For two years in the early 1970s, Jim Croce gave us hit after hit, and then he was gone, leaving behind three studio albums, one of them released posthumously. Croce’s songs—“You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” “Operator,” “Time in a Bottle,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and many others found a corner niche where folk meets pop. Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and others were in the same neighborhood, but Jim Croce was earthier and funnier (when he wanted to be), and his songs crossed demographic lines that other folk-rock and folk-pop artists never approached.
I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story is the best biography of Croce that we’re likely to ever get. Ingrid Croce, Jim’s widow, and her husband Jimmy Rock have given us the Jim Croce that most of us never knew. When we learn details about his relationships with his parents, his wife, and the blue-collar denizens of his working life, Jim’s songs acquire even more depth upon listening to them again. Ingrid Croce does an admirable job of straddling the line between objective biographer and key player in the events she writes about. In order to understand Jim, we have to understand Ingrid, and vice versa. This is not a sugar-coated story at all. Neither Jim nor Ingrid is presented as saintly, although both of them come across as complex and appealing.
Jim Croce’s blue collar persona was not an affectation. Blue collar is exactly what he was. Although he was a graduate of Villanova, he earned a living doing blue-collar work and playing music. When a photographer came to Jim’s house to take some pictures for his first album, he had two choices of what to wear: his wedding suit, or jeans, t-shirt, and denim jacket.
I Got a Name is not a story about a star. “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” becomes a hit about two-thirds of the way through the book. From that point on, the book details Croce’s quick success and its all-too-soon end. This is a story about living an artistic life—how one couple struggled to follow and develop their artistic instincts. We also see what happens when artists trust sleazy business types. Jim Croce had what must have been one of the all-time worst business arrangements in the history of popular music. For most of his two years in the limelight, Jim was receiving $200 a week, and Ingrid shopped in thrift stores.
The importance of Maury Muehleisen, Jim Croce’s “one-man band,” is also conveyed here. I’ve always been fascinated by Maury. He accompanied Jim Croce in virtually every appearance I ever saw. He is right there in all the videos, and he died with Jim. He was a brilliant guitarist and harmonizing vocalist, but I never heard him say a word. In I Got a Name, Maury Muehleisen finally gets his due as a sweet, sincere, humble musical genius. When Maury and Jim played and sang together, two voices and two guitars came together to form one tight musical entity.
Jim Croce has been gone for 40 years. He would be almost 70 years old. Am I alone in thinking it could be time for a stage musical about his life? The success of Once might indicate a market for a compelling story anchored by this kind of music.