…If I had a box just for wishes/And dreams that had never come true/The box would be empty/Except for the memory/Of how they were answerd by you…
The above is an excerpt from the lyrics of one of the most beautiful love songs I know, written by a great singer-songwriter whose life was tragically cut short. Time In A Bottle became one of Jim Croce’s biggest hits topping the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in January 1974, not even four months after he had died at age 30 in a plane crash.
James Joseph Croce was born on January 10, 1943 in South Philadelphia. His parents James Albert Croce and Flora Mary (Babusci) Croce were both Italian Americans. While Croce git into playing accordion at the age of 5, he did not start taking music seriously until he was a student at Villanova University in the early 1960s. At that time, he began forming bands and playing local gigs at fraternity parties, coffee houses and universities around Philadelphia, performing a broad variety of cover music.
In 1966, Croce self-published his debut album Facets with a $500 cash gift he had received from his parents for his wedding to Ingrid Croce (née Jacobson), an author and singer-songwriter. The two had met in November 1963 and performed as a duo since 1964. Croce’s parents had hoped their son’s record would fail and he would come to realize he should use his eduction to pursue a “respectable” profession. Instead, Croce not only managed to sell all 500 copies of the record that had been pressed but also made a profit of close to $2,500. Here’s Texas Rodeo, the album’s only tune solely credited to Croce. Despite that promising start, true success for Croce was still years away.
In 1968, record producer Tommy West persuaded Croce and his wife to relocate to New York. By that time, they had started writing their own songs. This led to the release of Croce’s second record in September 1969, the duos album Jim & Ingrid Croce. Here’s the lovely Spin, Spin, Spin, which like most songs on the record was co-written by the couple.
The music business in New York City and playing small clubs and college gigs to promote the couple’s album proved to be tough. Disillusioned they returned to Pennsylvania to live on an old farm in the countryside. Since music wasn’t bringing in enough money, Croce took on a variety of odd jobs like driving a truck, construction work and teaching guitar lessons. Meanwhile, he continued writing songs.
Following the birth of their son Adrian James, Ingrid became a stay-at-home mother while Jim played concerts to promote his music. The breakthrough came in 1972 after Croce had signed a contract with ABC Records and released his third studio album You Don’t Mess Around With Jim in April that year. The record’s title track came out as a single in July and climbed to no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. By comparison, the album’s second single Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels) “only” made it to no. 17 on the U.S. chart. And then there is the above-mentioned Time In A Bottle, which didn’t appear as a single until after Croce’s death and became his second of two no. 1 hits in the U.S.
In July 1973, Croce’s fourth studio album Life And Times came out. The last record released during his lifetime included his first Billboard Hot 100 no. 1 hit Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. The great piano-driven boogie woogie tune was inspired by a guy with that name Croce had met during his short time in the National Guard. One evening the guy said he was fed up and went AWOL. When he inexplicably decided to come back at the end of the month to get his paycheck, he was caught and taken away in handcuffs.
On September 20, 1973, during the supporting tour for Life And Times, Croce was planning to fly from Natchitoches, La. after a show there to his next gig in Sherman, Texas. During takeoff, the pilot of a chartered propeller plane clipped a tree at the end of the runway, causing a crash. Croce, pilot Robert N. Elliott; guitarist Maury Muehleisen; comedian George Stevens, manager and booking agent Kenneth D. Cortese, and road manager Dennis Rast were all killed. The next day, the lead single and title track from Croce’s fifth and final studio album I Got A Name was released. Co-written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, the song was one of record’s few tunes that were not written by Croce.
After Jim’s death, Ingrid Croce among other activities released two solo albums. She also did various things to keep Jim’s legacy alive. In 1985, she started a restaurant in downtown San Diego in the same spot where in 1973 Jim had joked about opening Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar and inviting their friends and fellow artists like James Taylor, Jimmy Buffet, Arlo Guthrie and Bonnie Raitt to perform there. After various expansions and opening a second restaurant in the ’80s, Ingrid closed all restaurant operations in 2016. In 1996, she wrote Thyme in a Bottle, an autobiographical cookbook with memories and recipes from Croce’s Restaurant. And in 2004, she published Time in a Bottle, a photographic memoir of Jim’s songs with lyrics and her favorite photos. Jim’s and Ingrid’s son Adrian James “A.J.” Croce also became a singer-songwriter and has released 10 albums since 1993.
A bio on Jim Croce’s website quotes Ingrid: “Jim poured everything he heard and saw into his music. He was like a sponge, soaking up experiences and – sometimes it might take him a while, ‘Roller Derby Queen’ took him two or three years to write. But sooner or later, everything would make it into a song, and people recognized that.”
I’d like to close this post with a nice clip of a 1973 live performance of Operator, showing Croce with Muehleisen. Croce had met the classically trained pianist-guitarist and singer-songwriter from Trenton, N.J. in 1970. Muehleisen became a collaborator in the studio who influenced Croce’s songwriting. For 18 months, they were also frequently together on the road. He was only 24 years at the time of the crash.
Sources: Wikipedia; Jim Croce website; Ingrid Croce website; YouTube