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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Jim Croce’s son brings new meaning to music of his famous father

A.J. Croce barely knew his father but Jim Croce’s music transcends time and resonates in the soulful spirit of his son.
Jim Croce died in an airplane crash in 1973. Fifty years later, his son stood on stage at Savannah Center Thursday before a sellout crowd. A.J. displayed the eternal power and joy of Jim Croce’s music.
You might label this concert, “a father and child reunion.”


The Croces had little time together – A.J. was about to turn 2 when his father died. Despite the tragic separation, they share a musical, family bond that death could not break.
A.J. Croce’s remarkable talent and musical majesty was on vibrant display throughout the nearly two-hour concert. He played most of his father’s memorable songs and other styles of music, including: ragtime, jazz, rock, Cajun, gospel and pop.
The hits included: “Operator,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” “I Got A Name,” “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” and “I Have to Say I Love You In a Song.”
Like his father, A.J., 52, showed humor and grace while telling stories. He also invited the lively and boisterous crowd to “shout, stomp and sing along.” A.J. flashed virtuoso skill on piano, in addition to playing keyboards, along with electric and acoustic guitar.
But this night was about more than entertainment. It was about a son coming to grips with family history and musical roots.
It reminded some of the Jim Croce lyric: “I got a name…. And I carry it with me like my daddy did.”
It was an emotional night, especially at the end, when a large video screen behind the stage showed Jim Croce playing on the grass with his toddler son. The stage lights went up as A.J. sang one of his father’s most revered songs, “Time In a Bottle.”

AJ Croce displayed his musical versatility during a concert Thursday in Savannah Center
A.J. Croce displayed his musical versatility during a concert Thursday in Savannah Center.

The song was written by Jim Croce for his wife, Ingrid, and infant son A.J.
“I was watching the screen; hearing the music and when A.J. started singing, I just started crying,” said Shirley Sirkis, a firefighter who lives and works in The Villages. “This concert was so special. It felt very intimate and very sentimental.

Villager Shirley Sirkis was deeply moved by AJ Croce singing the songs of his father
Villager Shirley Sirkis was deeply moved by A.J. Croce singing the songs of his father.


“A.J. was dealing with his father’s music with such honesty. It was beautifully done.”
Gary Mallaber is one of the top session drummers in music and has played with Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Bob Seger, Eddie Money and Steve Miller, among others.

Drummer Gary Mallaber plays with AJ Croce and has played with Bruce Springsteen Van Morrison and Steve Miller
Drummer Gary Mallaber plays with AJ Croce and has played with Bruce Springsteen Van Morrison and Steve Miller.

“It took A.J. a long time to come out and play his father’s music,” said Mallaber, who plays drums in Croce’s touring band. “He kind of ignored his father’s music. But he changed a couple years ago, and pivoted to that music. It  became a part of him and he loves playing those songs.”

AJ Croce paid tribute to his father the late Jim Croce in a joyful and emotional concert
AJ Croce paid tribute to his father the late Jim Croce in a joyful and emotional concert.

When A.J. turned 50, he had a musical epiphany and described his father’s songs this way to CBS: “I realized that he’s part of my life and I’m a part of his legacy. And I felt it was important at a certain age and at a certain maturity to embrace it.”
A.J. more than embraced that music during his performance. He opened with a rousing “Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” while sitting at the piano.

Then it was time for some Jim Croce humor on “Roller Derby Queen.” He talked about his father being in the Army and waiting with other soldiers to use a public telephone.

“He was able to listen to them talking and there’s nothing more interesting than listening to other people’s tragedies,” A.J. said with a smile. “We all hate to admit it, but we do.”
That intro set the stage for “Operator,” another Jim Croce classic. A.J. played acoustic guitar and brought the emotion of the song to life. The same could be said for a wistfully elegant “Photographs and Memories.”
The beat picked up on “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues.” The song “Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy”) featured some hard-rocking Chuck Berry guitar licks.
“My Dad had a very brief career – 18 months and three albums,” A.J. said. Jim Croce was working on his fourth studio album when he died.

The last song he wrote was “Name of the Game.” That song was dormant for nearly 50 years when A.J. decided to complete and record it.
“This is the only song I worked on with my father,” he said. “I wanted to make it sound the way it would have sounded in 1974.”
The song featured a steady, blues beat, with a rocking flavor. It had hints of Jim Croce’s “Working At the Car Wash Blues” and a slower version of “Speedball Tucker.”

A.J. offered more than his father’s songs. He put some soul into Billy Preston’s “Nothing From Nothing,” in addition to other numbers featuring gospel, rhythm and blues, and some New Orleans style boogie-woogie.

He finished the set with “I Got A Name,” and earned a loud and long, standing ovation. Then he and his three-piece band and two female back-up singers returned for the final number, “Time In a Bottle.”
It was one of the most enjoyable and emotional shows of the year at Savannah. “Thanks for coming,” A.J. told the crowd, and he seemed genuinely moved by the people’s response to the music.
One audience member summed up the feeling in the auditorium when he yelled out: “thank you for being here.”

Tony Violanti covers music and entertainment for Villages-News.com. He was inducted into The Buffalo Music Hall of Fame as a music journalist.

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