Although he attended high school in the late ‘50s and college in the early ‘60s, my dad was never too hip to the rock n’ roll. His early ‘70s vinyl collection contained no Beatles or Stones, no Chuck or Buddy or even Elvis, and certainly no Stooges or MC5. He’d sit in his den and play his records, and as a young child I’d be subjected to the likes of Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Peter, Paul & Mary. When Dad would show interest in contemporary music, it was always some random act of strangeness, like the time he came home with a copy of Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer or plucked my Men at Work LP out of my bedroom in the spring of ’83 (“What’s this teen rock?”). When I took an interest in Ritchie Valens as a teen, he played me his Trini Lopez version of “La Bamba”. He’d have heated discussions with my younger sister during her hardcore phase, perplexed as to why Richard hung himself and why anyone would be guilty of being white. In recent years, he’s become intrigued with Robert Plant’s bluegrass recordings, but has yet to hear Led Zeppelin. Yet while I was an intuitive enough child to sense that the old man generally had taste for shit, I was there anytime he played Jim Croce. “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was my first-ever favorite song. As a pre-schooler, I was known to sing “Speedball Tucker” in public. I knew it then, and I know it now: Jim Croce was the balls!
Jim Croce was the alpha male of early ‘70s singer/songwriters. Just look at that ‘stache! He could have kicked the asses of James Taylor and Paul Simon, both at the same time, with one hand tied behind his back. He could have sent John Denver running for the trees with one nasty stare. Unlike Harry Chapin, he didn’t write contrived sentimental bullshit for weak-minded conformists. Unlike David Gates, he had testosterone running through his bloodstream. Cat Stevens may have written better ballads, but not by much, and Croce whooped his butt when it came to the edgier, blue collar side of the singer/songwriter genre. His singing voice was nice but not extraordinary. What he could do, though, was write a fucking song. Almost never in the annals of the singer/songwriter genre have we heard a better storyteller, and his melodies were as perfect as they were simple.
While it doesn’t contain either of his adult contemporary radio staples “Time in a Bottle” or “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)”, Life and Times for me is the ultimate Jim Croce LP. This was the Croce album I grew up with, the one I heard so many times in my dad’s den, the one I’d play on my very own turntable a few years later. It had a gatefold with lyrics inside, and I can still see myself at six or seven years old, barely able to read, studying those lyrics thoroughly, my nascent intellectual development forever altered by these tales of barroom brawlers, outlaw truckers, roller derby queens, and quarreling couples. Co-produced by Tommy West and Terry “Talkin’ Baseball” Cashman, Life and Times epitomizes the age when AM radio was king - when soft rock actually rocked and even sensitive men were manly. There are ballads present - good ones, in fact (like “Alabama Rain”). Yet it’s the rockers that carry the day. Croce had cut his teeth playing bars in rural Pennsylvania and later worked in construction and truck driving to support himself. Life and Times is heavily influenced by both his mixed genre bar show repertoire and his real-life blue collar experiences. It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock n’ roll, a little bit folk, and a whole lot awesome.
Croce, a native of South Philadelphia, started playing in bands in the mid-‘60s while he was a student at Villanova University. He eventually formed a musical duo with his wife Ingrid, and the two scored a record deal with Capitol. They relocated to New York City, put out an album, and toured relentlessly for a couple years. Unhappy with the music business and life in the Big Apple, Croce decided to return to Pennsylvania, where he worked manual jobs and even joined the U.S. Army for a time. In 1970, Croce met the brilliant guitarist Maury Muehleisen, and the two would soon begin a musical collaboration of legendary proportions. Muehleisen’s playing brought out the best in Croce’s writing, and Croce eventually found himself with a three-record deal with ABC. In 1972 he recorded both You Don’t Mess Around With Jim and Life and Times. Released in January of ’73 on the heels of the massive success of You Don’t Mess Around with Jim (which produced two top ten hits including the #1 smash “Time in a Bottle”), Life and Times was no slouch either. Opening cut “One Less Set of Footsteps” was a Top 40 hit, and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was Croce’s second #1. Croce finished work on his third album for ABC, I Got a Name, just eight days before he and Muehleisen died in a plane crash on September 20, 1973.
“One Less Set of Footsteps” is one of the most upbeat sounding breakup songs ever recorded, and it’s classic Croce storytelling – a couple in crisis, a relationship fractured, and the man, he’s ready to walk (not that I actually understood the “one less pair of jeans on your door” image when I was six!). With its sing-along chorus and simple driving beat, it’s a great tone-setter for Jim Croce’s most “rocking” album. “Roller Derby Queen” might be the most underrated of all Croce tunes, replete with that classic “Round and round, oh round and round!” vocal hook and typically humorous lyrics (“Well she might be nasty/She might be fat/But I never met a person/Who would tell her that/She’s my big blonde bomber/My heavy handed Hackensack mama”). 5’6” and 215? Sounds like Croce and I had similar taste in women! “Speedball Tucker” is a flat-out rocker – if you heard it today you’d probably call it “alt country”. Another catchy chorus, another great story – this time of a truck driver who defies nature and the law, and ultimately gets brought down by the latter. And who doesn’t love “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”? Perhaps at six I liked it best because it had a cuss word in it, but there’s just no denying the perfection of the tune at every level. This is one you simply can’t resist singing along with – and people of all ages will always love a tale of a classic bad guy. Leroy Brown - now this dude was a seriously bad:
Now Leroy, he a gambler/
And he like his fancy clothes/
And he like to wear his diamond rings/
On everybody’s nose/
He got a custom Continental/
He got an Eldorado too/
He got a 32 gun in his pocket for fun/
He got a razor in his shoe
Seriously, that might be the greatest verse of poetry ever written by anyone! Sure enough, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown inevitably meets someone even badder, and like all great stories this one has an awesome ending. The softer songs on Life and Times, while not of the caliber of Croce’s best-known ballads, are top-notch nonetheless. Album closer “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way” is kind of a reverse image of “One Less Set of Footsteps” – tender, pretty and boldly optimistic that lost love can be regained.
Ever notice that the oldies radio format no longer exists? The stations that used to play Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Beatles, Stones, and Elvis now feature Elton John, Billy Joel, Chicago, and America. If they play any Beatles, it’s late Beatles. It’s as if 1962 or ’57 was so long ago that it no longer registers. The target audience for Crosby, Stills, and Nash is the babyboomer population. The target audience for Dion and the Belmonts is…apparently dead. I often hear one of those nouveau oldies stations while I’m at the gym, and never once have I heard Jerry Lee Lewis or the Dave Clark Five or Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon. But nearly every time, I hear something by Jim Croce.
It seems there are a whole lot of babyboomers just like my old man.