Natchitoches, La. - Pop singer-songwriter Jim Croce, 30, was killed September 20th when the single-engine plane in which he and five others were riding hit a tree on takeoff.
The other victims in the accident were Croce's second guitarist, Maury Meuhleisen; road manager Morgan Tell; comedian George Stevens, a booking agent, and the pilot.
Croce had gained headliner status only recently, following his hit records, "Don't Mess Around with Jim" and the current "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." He was en route from a college concert at Northwestern State College, 75 miles southeast of Shreveport, to another in Sherman, Texas.
"It was a single-engine plane, I believe, " said deputy Walter Braxton. "It was taking off and it did not get any altitude." The plane went past the runway, hit the tree, and spun around in the air before crashing.
Croce is survived by his wife Ingrid and their two-year-old son, Adrian. Corb Donahue, a friend of Croce's and an employee at his record company, ABC/Dunhill, described Croce as "simply one of the finest human beings I've ever met." The sentiment was echoed by others who knew him.
Jim Croce was born in south Philadelphia January 10th, 1943, and brought up on ragtime, country and Dixieland music. He played the accordion as a child and taught himself guitar, but did not play professionally until 1964, while he was at Villanova College in Pennsylvania. There he formed various bands and played fraternity parties. He also worked on construction crews to support himself.
Talking to Rolling Stone in London while on a promotional tour there two months ago, Croce recalled: "I've had to get in and out of music a couple of times, because music didn't always mean a living. You don't make that much in bars; I still have memories of those nights, playing for $25 a night, with nobody listening."
Outside the bars, Croce had teaching jobs. In 1966, he taught guitar at an arts camp, and later, he taught emotionally disturbed children in Philadelphia. "I would never teach again," he said. "What a year that was, beat up by a girl who was 260 pounds in junior high." And, he said, "My one and only shot at an office gig was working at radio station WHAT in Philadelphia. I was writing jive commercials for an R&B station. I'd be up on Germantown Avenue trying to sell time to a jazz bar. I was the only white person to walk into some of those bars, and they'd think I was either a cop or a collection man."
Croce and his wife Ingrid were in Mexico, where she had a grant to study pottery, when he reunited with a college friend, musician Tommy West, who urged him to try the New York coffeehouse circuit. Croce, with West and Terry Cashman producing, cut an album in 1969, and when it failed to sell, he became a truck driver until he and Ingrid moved to a farm in Lyndell, Pennsylvania. When money ran low, Croce went back to construction work, doing some session singing for commercials on the side. Finally, after one rejection from ABC/Dunhill (which Croce had framed and put on the wall next to his first gold record; the rejection regretting that his songs were "not strong enough for us"), he signed with the label and cut a couple of songs he'd written in a truck cab, on his construction job: "You Don't Mess Around with Jim" and "Operator." Both became hits and led to a second album, Life and Times, the Number One single, "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," and a new career in TV and film work.
"'Leroy Brown,'" he said in London, "came out of the American street tradition. I wrote a lot of things in street terms, a lot of truck-driving songs. 'Leroy' I wrote at home and was based on real characters. The jobs I've had attract characters." (Said Donahue at ABC/Dunhill: "There was no persona between Jim and his songs; he was a strong man who wasn't afraid to be gentle.")
"It's a nice feeling having a Number One record," said Croce two months ago. "It's a strange feeling. After having played for such a long time I don't even know how to describe it."
Croce had just completed a third album for Dunhill, I've Got a Name. The title cut is part of a soundtrack for 20th Century Fox's new film, The Last American Hero.
"Jim Croce, Number One"
British writer Anthony Haden-Guest became a friend of Jim Croce's shortly before the singer's death.- Editor
There are two or three hotels on the Sunset Strip, Hollywood, where the music people stay. There's the Continental Hyatt, which is flash (superstars, groupies) and opposite, more or less, there's the Sunset Marquis, which is offbeat. Even tranquil. Actors and writers like the Sunset too. This is where, three months ago, I met Jim Croce.
Croce would be sitting by the pool, squinting up into the sun, just watching things with a wry reflective smile. Like somebody both relaxing and thinking about things pretty hard. Any sort of humor puts you ahead in California, and Jim Croce had an unusual humor, both warm and quirky. A good person to sit in the sun with, and we spent several pretty good poolside afternoons.
A small group would gather. Producers between screenings. Actors between parts. An amiable sometime Bunny girl. Writers not writing. I seem to remember talk of exceeding brilliance but, what with the pitchers of Almaden, and Jim Croce's own malignant brand of beer. It was called "Elephant," and, as he said, "It's like drinking a couple of Quaaludes." That was after I had finished a second. And he was right.
He was also working, and hard. Working out a few new songs. I remember the particular one he was working at. It was called "I Can't Hang on a Lover's Cross No More," and I hope he finished it, because it sounded good. Also, of course, there was the reason for his presence. A nightly full-house at the Troubadour. Finally, Annie Leibovitz and I went along, despite Croce saying that he never actually went to music clubs himself; only to work.
Later, I remember we were in a group driving down the Strip. We passed a colossal billboard, one of those odd billboards that the music industry erects as temporary memorials to itself in Los Angeles. This one showed Jim Croce's face like something off Mount Rushmore, except not just once but twice, with dramatically schizoid effect. "What does it feel like to see your face up there?" I asked. (Genuine curiosity, and a touch of envy. Writers, even Mailer, never seem to get blown up so big.) "Fine," he said, "I guess," and eyed it as we went by, almost warily, as though it might fall on the car, or undergo some unusual transformation.
Jim Croce was already at Number One when I Met him, and going to stay, but he was as free of rock affectation and posture as anybody I ever met. And what does one say when one makes a friend and shortly he is killed? One doesn't make that many friends. The last time we saw him was in the Sunset Marquis, and he invited us to stay at his farm outside New York. As we left he was out by the pool, but sitting in it, in his Levis. Not for any particular reason. Just because it felt good, in the sun.