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Jim Croce's Son Goes Through Time With Dad's Music

Legacy: Bluesman, 26, never knew his father, who wrote "Time in a Bottle" for him. Elder Croce died in 1973.

September 06, 1998|JIM STRADER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FRAZER, Pa. — On the hilltop where Jim Croce is buried, the memorial to the singer is simple: a bronze marker bearing his name and the dates of his life, 1943-1973.

No musical scale winds above his name. No guitar, cigar or likeness of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" decorate the flat grave. Sometimes, though, there are flowers. Other times, the tributes are less formal--a Fender guitar pick lay there recently.

While some fans come to visit the site in the green suburbs of Croce's native Philadelphia, his legacy is elsewhere. What remains 25 years after his death are the songs that are hard to forget and a son who has no father to remember.

Croce was 30 when he died Sept. 20, 1973, with five others in the crash of a small plane as he left a college concert in Louisiana for an appearance in Sherman, Texas. He had played music since he was a child, traveled the folk music coffeehouse circuit and found fame only a year or so before his death.

Croce had a lengthening string of hits: "You Don't Mess Around With Jim," "Time in a Bottle," "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)" and the chart-topping ode to Leroy Brown. An album recorded shortly before he died included "I Got a Name" and "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song."

His songs often featured exaggerated characters--truck driver "Speedball Tucker," "Rapid Roy That Stock Car Boy" and the "Roller Derby Queen"--or they softly played on sentimental themes.

Now Croce's son, A.J. Croce, is establishing his own career as a musician. This summer, the 26-year-old blues pianist has released his third album, "Fit to Serve," and has been on the road performing.

"For me, it's so natural. It's the thing that I love the most in life," he said. "There's a sort of naivete when you are the son or daughter of a musician--you assume that anyone can do it. It was what I loved and so I did it."

A.J. Croce was a week shy of his second birthday when his father died. He said he can't remember him.

As he has become a musician, however, A.J. Croce has come to know his father in a sense. He said he sees similarities in their style of writing. "Using humor in a song, in a phrase, in a story to, I guess, soften a certain element--the idea of putting a story together or using characters."

But Jim Croce's music has not been a direct influence, his son said.

"If there is, it's a subconscious thing," A.J. Croce said. "It was definitely part of my life, definitely something I heard a lot as a kid. It was on the radio a lot. It was always around my house."

What is perhaps his father's best-known song, "Time in a Bottle," was written for him, A.J. Croce said.

"It's a little bit surreal," he said. "The thought of someone writing for you and about you and then never really knowing them--that's a strange feeling."

The lyrics seem oddly prescient, almost as if the writer knew he wouldn't get to know his son:

If I could save time in a bottle, the first thing that I'd like to do is to save every day till eternity passes away just to spend them with you. . . . But there never seems to be enough time to do the things you want once you find them. I've looked around enough to know that you're the one I want to go through time with.

A.J. Croce, who has two children of his own, and his mother, Ingrid Croce, now live in San Diego, where she operates a restaurant, jazz bar and blues club with a Jim Croce theme. A.J. performs there regularly and made his most recent appearance in late August, when he added some of his father's songs to his repertoire for the first time.

"I'm really excited to see where A.J. goes from here on out, especially because he is just starting to bring into his life and his music his legacy," Ingrid Croce said.

As A.J. Croce pays tribute to his father in music, some fans of Jim Croce plan to mark the anniversary of his death by gathering in Philadelphia on Sept. 18 and 19. A schedule of events posted on the Internet lists visits to the singer's boyhood homes in the city and its suburbs, hangouts such as the Italian Market, the hospital where he was born, the Villanova University radio station where he worked and his grave 25 miles west of Philadelphia.

His son and widow won't be there.

"That's not something that A.J. and I feel real comfortable about," Ingrid Croce said. "It's just that I'm not interested in the stations of the cross of Jim. Some of that's a little bit morbid."

Ingrid Croce's memories of her first husband (she has remarried) include seeing him for the first time at a singing contest where she was a competitor and he was a judge, cooking with him in the kitchen of their farmhouse and talking with him on the telephone from the road.

Their last conversation came just before his final concert. He was in Louisiana; she and A.J. were in the family's new home in San Diego.

"He had just bought this puppy for A.J., and the puppy had run outside, and A.J. had run out after him stark naked," she recalled. "Just as I was saying to him, 'I've got to go--A.J. just ran outside,' he said, 'I love you,' and that was the last thing I heard.

"It was the perfect way, if you have a perfect way, and yet there was so much more that needed to be said," she said. "It was a good thing that at least I had those words to keep in my mind."

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