Jim Croce (AP Photo)
"I'm no missionary and I can't wear any armor, either. I just gotta be the way I am." – Jim Croce
For his three decades on earth, Jim Croce was the way he was. The singer-songwriter would have turned 70 today, had his life not been cut short in a plane crash nearly 40 years ago. Thankfully for us, the self-described "underachiever" made the most of his brief music career, leaving a lyrical legacy that continues to inspire. Croce’s songs paint perfectly detailed portraits of people and elegantly capture moments in time. "They're people I've met, all of them are real people from the Army, from jobs I've worked, all over," he once said.
Croce's songs were gentle and tender, reflective of the 1970s singer-songwriter movement Croce was an important part of. But Croce’s biggest early hits were ditties about the baddest guys around: a pool hustler in "You Don’t Mess Around with Jim" and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and the "baddest man in the whole damn town." "Leroy Brown" was inspired by a fellow soldier from Croce's brief stint in the Army – a man who, like Jim the pool shark, was tough… but not tough enough.
"Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" was his biggest hit, reaching #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but it was just the beginning – Croce enjoyed success with many other singles. "Operator (That's Not the Way it Feels)" was another song that drew on Croce's time in the military. After watching soldiers line up to phone home – sometimes only to receive bad news from wives and girlfriends who were no longer waiting – Croce penned the mournful tune that made it to Billboard’s top 20.
Released in August 1973, "I Got a Name" was a top-10 hit single and was the theme song for 1973's The Last American Hero. Today's moviegoers might recognize it, too – it is included in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated Django Unchained.
On September 20, 1973, just one month after “I Got a Name” hit the charts, Jim Croce was killed when the plane he was traveling in between gigs crashed in Natchitoches, Louisiana. He was just 30 years old.
Like so many musicians who have died much too young, Croce had several posthumous hits. One of them was “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” part of the I Got a Name album released after Croce’s death. Another was "Time in a Bottle," written in 1970 as an ode to his unborn son, A.J. It was included on Croce's debut album in 1972, but was never intended to be a single. After Croce's death, though, the song shot to the top of the charts, it’s theme of mortality suddenly poignant and prescient.
“Time in a Bottle” remains one of Jim Croce’s most enduring legacies, as does the song’s inspiration: baby A.J. is all grown up and following in the footsteps of the father he lost too soon.
Written by Linnea Crowther