Jim Croce was one of those troubadours, a storyteller in the old-fashioned sense who toiled in a series of blue-collar jobs until he hit it big.
Home Recordings: Americana
(Shout Factory, 2003)
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The image is of a man of simple tastes, of a man without pretensions, singing stories of regular folk like himself.
There he is on the television screen, sitting on a stool and strumming, singing in that easy tenor, his blue work shirt open at the color. "Rapid Roy that stockcar boy, he's too fast to believe", he sings. Or, "Operator, will you help me place this call / The number on the matchbook is old and faded".
The images are a bit grainy, older images brought back to life via the new technology, but not altered. What's important is not the technical brilliance of the visuals, but the unaffected way in which the singer brings his stories to life.
And the stories. The stories are what are important: stories of lost love and found love and hard luck and traveling and drinking and dreaming, stories that have been at the center of the American songbook seemingly forever, told by the many troubadours who have wandered across our stages, onto our TV sets, into our living rooms via the radio, the record player, and the compact disc player.
Jim Croce was one of those troubadours, a storyteller in the old-fashioned sense who toiled in a series of blue-collar jobs until he hit it big, scoring a pair of number one singles and hitting the top 10 on the pop charts four times. He also released a number one album -- You Don't Mess around with Jim, released in 1972, but peaking on the charts after his death -- and two number twos (including the greatest hits package, Photographs and Memories, released shortly after his death).
Croce appeared a star in the making -- an unlikely star, given his unpretentious manner and what, in the pop world, was his rather advanced age (he was 29 when he finally broke through, having released two unremarkable albums in the 1960s).
But his stardom was short lived. Croce died in 1973 at the age of 30 when the plane he was traveling in crashed in Natchitoches, Louisiana, killing the singer and four others. What is striking to me about Croce's career trajectory is that, aside from a relatively brief burst of interest in the singer-songwriter -- two songs hit the top 10 after his death, including the number 1 hit "Time in a Bottle" -- his star faded quickly and Croce faded into the background. He has become the forgotten storyteller.
That's what makes the release recently of two collections -- the quiet, yet powerful DVD, Have You Heard: Jim Croce Live, a collection of acoustic television performances, and the CD, Home Recordings: Americana, an assemblage of impromptu versions of classic vaudeville, pop, jazz and country tunes recorded simply at home -- so welcome.
I need to say here that I've been a fan of Croce's from the time I was in grade school, mesmerized by his storytelling and the honesty in his voice. I still have the three great early-'70s albums -- You Don't Mess around with Jim, Life and Times and I've Got a Name -- on vinyl, and one compilation album, 1975's Down the Highway, also on vinyl.
But I'd never picked up anything on disc, never followed my early affection for Croce's music into the digital era. Until now.
As I said, this fall's dual release of the DVD and CD by Shout Factory has given me a chance to reacquaint myself with Croce's music (I went out and bought The Definitive Collection -- "Time in a Bottle" shortly after listening to Home Recordings).
Croce might seem at first blush to be from the same simple tradition as singer-songwriters like James Taylor or Cat Stevens and songs like "Operator" and "I've Got a Name" seem cut from the same cloth as Taylor's "Sweet Baby James". Like his singer-songwriter brethren, he crafted songs with deceptively simple melodies and uncomplicated lyrics, but found a way to amass a lifetime's worth of emotion in these three- and four-minute jewels.
Croce told stories of the world in which he lived, a world of truckers and diners and soldiers on leave, singing them with a heart-felt sincerity that he was not afraid to wear on his sleeve.
It is this honesty that makes watching Have You Heard -- a collection of various television performances -- such a joy, seeing Croce and longtime collaborator Maury Meuhleisen on stage, singing and playing their guitars, running through the list of hits and album cuts.
What is striking about the disc is how remarkable the songs sound when unadorned by strings and other production tricks. "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)", "One Less Set of Footsteps", "New York's Not My Home" -- brilliant, beautiful ballads take on an added level of emotional authenticity when performed in such an unadorned manner.
And there are Croce's comments as he introduces songs. In one, he tells the story of how he wrote "Roller Derby Queen": He was playing a bar one night when he noticed a woman so fat her arms jiggled as she clapped. While talking about her, he learned she had been in the roller derby in Texas. A woman that fat and short had to have a song written about her, he said. An alternate version of the song (one of the special features) offers some additional details: She was a school bus driver in his town in Pennsylvania and he worked on the song for five years to avoid offending the subject's husband and only finished it after a night of drinking Ripple wine. Whether these stories are true or not is irrelevant. What is important is his manner, the lack of artifice in the telling -- and the humor in his delivery.
The DVD also offers commentary from Croce's widow, Ingrid, offering the story of how they met, how Croce's career progressed, what they did when the songs weren't selling, how she was affected by his death. There also is some less than useful reflections from Loggins and Messina and Randy Newman, a remarkably bad cartoon of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" from the Sonny and Cher Show, and some other extra material. But it is the performances that make this DVD worth watching.
The disc, Home Recordings, is just that -- a group of country, blues and vaudeville songs that were the foundation of Croce's skill as a songwriter. The recordings -- made in 1967 -- are obviously not studio recordings, with all the pops and cracks and hisses one might expect, but through it all there is Croce's easy tenor, and the sense that the singer cares about what he's singing and about whom he sings.
There are Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee's "Living with the Blues" and "Thing's 'Bout Goin' My Way", and Sophie Tucker's "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl", which is one of the funniest bits of erotica ("Nobody Loves a Fat Girl / But, oh, how a fat girl can love") to which one may ever listen. And there are country classics like Jimmy Rodgers "In the Jailhouse Now", Lefty Frizzel's "Mom and Dad's Waltz", and Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried".
It is like listening to a musical history lesson, a reminder of where so much of not only Croce's music but where all of our music comes from.