excursion to West Virginia for a college gig, Croce noticed a '57 Chevrolet parked on a dirt road outside a dorm. "After the show Jim kept joking around, saying, ćHe's real heavy in his Chevy,'" Angelucci says. This car later showed up in "Rapid Roy (That Stock Car Boy)": "Every Sunday afternoon he is a dirt-track demon in his '57 Chevrolet."

And while driving down Interstate 95 with DiBenedetto on an endless quest for genuine Levi's jeans, Croce quipped, "Look at these guys, they can't read: 95 is a route that you are on, not the speed-limit sign," as speeding big rigs shoved his little Volkswagen into the shoulder lane. That line later appeared in Croce's "Speedball Tucker."

"Jim had a wonderful sense of humor, and he would apply his everyday occurrences to his songs and song introductions, much like a Bill Cosby," says Angelucci.

Croce's whimsical storytelling between tunes, or his "rap," as he called it, became his trademark as an entertainer. Whether it was regaling the audience with tales of flabby-armed Brooklyn roller-derby queens or RC Cola-drinking stock car boys from Reading, Pa., the bars would grow fat with laughter. While performing at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, Jim talked more than he sang, Tommy West recalls. "A lot of the routines he did onstage were outgrowths of conversations we had while sitting around the pie shop at Villanova, and were they funny as hell," he says.

In the fall of 1968, Jim and Ingrid moved to New York City and became the first act signed to West's new production company, Cashman, Pistilli and West. They signed with Capitol Records in 1969, and put out their first album, Jim & Ingrid Croce.

They tirelessly worked the coffeehouse circuit in Greenwich Village for a year, but the album flopped, and the walls of their cramped apartment in the Bronx were closing in. "Jim went up there with a lot of high hopes," Angelucci recalls. "He was pretty depressed that it did not work out."

In October 1970, the married musical duo retreated to bucolic Lyndell, Pa., where Croce found work as a day laborer. During that year of rural retreat, he met the guitar virtuoso who would back him up on the road to stardom: Trenton native Maury Muehleisen. Tragically, Muehleisen and several others would later die in the plane crash with Croce.

"Maury was such a good player that [Terry Cashman and I] hardly edited him at all," says West, who is currently working on new releases at his home studio in Hunterdon County, N.J. "There's something that Maury brought emotionally, as well as technically, to Jim's work. Maury was a stone-cold musical genius."

In February 1971, 10 days after Croce learned he would be a father, according to Ingrid, he sent his good friend Tommy a tape of the songs he had written and recorded with Muehleisen. Among them were "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)" and "Time in a Bottle."

Over the next 18 months, Croce recorded three platinum records, You Don't Mess Around With Jim, Life and Times and I've Got A Name, on the ABC/Dunhill label. The experiential music of an unlikely hero from Philly with sad eyes and streetwise smile was inundating America.

Some misguidedly characterize Jim Croce as a pop singer with a few commercial hits to his credit, but his diverse, expansive catalog suggests the contrary.

While he was a master of everyman storytelling and lighthearted mockery, Croce was also a musicologist and historian, whose interests ran the gamut of Americana, from ragtime to country western, from Appalachian folk to Dixieland, through rhythm and blues to jazz. "Jim ardently studied the history of music and the history of people, and that is intrinsically so much a part of his music," says Ingrid Croce.

And he was hardly the bullish roughneck we are led to believe. By all accounts, he loathed hard labor. He never smoked cigars. Behind the denim-shirted public persona was a kind Philadelphian with a wry sense of humor and a steel-trap creative mind. "What a pussycat," DiBenedetto remembers. "I had never seen Jim angry, ever. He was sensitive, considerate and in tune to the needs of other people. He taught me what friendship was all about."



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