Interview with Singer/Songwriter A.J. Croce

Thursday, September 20, 1973 found me in 8th grade at Chardon Middle School in Chardon, Ohio.  Walking home my group of friends would often sing the songs we heard on the radio at the top of our voices.  A favorite was “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”  The next day the word was all over school.  The night before the man who wrote and sung the song, Jim Croce, had been killed in a plane crash.  18-months after he had burst onto the scene, he was gone.  But in that time he gave the world some of the most memorable songs of all time.  Jim Croce is gone, but thankfully another talented songwriter is keeping his work alive.  His son, A.J.


With ten albums of his own to his credit, A.J. Croce (Adrian James for the curious) didn’t need to sing his father’s songs to establish his long career.  Feeling the time is right, he has recently embarked on a tour called, simply, “Croce Sings Croce.”  In preparation for his upcoming appearance at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City on Saturday, April 13th, Mr. Croce took the time so speak with me about the tour, his career and the continued legacy of his fater.


MIKE SMITH:  I’m going to get weird here for a second and I apologize.  I’m aa63 years old.  I had two musical heroes growing up…people whose music not only inspired me but their passion for others.  One was Harry Chapin.  The other was your dad.  I interviewed Harry’s son, Jason, a couple of years ago and it is a true honor and privilege to speak with you.   


A.J. CROCE:  Wow.  Thank you.


MS:  You were reluctant to perform your father’s music early in your career.  Why are you highlighting it now?


AJC:  There were a lot of reasons.  One was that I had had success in my own right.  I had done well as a songwriter and sideman and musician.  I felt a sense of accomplishment.  The other part was that I didn’t feel there was any integrity in just jumping in and performing my father’s music.  I was a piano player, so I was playing the guitar parts on piano long before I picked up a guitar twenty years ago.  It was a challenge.  I played jazz and old blues and rock and roll New Orleans music so I was trying to find and conquer the most challenging music out there.  That’s what I was looking for.  That being said, I love my father’s music.  There was never a time when I didn’t respect what he had done.  I loved his song writing nd guitar playing.  I have always been working behind the scenes to try and preserve and promote his legacy of music.  I felt that the integrity of my music needed to be intact.  I felt it was a little cheap and a little cheesy just to make a few bucks off of playing my dad’s music when I was young.  As I got older and picked up the guitar, I found there were times and places in my show where I could throw in a song of his as a surprise.  As soon as no one expected me to perform my father’s music it became a lot easier and more fun to throw something in.  Having worked with Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and James Brown…all those iconic R&B artists…I wanted to make a name for myself.  It was really important that there be integrity in it.


MS:  When you first started out, was the last name “Croce” a blessing or a hinderance?


AJC:  Both.  It was both.  The blessing was, in some ways, smaller then the hinderance at times.  It’s hard to have your own identity when you have a name that’s recognizable.  You don’t really have the privilege of being heard for yourself.  You are heard as the relative of someone who is well-known, maybe for something completely different from what you do.  Having the identity of someone else is a challenge.  Most people get to succeed and fail on their own merits.  I was only able to succeed from the outside perspective on the merits of my father and I was only able to fail on my own merit.  I was not concerned with fame and celebrity.  I was determined to be the best piano player and songwriter and entertainer that I could possibly be.  That was my goal.  I probably shot myself in the foot more than a few times because I was more interested in the music than I was in the fame that music brought.  I probably turned down many opportunities early in my career that would have been really helpful.  I think early on, in the first twenty, twenty-five years of my touring and recording career…of course I wanted people to hear my music.  I think I was a little uncompromising.  I was a little afraid of what fame might do.  I saw what it did to my father.  I saw the remnants of it because of his success.  There’s a certain part of life you no longer get to experience once you’re no longer anonymous.


MS:  Talking about fame, a lot of people can tell you that Jim Croce died in a plane crash but they don’t know why he was on that plane.  He was keeping a promise that he really didn’t have to.  He didn’t have to go and do that show, but he did.  And that is one of the things I’ve always admired about him.


AJC:  Yes.  I mean, every artist has that happen.  When you sign a deal to do a concert and miss it, you do your best to make it up.  I got snowed out of a concert in Connecticut in February and will go back and play at the end of April.  That’s the nature of this business.  There are circumstances sometimes that keep you from being where you want to be.  Or play where you want to play.


MS:  Certainly.  My comparison is that between the time he missed the concert and when he went down to do it he became JIM CROCE.


(QUICK NOTE:  Before he became a household name, Jim Croce had to cancel a concert he had scheduled at Northwestern State University in Louisiana due to illness.  He promised the promoters that he would make up the show as soon as possible.  A year later, now a big star, he had an open date on his current tour, called the school and said he’d be there.  Even with two successful albums and a fistful of hit songs, Croce did the show for his originally agreed on fee, $750.  Remember when I talked about having passion for others?  Jim Croce is a true example. )


AJC:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  His career was so brief.  His career was eighteen months.  I mean he had played semi-professionally for a period of time but his professional career was eighteen months.  All of the songs you know were written, finished and recorded and toured in that eighteen-month period of time.  It’s kind of an astounding thing that so much was accomplished in such a short amount of time. 

A.J. Croce (Photo credit: Jim Shea)

MS:  You’ve endured a lot of tragedy in your life. (NOTE:  Jim Croce died when A.J. was two.  When he was four, his mother’s boyfriend beat him so badly he lost sight in both eyes.  He regained the sight in his left eye at age 10).  Have you ever drawn on that, even subconsciously, for your own music? 


AJC:  Oh, of course.  If I don’t draw on life experience, I’m not doing my job.  If I’m not using it in my music then I’m not paying attention or growing.  It can’t be a superficial exploration when it comes to writing.  There needs to be depth and you need to draw from those things and hopefully gain wisdom and a sense of humor.  If you can’t gain a sense of humor from the tragedies of life then you’re missing out on half of what a tragedy can give you. 


MS:   Do you have a favorite song of your fathers?


AJC:  No.  I love a lot of his songs.   Just like all music I have no favorite artist…no favorite song.  Music is dso much about mood and emotion.  One morning you wake up and you want to hear Edith Piaf.  The next morning you wake up and you want to hear Zepplin.  Or you want to hear Ray Charles or Fats Waller or Little Richard.  Music is about emotion and mood and that’s such a beautiful thing. 


MS:  That’s a great answer.


AJC: (laughing) Thanks! 


A.J. Croce is currently on tour.  For more information, please visit his WEBSITE.

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