Song for My Father: AJ Croce Records Jim Croce's Final Song
By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing + Communications • August 11, 2017
Pictured above (l-r): Jim Croce (photo by Paul Wilson) and AJ Croce (photo by Sebastian Smith)
With its taut acoustic guitar, swirling Wurlitzer and soulful backing vocals, the new AJ Croce track "Name of the Game" sounds just as warm and swampy as the rest of Croce's new album, Just Like Medicine. But this is a very special song. It was the final song written by AJ's father Jim Croce, the Hall of Fame singer-songwriter behind classics like "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" and "Time in a Bottle," before he died in a plane crash in 1973. The song was intended for Jim's next album, but he never got the chance to record it beyond a demo. 40+ years later, AJ Croce has dusted off this undiscovered gem - he even had guitarist Colin Linden play the same 1933 Gibson LO that Jim used to write the song - and connected with the father that he never knew in the process.
You've recorded nine studio albums but never recorded one of your dad's songs before now. Why did now feel like the right time?
It's a bit of a trick question. Early on I wanted to have my own identity in life and music. I was a pianist so there wasn't much in his catalog that provided a challenge, except, that of being compared to him. I was influenced by soul music, jazz, early rock & roll, old gospel, so my roots were a bit different, or I thought they were. Late in life I picked up guitar, and being drawn to country blues finger style picking, it pulled me into the orbit of my father's music. It became fun to play through his songs. I still have no interest in recording his hits, since I don't think anyone will ever do them better than him. That said, "Name of the Game" was a soulful song that fit this album and was never recorded or released and it allowed me to have a sense of collaboration with him.
Was there anything new you learned about your dad from discovering and recording "The Name of the Game"?
About 15 years ago I began to understand that apart from growing up in different times and places, and the fact my dad was more influenced by certain styles of folk music and I by jazz, we had a lot in common as far as our taste in music. He loved old blues, country, Tin Pan Alley (standards), soul, R&B...I figured we had more in common musically than I had thought. It was that revelation of listening to his old living room tapes that made me realize it would be fun to do a show that incorporated our music and our influences. It took me about 10 years of practicing the guitar before diving into that concept of a concert (Croce - Two Generations of American Music), and now half a dozen times a year I play the show, and truly love it.
Your dad died when you were two years old. What was it like to get to know him through his creative output?
I guess it was through my mom, my dad's friends, family and his record collection that I got to know him. I was fortunate that he taped himself learning and writing songs from the mid-'60s on. Sometimes friends were over (like a tape we have when Cheech and Chong came over or another tape of the first incarnation of The Chieftains all singing bawdy ballads together). He and my godfather Sal would tape themselves talking about current events, singing songs and telling old stories. I'm lucky to have gotten to know him through those tapes. A lot of folks don't even get a photograph of a lost parent.
"The Name of the Game" is one of the few songs on the album not written or co-written by you. How did you ensure it would fit with the rest of Just Like Medicine?
I left that to Dan Penn. Since we recorded an analog mono recording in one room and had 16 tracks going to tape, you're playing and singing live with the same players and aren't using pitch correction software, you have the benefit of things being similar and organic.
I didn't bring a Jim Croce song to Dan. I brought many songs to him and didn't say who wrote what. Dan chose the ones he liked and one was written by my dad. I hadn't thought of even bringing it but the day before tracking I played through about 15 tunes and threw it in the mix.
Why was it important to record Just Like Medicine in the old-school way, straight to tape? Did that present any challenges?
Most people listen to music on low-fi devices (phones, laptops, streaming MP3s), sort of the modern version of a transistor radio. Mono sounded better on those old radios and it sounds better on an iPhone.
Dan's studio is a reflection of his life in music, some gear is really old and you see every era of gear up to the present. I like the sound of vintage gear but the reality is that even if it's maintained, it's old. Some things aren't as reliable as they once were, so that is the nature of an aesthetic i like. You can't recreate the past. The inconsistencies of old gear creates a happy accident as often as it does a headache.
I was talking to John Simon (producer/arranger/musician) who produced my first record (with T-Bone Burnett) and arranged horns on a song on this LP. When I explained why I wanted to record in mono he made a suggestion, a secret of '60s mono records he produced. He said "use discrete echo returns." It tricks the ear into thinking you're hearing stereo. You can be the judge of whether it worked.
You worked with so many legends on this album - Dan Penn, Steve Cropper, Vince Gill, the Muscle Shoals Horns, you even wrote a song with Leon Russell. When you're collaborating with big names like that, each of which has such a strong creative personality, what do you do to keep your own creative vision central?
Be yourself and make sure your voice is loud in the mix. I'm very grateful for all of the folks who joined the party. Since I wrote or co-wrote all but one song, my voice, piano or lyrics are hard to miss. Funny you ask because I was a little nervous about how loud my voice was in the mix, but Dan has followed the same rules of mixing vocals that Jerry Wexler taught him on their early collaborations in Muscle Shoals and Memphis.
From the sound of it, these new songs are gonna be killer live. Are you planning to play them pretty much as you recorded them?
Most of this album can be played solo exactly like the record but I'll be touring in many configurations, so each one offers an opportunity to arrange the music in a unique way that often only happens once.
About AJ Croce
AJ Croce has always traveled on his own musical road. For more than 25 years, the creative pop iconoclast has tapped a variety of Americana sounds in crafting his music. Croce’s nine albums have appeared on Top 40, AAA, Americana, College and Jazz charts and when his breakout sophomore CD That’s Me in the Bar was reissued recently, it wound up charting in two separate decades. A virtuoso piano player, Croce performed at a TED Talk and gave a master class at the University of Barcelona. Over his 25-year career he has shared the stage with an innumerable list of eclectic artists, from Lyle Lovett to Ray Charles, Béla Fleck to James Brown, Lenny Kravitz to Morphine and Rod Stewart to Dave Matthews. He’s also sat in with many notable performers, including Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, Ry Cooder, the Neville Brothers, and Waylon Jennings. He’s co-written with acclaimed songwriters including Leon Russell, Gary Nicholson and Robert Earl Keen and worked with legendary producers such as T-Bone Burnett, Jim Keltnerand Allen Toussaint. Toussaint said of Croce: “In such a crowded music universe it is a pleasure to witness triple uniqueness: pianist, songwriter, singer and at such a level. And who does he sound like? The answer is: himself … AJ Croce.” And according to Willie Nelson, “AJ Croce has wisdom beyond his years. With his music, he represents his generation with a profound sense of honesty in his lyrics and quality in his delivery. The future of entertainment is safe in his hands!” Find out more about AJ at www.ajcrocemusic.com.