Wednesday, August 12, 2015
TMFW 101 - Jim Croce's Parents Bet on a Flop
Jim Croce was just 30 years old when he died in a plane crash in September 1973. He was already a successful artist: his first singles "You Don't Mess Around With Jim" and "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)" were a top-10 and top-20 hit, respectively, and "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" spent two weeks at #1 in July 1973. It was still on the charts when he died.
Less than three months after his death, Croce's final studio album I Got a Name was released, which featured the title track "I Got a Name" and the singles "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song," and "Workin' At the Car Wash Blues." All three were top-40 hits (the first two were top-10), and by the end of 1973 each of Croce's three major studio records were certified Gold.
All of that introduction is a way of saying that Croce's career was short, but it was prolific. Today's TMFW is that, if it had been up to his parents, Croce's career would have been even shorter.
Croce was a struggling and poor musician and was only 23 years old when he married his wife Ingrid in August 1966. In college, he had played at fraternity parties and coffee houses, but while he had a passion for music he apparently didn't approach music as a profession with any real seriousness. His parents wanted their son to use his college degree to find success in a more mainstream line of work, and thought that if Croce tried and failed to make a record that might get the music business out of his system. So for Jim and Ingrid's wedding (or maybe engagement), Croce's parents gave the couple $500, with the stipulation that the money had to be used to make an album. As Ingrid recalls in her book about Croce's songs, "Jim's mom and dad gave Jim the opportunity to make an album, as our engagement gift. They hoped that if Jim completed this project he would be finished with his childhood dream of becoming a musician and get a 'real job.'"
The result of the $500 investment was Croce's first album Facets. The record, a collection of mostly traditional and cover songs, was completed in one 3-hour studio session. Most songs were finished on the first take, and you can hear the unpolished, ad-hoc character in each of the tracks. Croce pressed 500 copies of the album, and offered them for sale for $5 at his gigs. They sold out almost immediately. Inspired by his success and his nice profit, and no doubt to his parents' dismay, Croce dove headlong into a music career and never looked back.
So there's your TMFW for today: Jim Croce's parents made a bet against his success, and accidentally started his career. We are all better for it.
BONUS FACT: Today's TMFW was inspired by an appreciation my wife and I were sharing over Mr. Croce's excellent oeuvre. Croce is a favorite of hers, ever since as a young girl she bought a used cassette of his greatest hits, on a lark, with her paper route money. (That's a true story.)
BONUS FACT 2: After his modest success with Facets in 1966, Croce struggled for several years and didn't find larger commercial success until 1972. In the meantime, he worked as a truck driver and a construction worker while writing music on the side. His time in those fields gave him inspiration for some of his more blue collar songs.
BONUS FACT 3: The plane crash that killed Croce was probably the result of the aircraft hitting a lonely pecan tree a few hundred yards from the runway. According to a contemporary news report of the crash, "[i]nvestigators said the tree, a large pecan, was the only tree for hundreds of yards."
As for why the pilot was flying low enough to hit it that far off of the runway? Well, according to the NTSB accident report he had run 3 miles from a nearby motel to the airport just before the flight, and had "severe coronary artery disease." A theory is that the stress of the run caused the pilot to have a heart attack during takeoff. What a bizarre accident.
BONUS FACT 4: The all-time great wrestler Junkyard Dog (R.I.P.) got his name from the line "meaner than a junkyard dog" in "Bad Bad Leroy Brown." For a time, that song was JYD's entrance music.
BONUS FACT 5: On a road trip a couple of years ago, my wife and I were singing along with "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)." Our daughter asked us what the lyrics meant, and we found ourselves explaining the idea of making a call from a pay phone and seeking live directory assistance to find someone's number. That blew her 8-year-old mind, as did Croce's offer at the end of the call that "you can keep the dime." Nowadays, it might be called "OK Google (That's Not The Way It Feels)."