Photographs and Memories

Jim Croce, 40 years later.

In the summer of 1973, when I was nine, my father took me and two of my friends to a Phillies game at the Vet. As we drove down the Northeast Extension from our home outside Scranton, one of that summer’s biggest hits blared through the AM radio of our brown Ford LTD, and the entire car sang along:

Bad, bad Leroy Brown
The baddest man in the whole …

At which point my friends and I stopped, not wanting to sing the next word in front of my father, who nonetheless kept barreling through the song:

… Baddest man in the whole DAMN town
Badder than old King Kong,
and meaner than a junkyard dog

It was the first time I ever heard my father use a swear word, and also one of the last. (On bad language, my father liked to quote his father: “Cursing is the crutch of the conversational cripple.”)

Is that why Jim Croce, the Philadelphian who wrote and recorded “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” occupies such a special place in my consciousness? Or maybe it’s this: One morning a few months later, I came down to breakfast and my father told me that Croce had been killed the night before in a plane crash in Louisiana. He was 30.

Native of South Philly, graduate of Upper Darby High School and Villanova, Croce is only sometimes included in the pantheon of Rock Stars Who Died Too Young, and perhaps that’s understandable. He wasn’t a cultural force—just an excellent songwriter whose work ranged from bluesy story songs about pimps and street hustlers to more emotionally complex acoustic ballads that retain their beauty, at least to my ears, 40 years later. (Skip the treacly “Time in a Bottle” and focus instead on “Lover’s Cross.”)

I sometimes wonder what would have happened to Croce’s career if he’d lived. After all, disco was just around the corner, with punk and New Wave coming after that and MTV just a few years beyond. By the time Madonna was making hits, would Croce have been relegated to the land of Whatever Happened To? Then again, you can probably make the argument that Bruce Springsteen’s entire blue-collar oeuvre springs directly from Croce’s “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues,” and that Garth Brooks built a pretty swell career rewriting Croce’s “Alabama Rain.”

Jim Croce passed away 40 years ago this month, a Philadelphian who became famous enough but not nearly as famous as he should have been. My 80-year-old father died 18 months ago, not famous at all but having lived a life of joy and integrity. It’s a blessing that the music made by one of them still makes me think so lovingly of the other. —tom mcgrath

  • Guest

    Dear Tom, Thank you for sharing your father-son memory and for remembering Jim Croce. Forty years ago, when my husband and Maury Muehleisen and four others died in a plane crash, there were a lot very, very sad folks who still their passing to this day.
    But happily, Jim’s songs do live on and we are celebrating his life and music still today… and hopefully…for a long time to come. Ingrid Croce.

  • Ingrid Croce

    Ingrid Croce
    • a few seconds ago

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    Dear Tom, Thank you for sharing your father-son memory and for remembering Jim Croce. Forty years ago, when my husband and Maury Muehleisen and four others died in a plane crash, there were a lot very, very sad folks who still remember their passing to this day. Happily though, Jim’s songs do live on and we are celebrating his life and music still today… and hopefully, for a long time to come.
    Ingrid Croce.

  • Tom McDonnell

    I remember that day when I found out Jim Croce died and it was like the same feeling I had 10 years earlier when JFK died. Very sad as Jim was becoming a great singer who was taken before his time, but his music will live on forever. Thanks for this article.

  • Tom McDonnell

    Speaking of Bad Bad Leroy Brown, I remember hearing that song while going over the Platt Bridge in Philly and seeing a junkyard full of cars.

  • Steve Angelucci

    There will be a benefit concert to commemorate the anniversary of the passing of Jim Croce. It will take place on Saturday, Sept. 21 at 7:30 pm at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center in Drexel Hill, Pa. All proceeds will go toward creation of a scholarship in Jim’s name.

    The concert will be the highlight of a weekend of Jim Croce events called “The Gathering.” There will be two nights of informal fan gatherings and jams at the host hotel, the Comfort Inn in Essington and a bus tour of sites important to Jim on Saturday with the concert
    taking place that night.

    More info can be found at: http://www.jimcrocefans.com
    and http://www.udpac.org/.

  • SoCalMediaSurfer

    Love this but would NEVER Skip Time in a Bottle, it is one of the most beautiful lyrics out there and so very emotionally tied to the way you feel when you are in love. Guess it may be a “Girly” thing but it and Photographs and Memories are my favorites by Jim Croce. Your dad sounds like one of those “Salt of the Earth” types you love to have as a friend. Jim would have had a great career and would have given us more of the same that we loved from him. I was 13 that summer and also loved that song, singing it loud and proud around my neighborhood, Miccilina Piraino, San Diego Resident, Fan of Croces, All of Em! ((HUGS)) to Ingrid, AJ and Jimmy R. I will be there on the 20th!

  • Dave Michael

    Jim was the first singer I started listening to as a kid. I remember the morning walking to my school bus and seeing the headline that Jim had been killed. Most people when hearing “American Pie” think of Buddy Holly, I on the other hand always remember Jim. Have loved his music for the past 40 years his songs always make me smile, but also sad because I think of what he still had to share had he not been stolen from us WAY TOO SOON

  • Matt

    Lovely article on a great singer. Thanks for sharing your memories!