Jim Croce: So Many Songs, So Little Time
Another tragic plane crash shortened a career that had full-blown potential.
Three prominent plane crashes come to mind, involving rock musicians who had not yet reached the prime of their musical powers, are stitched into the rock fabric of…what could have been?
The first occurred on February 3, 1959…the day the music died…when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” went down in a crash near Clear lake, IA. Buddy Holly, a gifted innovator, was just getting started.
You might remember the Lynyrd Skynyrd crash of October 1977 in Gillsburg, MS, that took the lives of six band members and associates. There were 20 survivors. Among the dead was lead singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, one of the great ones.
Tucked in between those two is a lesser-known crash (details soon), but the void it left in rock’s eternal playlist is just as significant. In just two short years, Jim Croce left a treasured collection of original songs that pointed him skyward to the likelihood of dozens of more classics. Croce’s plane crashed on September 20, 1973.
Here is one of my favorite songs, “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels),” off his 1972 breakthrough third album, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, a three plus minute live performance with an engaging montage, published by Sydney Urshan via YouTube:
Jim Croce was born and raised in South Philadelphia, at a time when being Italian and South Philly were synonymous. He didn’t take music seriously until he attended Villanova University in the Philadelphia suburbs. Croce met his future wife Ingrid at a folk music “hootenanny.” Soon, Jim and Ingrid were performing at local coffee houses and bars, covering songs by Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot and Joan Baez.
The duo released two albums in the sixties, Facets (1966) and Jim & Ingrid Croce (1969). Both failed to chart. A discouraged Croce began taking odd jobs and moving around the country. He came back to Philadelphia in the early 1970s and reacquainted himself with music by writing soundtracks to ads on Philly’s R&B radio station WHAT.
Here is Croce performing his popular song, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” on the Dick Cavett Show on September 20, 1972 (right, exactly one year before the crash), three and a half minutes long, published by upperdarbybill via YouTube:
Croce Takes Off
Croce hit his stride in the early seventies with his next (and, sadly, last) three albums ( the last released posthumously): You Don’t Mess Around With Jim (1972), Life and Times (1973) and I Got a Name (1973). More than melodically pleasing, Croce’s lyrics displayed a genuine sense of humor and real down-to-earth storytelling of heroes and villains and healing broken hearts.
And the songs! Along with the aforementioned “Operator” and “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” these songs still get regular play on the radio and streaming services: “Time In a Bottle,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In a Song,” “I Got a Name” and “Working At the Carwash Blues.”
Croce and his band had just finished a gig at Northwestern State University in Nachitoches, LA, and boarded a chartered plane to get to the next show in Sherman, TX. The twin-engine plane crashed immediately after clipping a pecan tree at the end of the runway. It was the only tree in the area and the pilot somehow failed to gain sufficient altitude to clear it.
All six passengers died in the darkness. The NTSB cited “pilot error.”
The day after Croce died at age 30, the single, “I Got a Name,” was released as previously planned. The song was an immediate Top 10 hit and shot up to number one by the end of 1973.
“I Got a Name” has two distinctions. One, it was the only Jim Croce hit not written by Croce himself. Two, it became just the third posthumous number one hit of the rock era. The other two: “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding and Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
That’s good company he keeps.