SAN DIEGO — Because Jim Croce’s career was just starting to gain major traction when he died in a 1973 plane crash, many fans only learned about him posthumously. His musician son, A.J. Croce, is one of them.
“That is absolutely the case,” said A.J. (short for Adrian James). He was a week from his second birthday in San Diego when his father died in a September 1973 Louisiana air crash, while en route to his next concert tour stop.
“His career was so brief. I also got to know my dad through music he collected that we had at home,” A.J. continued. “And we had a lot of home recordings, so I got to hear him playing with friends or practicing songs he might play at a show.”
Jim Croce wrote one of his most enduring songs, “Time in a Bottle,” in December 1970 — on the same day he learned his wife, Ingrid, was pregnant with A.J. The heartfelt ballad topped the U.S. charts 14 weeks after Jim Croce’s death.
His only song to reach No. 1 during his lifetime was “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” in 1972. “I Got a Name,” Jim Croce’s third and final solo studio album before his fatal plane crash, was released two weeks after he perished at the age of 30.
A.J. Croce is performing “I Got a Name,” “Time in a Bottle,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and other classics by his dad on his current “Croce Plays Croce” tour. It’s a prelude to his “Croce Plays Croce 50th Anniversary Tour,” which opens Oct. 27 in New England.
The younger Croce will turn 52 on Sept. 28. He was just 21 when his self-titled debut album was released in 1993. A.J. was soon on tour with his brassy band, opening shows for Ray Charles — his first big musical influence — B.B. King, and other greats. He also performed on Jay Leno-hosted “The Tonight Show” and soon counted Willie Nelson among his high-profile fans.
By design, A.J.’s first album did not include any songs by his famed father. Neither did the next one, or the one after that. In fact, none of his dad’s songs appear on any of A.J.’s solo albums to date. That, too, is by design.
“However great their parents might be, no one wants to be just like them,” A.J. Croce said in a 1993 San Diego Union-Tribune interview.
Never mind that A.J. has a baritone singing voice deeper than his dad’s tenor. Never mind that his dad played acoustic guitar, while A.J. rose to prominence as a virtuoso pianist who excelled in blues, jazz and boogie-woogie. And never mind that A.J.’s keyboard-driven music sounded little like his dad’s guitar-centric songs.
Despite those differences, it took A.J. five years and three solo albums before he felt comfortable enough to play any songs by his dad in public. Even then, it was just at a one-off 1998 performance that took place well outside the media spotlight.
A family affair
The venue was Croce’s, the pioneering downtown San Diego restaurant and live music club his mother opened in 1985 and ran until its closure in 2014. She and Jim Croce had decided to open Croce’s, located in the heart of downtown San Diego’s then-moribund Gaslamp Quarter, shortly after moving to San Diego in 1973 from Pennsylvania, where A.J. was born.
“I didn’t feel like there would be any integrity in playing my dad’s music,” A.J. said, speaking from a recent concert tour stop in Rhode Island.
“I had many, many offers from the time I was 17 to play his music and record it, but it was not for me. I felt like I needed to make my own music.”
It would take until 2019, a full 21 years later, for A.J. to launch his first “Croce Plays Croce” tour. By then, he was in his late 40s and was an established artist in his own right.
True to its name, “Croce Plays Croce” finds him showcasing his songs and his dad’s songs, alongside vintage blues and folk classics that inspired them both — a generation apart — as aspiring young musicians.
The prelude to “Croce Plays Croce” came in 2012. It was only then A.J. felt comfortable enough to perform more than just a few of his father’s songs. He did so, again at Croce’s nightclub, to celebrate what would have been his dad’s 70th birthday.
A.J.’s set list that night mixed some of his father’s best-known songs, including “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” with such deep album cuts as “Alabama Rain,” “These Dreams,” “Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy),” and “One Less Set of Footsteps.” What resulted was a moving homage to his father, but with a musical personality that was as much A.J.’s as his dad’s.
“It came about organically while I was working behind the scenes, handling my dad’s music publishing and overseeing some of his archival releases,” said A.J., whose past musical partners include Leon Russell, Allen Toussaint and legendary Nashville producer Cowboy Jack Clement.
“I had my own career,” A.J. continued. “And I had enough success in different genres, and with different albums of mine, that it gave me a sense of confidence. There was also the fact I only started learning to play guitar when I was in my early 30s, and that changed my perspective a bit on performing these songs by my father.
“Because it wasn’t a challenge to play them on piano. But to play ‘Time in a Bottle’ well, on guitar, is incredibly challenging. Also, when I was in my early 30s, I was transcribing a bunch of his music for archival purposes. I came across a tape he recorded of him practicing what he was going to play that night in a little bar.
“And it was so eerie. Every song on this tape was a song I’d played and had never heard him play before. One of them was ‘You’re Not the Oyster in My Stew’ by Fats Waller, which I had recorded for my first demo tape as a teenager. Another was Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Coffeehouse Blues,’ along with songs by Bessie Smith, Pink Anderson and other artists that I’d been playing since I was 14.”
A.J. chuckled at the memory.
“It was surreal!” he said. “I felt this connection to my dad that I’d never felt before. It really opened my heart and mind to looking at my dad’s music in a new way. That was a big factor that led to what I’m doing now with ‘Croce Plays Croce’.”
There was at least one other important consideration, as A.J. now acknowledges — a realization he had on stage at Croce’s at that 2012 show honoring his dad’s music.
“I got a sense from the audience how much they really valued it,” said A.J., who grew up in San Diego but now lives in Nashville.
“And I was so surprised. Not because I didn’t know how much people loved his music, but because I didn’t realize how much they would love to hear me play it.”
Last year saw A.J. do a “Croce Plays Croce” tour that focused on the 50th anniversary of his dad’s first major label solo album, 1972’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” It provided a further epiphany for A.J., whose vintage Gibson acoustic guitar — given to him by his mother — used to belong to his dad.
“All the fear I had of trying to live up to some expectations — and the fear of comparisons with my father — evaporated,” he said.