Jim Croce from Guitar Player Magazine, May, 1973

If you've followed the career of singer/guitarist/songwriter Jim Croce (CROW-chee), you know about his highly successful ABC album, You Don't Mess Around With Jim (ABCX-756). You also know about his hit single of that name and another "Operator," from the same album.

And you also know all the stories about Croce working as a truck driver, a telephone lineman, a tractor operator, a construction worker, etc. You've read that "...he is a gruff Italian laborer...with hands which are broad like a baseball catcher's."


Sure, Croce has worked at all those jobs, and like many of us he thoroughly enjoys physical work. But he's hardly the bullish Cretan we're led to believe. To the contrary. While his features are lined, his drooping mustache is full and his hair is wildly curly, he probably doesn't weigh more than 130 pounds, and he's not even six feet tall.

What Jim Croce is, though, is a very soft-spoken Philadelphian with a wry sense of humor. He has a deeply felt love of the ordinary in life, and of the extra-ordinary in music. On the one hand his lyrics are inspired by truckers he's known and laborer's he's bumped into; on the other his favorite guitarist include Christopher Parkening, Merle Travis and Jerry Reed.

"Like all kids in South Philly," he says, "I learned to play accordion. By the time I was six, I was shaking the bellows to 'Lady of Spain' just like everyone else." When the thirty-year old performer was eighteen he was working in a toy store where two other employees spent spare minutes hidden in the stock room playing the blues. With this inspiration he bought an old Stella 12-string for $5.00, but strangely enough the instrument immediately warped.

It was while Croce was at Villanova University that the folk music boom hit. Interested in going into radio, Jim worked on the school station, doing a three-hour folk and blues show where he was able to interview such guests as Mississippi John Hurt and Son House. Hearing this music constantly triggered his recollections of the music he listened to while he was growing up. His father loved traditional jazz, and the phonograph was seldom without a stack of Turk Murphy, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith or Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti records.

While in college, Jim formed a variety of bands, his 12-string in hand, and played whatever music the various fraternities wanted to hear. In his third year, the government tapped him to do an Embassy tour of Middle East and African nations, an experience he still relishes today. "We couldn't speak any of the languages," he recalls, but the music got across all the barriers. We ate just what the people ate, except I remember having a little trouble downing a cooked calf's foot once."

After graduation Croce took whatever gigs came along. He spent some time selling ads for a black R & B radio station, then worked a while at laboring. He was still playing guitar, though, a Gibson 12-string, and after listening to a lot of Joan Baez and Chet Atkins he began learning to fingerpick. Unfortunately that was about the time he busted his right index finger with a sledgehammer. But, undaunted, he worked assorted country bars, developing a picking technique that would ultimately include thumb and three fingers. Always 12-string, however, at least until 1970 when he turned this attention to the 6-string.

In 1966 he got married, and he and his wife Ingrid spent the summer at a children's camp in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania teaching ceramics and guitar. "My wife was into the ceramics and leather thing while I was trying to show ten year old kids who had been studying harmony and theory for years that music could still be fun."

In October he landed a job teaching Special Education classes at a South Philadelphia junior high. "I've still got scars on my hands from the knife wounds," he says. "I was the seventh teacher since that September." It's no wonder that he quit after that first year. It is a wonder, however, that he lasted as long as he did. "My job was, essentially, to teach the unteachable. They couldn't even read, so I'd tape songs by Supremes and the Drifters, then we'd study the lyrics as I played the tunes on the guitar. They loved it and were really getting somewhere, but it was a little too unorthodox for the Administration."

After a period in Mexico where Ingrid had a fellowship to study traditional pottery techniques, Jim was encouraged to try New York's coffeehouses by a Villanova friend, Tommy West (of Cashman and West, performers themselves, who later produced Croce's albums).

After doing the Village thing, he went on the road playing colleges across the country. There followed a little studio work in New York and a first album (Approaching on Capitol) which died an anonymous death ("It sold six copies in PX's in Thailand," he had said).

Let down with the way his career wasn't taking off, Jim and his wife returned to Philadelphia to live on an old farm. Things didn't fall together much better there, however, though they did have a son, Adrian. In the good weather Jim found work as an excavating contractor and then as a truck driver, but the winters were rough. In order to pay the rent many of those months in '69 and '70, Croce was forced to sell his valuable collection of Old Martins, Gibsons and Nationals one at a time.

But one thing all the truck driving did was allow for a lot of solitude during which Jim could think over what life held for him and his family. He went back to working occasional bars, some of which were pretty rough ("I can get my guitar off faster than anyone you ever saw"). And he went back to writing songs. When he had what he thought were a half dozen good ones, he taped them on a cassette, sending it to Cashman and West. As a result the fall of 1971 found Croce and Maury Muehleisen, his accompanist, recording "You Don't Mess Around With Jim" at the Hit Factory in New York. From there on, things have been coasting along pretty well. "Having a good time, is sure a lot better than hauling concrete," he says, "At least for a living."

While Jim was working a few free lance studio jobs in New York he was asked to play backup guitar a Capitol album called Gingerbread by Maury Muehleisen. Released in 1970, the album met the same fate as Croce's first. Total sales were barely 11,000. But when Jim began getting into music again a couple of years ago he searched out the 21 year old Maury to work with.

At the age of nine Muehleisen was studying piano, the lessons continued for 10 years. At seventeen he picked up a harmony classical guitar and began playing those folk songs that somehow didn't sound right on the piano. Changing to a Yamaha steel-string, Maury landed his first job - $25 per night in a New Jersey coffeehouse. The interest in piano disappeared while he was at Glassboro State in South Jersey, though he says he would like to get back to it again.

When they play concerts as a duo, Jim generally stays with the rhythm figures, leaving the leads and fills to Maury, though they'll sometimes swap the duties or mix them up. Croce uses a Martin D-35 but with a narrower neck which was added by a repairman-friend, Phil Petillo, in New Jersey. Petillo also shaved down the Martin's struts to make the guitar resonate a little more. The strings are Petillo's own brand.

Croce uses a Dobro thumb pick and three National metal fingerpicks. Maury switches between a stiff plastic flatpick and then a plastic thumb pick with three Stevens fingerpicks ("I like the Stevens because they can close down smaller to fit my tiny fingers").

Muehleisen plays a Martin D-18, and like Jim prefers very low action. And because he likes to bend the two top strings in solos, uses Ernie Ball Slinkies.

Maury and Jim work quite closely together on Croce's tunes. In the studio Maury will write out chord charts for the backing musicians, and neither he nor Jim will read notation.

The way the two men work may be typified by the structure of the popular "Operator." Maury explains, "Jim is open in G while I'm capoed on the fifth fret in D. He'll fingerpick the tune, I'll play some block chords behind him, then I'll pick the 6th with two fingers. At the end of the chorus I'll add a flatpicking run, then go back to block chords. I'll sing a little harmony here and there, too."

As simple as that.

(Since this article was written, Jim Croce released another album, Life and Times, on ABC. The number is ABCX-769. Again, Maury Muehleisen plays lead acoustic guitar while Jim plays rhythm and occasional fills.)

(Writer: Jim Crockett, " 1973, GPI.)
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