by Eric Althoff | Photos by Joshua Black Wilkins
A.J. Croce is all too familiar with loss and grief. His father, singer Jim Croce, was killed in a plane crash when young Adrian James wasn’t even two years old, and in 2018, A.J.’s wife died suddenly of a heart condition, leaving him behind with the couple’s two adult children. Understandably, there were questions if Croce would ever perform again, but his passion for music remained undimmed.
“If it wasn’t for music, I don’t know what I would have done,” Croce said from Nashville, where he lives and works.
Croce said that when he invited family and friends to attend a tribute to his wife in Nashville last year, he took them to a show put on by the Time Jumpers, a western swing band comprised of session players.
“They asked if I’d come up and play, and I didn’t know if I could do it,” Croce said. “I sat down at the piano and it just came.”
While he wasn’t immediately ready to get back out on the road, he knew he would eventually get back to doing what he does best.
“I realized I needed to play, because it was going to help me heal,” Croce said.
Croce’s current tour is called “Croce Plays Croce,” in which A.J. will play songs from his father’s rather brief music career (Jim was only 30 when he died in 1973) as well as tunes from his own decades of performing original music. Compositions by both Croces will be offset with stories A.J. will share, as well as covers of songs that influenced both he and his father’s respective songwriting from the worlds of blues, jazz and R&B.
“I was influenced so much by his record collection as a kid—probably more by his records than by his music, not that I didn’t love it,” Croce said of growing up outside Philadelphia. He added that his father’s music collection included the likes of Fats Waller, Sam Cooke and Mississippi John Hurt. “I was able to listen to him practicing songs he was going to play that weren’t his.”
“Almost everything that was recorded (by my father) that people know about was recorded in an 18-month period of time in ‘72 and ‘73.”
Croce says it was “Time in a Bottle” that really put his father on the singer-songwriter map.
“After that, it was like the floodgates opened, and within six months two records were written,” A.J. said of Jim’s seminal 1973 double-header, I Got a Name and Life and Times. However, only months later, Jim was dead.
Croce’s life following his father’s untimely death didn’t get easier. His mother took up with a man who was physically abusive and struck young A.J. so hard that he was stricken blind for six years. Without sight, he started plucking at the piano, learning to play by ear alone, much like his hero Ray Charles.
“One of the horn players in my band had been with (Charles) for about eight years, and one of my music teachers had been his bandleader in the ‘60s, so I heard a million stories about Ray Charles and his tour manager, Joe Adams,” Croce said, adding that he was initially terrified to meet the “Georgia on My Mind” singer for the first time. “But he was so real, so down to earth, and was genuinely kind to me.”
Croce would eventually open for Charles. He also would open for Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, James Brown and even B.B. King, who chose Croce as his opener when the latter was only 18.
“I didn’t really have an agent or a manager or anything. I didn’t really believe it would happen, (but) it did,” Croce said of playing with the late bluesman.
When he was first coming into his own, Croce said people expected him to play his father’s music. But not only did he not even play the guitar at the time—though he has since picked it up—he knew he wanted to find his own path.
“I didn’t want that to be what I was known for,” Croce said of not being a cover act for his father’s music. “I really wanted to prove myself as an artist and a musician.”
Also, while still a teen, Mae Axton, who wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” heard Croce play and referred him to Nashville record producer “Cowboy Jack” Clement. Croce became a session musician, and it was from that beginning he jumped onto King’s road group.
Now 48, Croce said he felt it’s his turn to nurture young musicians, just as B.B. King once did for him. In fact, one of the players in Croce’s current ensemble, Garrett Stoner, is a young guitar player originally from Baltimore he has taken a shine to.
“I just love his playing. He cares so much about what he’s doing and, like myself, he’s so grateful to be able to do this,” Croce said of his young bandmate.
The rest of his ensemble for the “Croce Plays Croce” shows includes bassist David Berard (Dr. John) and drummer Gary Mallaber (Steve Miller Band). The band members range in age from 26 (Stoner) to 73 (Mallaber).
“Everyone is still playing at the absolute peak of their ability,” Croce said of his ensemble.
He insists that “Croce Plays Croce” is not a nostalgia show, even though many of the songs are a half-century old or more. A.J. says he never expected the concert to be as rewarding as it has been, but he sees the excitement and joy on the faces of fans who sing along to not only his father’s songs but his own.
“Every single night, I see people smiling, I see people crying,” he said. “I hadn’t taken into account that I had been playing for as long as I had and that some of my records had affected people—and that they were coming to hear those songs,” such as “Trouble in Mind” and “I Found Faith.”
As much of an impact on the music scene as Jim Croce had, he was really only recording and touring for just under two years, a stretch of time that A.J. says feels incredibly short given the longevity of his own career as a performer.
“After 30 years of touring myself, I can’t imagine just 18 months! There have been five-month stretches where I did as many concerts as (my father) did in those 18 months,” he said.
“I was basically standing in the shadow of another artist, but I am a different artist,” Croce said of the comparisons to his late father. “(But]) I’m so grateful that I get to do what I love.”
There will be two sets of “Croce Plays Croce” at AMP by Strathmore in North Bethesda on March 29th. ***Publisher’s Note: Since the publishing of this article, the dates for “Croce Plays Croce” at the AMP by Strathmore have been rescheduled to August 1st and 2nd.***
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