Monday, September 3, 2012

You Don't Mess Around With Jim, by Jim Croce

While only a fleeting 5-year recording career, Jim Croce charted an impressive ten songs in Billboard’s “Hot 100,” with eight of those hits reaching the top 40 and five reaching the top 10, two of which reached the #1 spot, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and “Time In A Bottle,” both in 1973. Croce’s third album, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, spent 5 weeks at #1 in 1974 and is his best. The album was also his commercial breakthrough, spawning three top-20 singles, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim (#8, 1972),” “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels) (#17, 1972),” and the aforementioned, “Time In A Bottle (#1, 1973),” which gained momentum after being featured in a long-forgotten TV movie, “She Lives!” 

But the hit singles were only a small part of this album’s impact.The non-singles on the album contain hidden gems, which reflect some of Croce’s favorite themes, including the playful country romp, “Hard Time Losin’ Man,” with its twangy, back porch shuffle and saucy background vocals, and the contemplative, “Walkin’ Back To Georgia,” where the disillusioned narrator returns humbly to his hometown sweetheart after failing his dreams (in fact, Croce seemed particularly drawn to that specific sentiment, revisiting the topic for several songs on this album alone: the Georgia tune as well as “New York’s Not My Home” and “Box #10”). 

The best non-single on the album and the song that finds its way onto most Croce compilations is “A Long Time Ago,” which is characteristically Croce: mellow, maudlin, and catchy as hell. A close second is "Photographs And Memories," which is, again, maudlin and catchy, has also become a perennial Christmas holiday classic. The optimistic album closer, “Hey Tomorrow,” turned out to be both prophetic and, tragically, short-lived for the author.

That Jim Croce is a musician who’s not received his due can likely be relegated to two mitigating factors: 1.) his untimely death at the age of 30, and 2.) his widow, Ingrid’s, ongoing battle with his recording and publishing companies that, seeing his hit-making potential early-on, signed the young and naïve musician to a horrifyingly unfair contract. Eventually, Ingrid was victorious, winning back royalties for her husband’s catalogue and spending the next 40 years promoting his legacy through various reissues and compilations. Over the years, Croce has often been described as “the voice of the American workingman,” and I guess that means because his songs describe “everyday people” in “everyday situations,” but I’ve always struggled with that moniker. I think Croce’s go-to themes: love, loss, striving, losing, and hopeful persistence, are universal and transcend any one sub-group. Who hasn’t felt those things?

I believe it was my brother, Jay, who introduced my siblings and me to Jim Croce, and when I was very young, I sometimes confused my brother and Croce as the same person (I know, crazy, isn’t it? I also used to believe as a small child that Paul Williams was merely the shorter iteration of John Denver – sigh…too many episodes of “Big John, Little John,” I guess). I’ve often wondered what Croce’s career and life might have been like had he survived the plane crash. How might he have evolved, artistically? Would he have ventured into disco (don’t laugh, Seals and Crofts did it!) or songs about outer space as so many did in the latter part of the 70’s (I’m lookin’ at you, Elton John, David Bowie, and Karen & Richard Carpenter!)? Would he have included synthesizers and drum machines in his 1980’s albums (vis-à-vis Carole King, Joni Mitchell)? How might his “Vh1: Behind The Music” episode have played out in the 1990’s had Croce lived? Would there have been a stint in rehab? How many “experimental periods” might we have had to endure? Sigh… Sadly, we’ll never know, and honestly, I suspect I would have hung in there with him through all of it. 

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