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