The Jim Croce phenomenon that swept the nation in the first half of 1974 was unlike anything I can remember in the years I’ve been listening to music.
For those who weren’t around at the time, Croce was an immensely likable and completely unpretentious singer-songwriter in the early 1970s. He basically wrote two kinds of songs – sensitive love songs like “Time in a Bottle,” “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” “Dreamin’ Again” and “Photographs and Memories,” and what I’ll call “slice of life on the road” songs like “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” “Roller Derby Queen,” “Speedball Tucker” and “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues.” His “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” which falls into the latter category, hit #1 on the charts in the summer of 1973, and it appeared that Croce would have a long, successful career ahead of him.
But it was not to be. Croce, his longtime musical collaborator Maury Meuheleisen, and five others were killed in a small plane crash in September 1973, the day before his single “I Got a Name” was released.
And that’s when things got a little crazy. “Time in a Bottle,” a song from his first album, was released as a single near the end of the year, and went straight to #1 – as did the album from which it came. His other two albums, “Life and Times” and “I Got a Name,” both rocketed into the Top 5, and all three stayed there for about 4 straight months. During that time, Croce had a string of Top 10 singles that finally ended when “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues” could only make it to #17. And then, it was over.
Listening to his albums today, it’s clear that Croce had limits as an artist, but at the same time he was a breath of fresh air compared to much of what could be heard on AM radio. There’s no reason to think that he couldn’t have continued in the same vein for a long time. And every now and then, with songs like “Operator,” “Salon and Saloon” and even “Leroy Brown,” he came up with songs that rose well above the rest.