Like many working folks, A.J. Croce went into the family business.
“A lot of us do end up following the profession of our parents, whether it’s being a plumber or in construction or being a musician, lawyer, doctor – it’s very common. It’s the family business. Even if your father or mother do it, you do it the way you do it. You’re maybe in the same field but you find your way of being unique.”
A.J.’s dad wasn’t a plumber, though “he did construction, he did drive trucks, he was a teacher, he was a deejay, he did a lot of things.” Most notably, his father Jim was one of the great American songwriters, someone able to portray real people, places and moments he’d encountered in his too-brief time in a lasting way.
Before he died in a 1973 plane crash, Jim Croce wrote the iconic songs “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “Time in A Bottle,” “Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels),” “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and many others. He was only 30, with a surging career and a toddler – A.J. – at home when he passed. Jim’s songs have been there all A.J.’s life and A.J.’s taken them on the road for the Croce Plays Croce 50th Anniversary Tour. The tour stops at Bayou Music Center Sunday, December 10.
The show features Jim’s music and songs from A.J.’s own catalog of 10 records, plus a multi-media experience and a full band of veteran players bringing the music to life. Croce said this is the first time his father’s music is getting the full band treatment, since Jim mostly performed the songs with sideman Maury Muehleisen.
“So, of course we’re going to play the big hits and, for the most part, we play them pretty faithfully. There might be a couple of little things here or there that are different. I’m not trying to be a sound-alike, I am my own artist. It’s not quite your normal cover band being that all the musicians that are part of this are all wonderful, Grammy-winning musicians onstage. It’s kind of unique in this way.
“When you ask about the setlist, it changes night to night. We’re of course going to play the hits but we also open up, I guess you’d call it ‘the request line,’ so to speak,” Croce added. “That’s when people can shout out the deep cuts. So, if they want to hear something, we play it. Every night it’s different. Last night, I was in Florida. Someone wanted ‘Alabama Rain,’ someone wanted ‘Photographs and Memories,’ ‘These Dreams,’ ‘Lover’s Cross,’ ‘One Less Set of Footsteps,’ – and you know, they’re shouting out all these songs and I’m like yeah, we can do that. I find a way to put it in the set. And that changes the show every night.
“There are so many songs, so many great songs, I can’t play them all in one night and make the show work, but it is really, really fun to do this. And the band is so good.
“They’re really wonderful, wonderful players,” Croce continued. “They’re veteran players who really take this music and the sensitivity of it seriously but also take the fun that we have even more seriously.”
Croce is joined by drummer Gary Mallaber (Van Morrison/Steve Miller Band), bassist/singer David Barard (Dr. John), and guitarist/violinist James Pennebaker (Delbert McClinton), along with background singers Jackie Wilson and Katrice Donaldson. A.J. is a multi-instrumentalist, a virtuoso pianist who learned guitar to perform his dad’s repertoire.
Croce wasn’t always earnest about playing Croce. A.J. didn’t lean into performing Jim’s music live until recently, focused on his own career as he was. And, he said, it might surprise some of Jim’s fans to know his father was influential but perhaps not the biggest or sole influence on his music, which is jazzier and bluesier than Jim’s folky, singer-songwriter stylings.
“I got turned onto music in movies. I remember seeing Stranger Than Paradise as a 13 year-old and of course I knew Allen Toussaint because I knew ‘Working in the Coalmine,’ which my folks had sung together, but I didn’t really fully get the music until I fell in love with Irma Thomas and needed to know how Allen Toussaint did what he did,” he said of one of his major influences, with whom he would eventually work. “It became almost a mission to dissect and learn how the arrangements were put together, what he played and why did he play it that way and how the words played a role. I know music from both sides, as an artist and a performer but also as a huge music fan.
“There is a certain element to my father and my father’s music that, in a way, makes it feel like he never left. His presence is always here for me in the sense that the music has always been part of my life. What it meant and making sure that his legacy was preserved in a respectful way has been part of my job for 30 years. I take it personally and I take it seriously.
“That being said, I learned more and probably was inspired to do what I do by the fact that my father had such an amazing record collection. Listening to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and Solomon Burke and old blues like Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James and Bessie Smith and Fats Waller and Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams – all of these different types of things and rock and roll that I got into, like the ‘50s stuff, of course, Little Richard. Ray Charles was my gateway drug. He’s the one that really - because I lost my sight at a young age - I was really turned onto him and Stevie (Wonder) and they became inspirations for me.”
In spite of losing partial eyesight at a young age and his father’s too-early demise, Croce was armed with confidence. He was playing gigs by the age of 15 and toured with Ray Charles and B.B. King before turning 21. He’s performed with Willie Nelson, the Neville Brothers, Ry Cooder and a wide array of musicians and has written songs with Leon Russell, Robert Earl Keen and others.
Croce has a long history playing Houston venues like Rockefeller's and Mucky Duck
Photo by Jim Shea, courtesy of R&CPMK
“It was certainly the fact that my parents played music for a living that gave me a certain knowing or maybe confidence in the sense that it can be done, that it’s not impossible. I never pursued it because of fame or fortune, this is a calling. This is a rollercoaster ride. There are years that are great and years that are really hard, you know? There are no guarantees in this line of work but if you love it, it doesn’t matter. If you love it, it’s the gig you’re playing right now that makes you feel alive.”
That’s the heart of the Croce family business, the company motto, one might say. Jim would have been 80 this year and we wondered what might have made him proudest about A.J.’s career?
“Do we know what would make our parents proud? I don’t know. Sometimes we do and we choose to do otherwise and sometimes we do the thing and we’re surprised that they’re proud of us,” Croce laughed. “I think the idea that I followed my instincts and I was, I guess in spite of my bullheadedness and stubbornness, able to have success and do this for a living would probably make him proud. I did it, I feel, without compromising integrity. I didn’t take the offers that were given to me in my late teens and early twenties that would have probably made me far wealthier. At least certainly at the time it could have been really helpful. But I just didn’t think that was right, so I had to follow my own compass.”
The compass is directing Croce to Houston this week, a place he’s got friends and has played often, during music fests, at the Mucky Duck, down on Washington at Rockefeller’s. He’s not sure if his dad had a strong connection to the city, but he’s going to strengthen that bond by playing his songs, which are still finding new audiences in 2023 thanks to films like Django Unchained and TV shows like Stranger Things. Croce said as a musician and a son, it’s gratifying to see the importance of music to people first-hand.
“It’s daily and really powerful and humbling. Music has a way of connecting us all that is unexplainable. It’s one of the few places where we can all be ourselves regardless of our belief systems or ideologies. It is pure. It allows us to all be ourselves,” he said.
Croce Plays Croce 50th Anniversary Tour, 8 p.m. Sunday, December 10 at Bayou Music Center, 520 Texas. $39.75 and up.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.