Monday, June 15, 2009
About a week ago, I was playing guitar at a party and a small circle formed with people calling out for certain songs. I was floored when Jim Croce's name came up, as the majority of people in the group were fairly young. Later on, we collectively tried to name as many of his songs as we could remember.
There were quite a few...
Croce had recorded two discs in the sixties, though neither were successful. This set would be his first to see wider distribution on a larger label (ABC) with considerably more time and money going into production. The results were impressive.
My vinyl copy of You Don't Mess Around With Jim (the album) is always welcome on the turntable. Storytelling was a big part of Jim's brilliance as a writer, with the title track being one of his most memorable. Focusing on "Big Jim", a pool hustler whose intimidating size ensured that he could carry on with his games unchallenged, the clever turnaround comes when he is thrashed by an opponent ("Slim") who takes exception to being conned. The hook is irresistible.
Teaming with Maury Muehleisen, he had found an incredibly talented musician to provide delicate acoustic lead work and effective harmonies to enhance his music. Together they would weave brilliant lines, lifted by Croce's soulful and easy vocal mannerisms.
One thing that distinguished the Croce/Muehleisen sound was their ability to put across the material without recourse to electronic effects or studio manipulation. If the power went out, they could pull off their entire set without a hitch. Augmentation was present on the recorded versions, though they generally offered stripped down renditions of the songs in a live setting.
Sure hits ("You Don't Mess Around With Jim", "Operator" and "Time in a Bottle") have become radio staples in the intervening years, though it's the lesser known titles ("Photographs and Memories", "Box # 10", "New York's Not My Home") that demonstrate his gifts for consistency and sure melodic touch. His voice has a certain familiarity, almost as if an old friend is bringing a collection of poignant and funny stories to life. Armed with wit and an acoustic guitar, Croce built a huge following in a very short time in the wake of this release. It was no overnight success, as he had been toiling in obscurity for years prior to finding an audience.
In September of 1973, just as his popularity was reaching greater heights, both he and Muehleisen perished in an air crash. All of those classic songs, over three albums, had been produced in just two short years.