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A.J. Croce says 'I love you' in songs from his father Jim's repertoire

A.J. Croce had found his own success as a musician before taking up the songs of his famous father.

A.J. Croce had found his own success as a musician before taking up the songs of his famous father.

Jim Shea

There is no doubt that talented musician and natural storyteller A.J. Croce is his father’s son. But just how much he and Jim Croce share has become more transparent over the last year while he’s been on a tour honoring five decades since his dad’s death.

In September 1973, Jim was killed after his chartered tour plane crashed in Louisiana shortly after takeoff, halting a promising career that had just gotten started. After years spent toiling to find a way in the music industry, the Pennsylvania native finally got a break in the early '70s, leading to hits including “Operator” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” (a rough and tumble track set on the South Side of Chicago).

In just 18 months’ time, he released three albums that garnered five top 10 hits, securing his reputation as one of the great folk storytellers.

CROCE PLAYS CROCE

When: 8 p.m. April 6

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Ida B. Wells Dr.

Tickets: $41.50+

Info: ticketmaster.com

Jim was just 30 years old when he died, leaving behind his widow and former singing partner Ingrid and his only child, Adrian James aka A.J., who was just about to mark his second birthday. While the younger Croce never got to know his father, he has come to know him through stories and, of course, music.

“I think he was an interesting, complicated individual. He really embraced this sort of working-class, blue-collar ethos in his writing because he was, in a way, a fan of mythology,” A.J. shares in a phone call ahead of an April 6 concert at the Auditorium Theatre. The roughly 24-song Croce Plays Croce set borrows from all three of Jim’s albums as well as songs that inspired the two, generations apart. Stories, videos and photos round out the experience, shedding light on the Jim Croce that few knew much about — though curiosity remains high.

His tragic story “triggered one of the biggest posthumous sales booms in history,” according to Billboard, which noted Jim was only the third artist to place on the Hot 100 chart after death, alongside Otis Redding and Janis Joplin. In fact, Jim Croce’s appearance on early WTTW series “Made in Chicago” was rebroadcast on all national PBS affiliates shortly after his passing and was the catalyst for the long-running “Soundstage” program.

“I don’t often talk about this,” A.J. continues, “But I think there was a facet of his writing which he took from reading history and having degrees in psychology and language, that really inspired him to think of these sort of heroes as they appear in our modern and current age. And how they’re really everyday people who do something extraordinary, good or bad. … I think he wanted to make people laugh and feel good about themselves; that was a big part of his writing.”

It's an understanding A.J. has come to appreciate more recently, decades after shunning opportunities to perform Jim Croce standards on the stage. “I avoided performing the music for the first 25-30 years of my career as a means to gain success or to gain a name,” A.J. explains. He did that all on his own anyway.

A.J. took up piano “before I could walk” and was a savant, dabbling in jazz and soul and early rock ‘n’ roll as a child. , even as a debilitating case of blindness took hold for a time (a result of abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother’s then-boyfriend). By 15, he was a go-to session player in the family’s new home in San Diego and, by 16, he was touring with legendary R&B pianist/singer Floyd Dixon. “I would open for him and we’d finish the show with four-handed boogies,” A.J. shares. By 17, original “Heartbreak Hotel” writer Mae Axton heard A.J. play and got the budding talent set up with Sun Records’ producer Cowboy Jack Clement; his first session was filling in for Jerry Lee Lewis, playing with Elvis’ TCB band. A.J. got his first recording contract at 19 years old. Over time, he has released 10 studio albums (another one, produced by Shooter Jennings, is slated for 2025) and toured with everyone from Lenny Kravitz to Willie Nelson and B.B. King.

Jim Croce was 30 when he died in a plane crash in Louisiana.

Jim Croce was 30 when he died in a plane crash in Louisiana.

Paul Wilson

But always in the background was his father’s catalog. A.J. has been the gatekeeper and publisher of Jim Croce’s songs for the past 30 years, working with BMG on several reissues and box sets. Yet it was when he started diving into his father’s home recordings and decided to take up playing guitar later in life, using Jim’s 1933 Gibson L-00 (one of the most precious items recovered after a family house fire), that his relationship with his dad’s music started to shift.

“Initially it was really about having a new instrument to write songs on … in the process of that I started playing some of [Jim’s] music. I felt an obligation to learn it, even if I wasn’t going to play it [live],” says A.J.

Within that time, he also started to archive what little he had left of his dad’s possessions including reel to reels and cassette tapes Jim had made of his favorite tunes. “I heard this one recording … and it was some obscure stuff. Fats Waller and Bessie Smith and Pink Anderson and Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake … every single one of those songs I had been performing since I was a teenager. … And it really resonated — we have something in common here, not just the love of music and telling a story but this curious connection with our actual choices of songs.”

In 2013, A.J. hosted a show celebrating what would have been Jim’s 70th birthday and played his father’s songs publicly for the first time. As he recalls, “I saw this response and emotion the audience felt. … I don’t think I fully understood until that point that, while the audience might come to hear these songs and have this sort of nostalgic experience, they leave as new fans of mine.”

Part of that is the fact that A.J. — along with drummer Gary Mallaber, bassist David Barard and guitarist-violinist James Pennebaker — takes creative license with some of the material, giving it new life. “I’m not going off on a complete tangent with the hits, I’m respectful of them. … But I came from improvisational music and that comes through,” he shares.

In the end, A.J. says Croce Plays Croce is “really about the connection of a father and a son. It’s a musical legacy and two generations of musicians who, while they came from it from different angles, really loved so much of the same music.”

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