Singing in the shadow
A.J. Croce forges his own path
By Chris Jay 07/21/2011
The offspring of any famous artist who tries to follow in a father’s or mother’s footsteps usually falls in one of two different categories: Riding the coat tails and using the last name to get attention, long before it’s ever warranted, or the equally depressing scenario of the son or daughter being just as talented as the parent but never finding anyone to listen in any context outside of the very large shadow that’s already been cast.
The scenario becomes even worse if the famous parent is no longer with us. Throw in a “gone too soon” tragic passing, and it’s next to impossible for the kid ever to be able to stand on his or her own work and talent.
If ever there were to be a poster boy for a superb talent having to live in his father’s shadow, A.J. Croce would be a likely candidate. Though he’s forged his own career for close to 20 years, to many he still remains best-known as the sole son of the late, beloved singer-songwriter, Jim Croce.
A quick note on Jim Croce. The curly-haired, bushy-mustached author of such classics as “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “Operator, (That’s Not the Way it Feels),” “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Time in a Bottle,” was only 30 years old when his plane crashed after leaving a concert in Louisiana in 1973. The crash instantly killed Croce and the four other passengers on board, which included his backup guitarist, the highly overlooked, Maury Muehleisen.
To make matters even more tragic, Croce had only recently experienced success and had yet to see any of the financial rewards. Even worse, his wife, Ingrid, who at one time had performed with Jim as a duo, was widowed with their only child, Adrian James Croce, just days shy of his second birthday.
While Croce’s short but impressive legacy grew and his record sales soared, his grieving and nearly impoverished wife was forced to raise a young son alone as well as to spending years in grueling legal battles before ever receiving any of her husband’s royalties. Meanwhile, tragedy struck again when, just two years later, Adrian James suffered an illness that left him temporarily blind.
Adrian James was left to learn about his legendary father through his music and through other people’s memories and stories. Nonetheless, even without direct exposure to his father, the music was still very much inside him, and during his recovery he began to learn the piano.
Fast-forward a few years, and after some extensive traveling around the world with his mom, who went on to open the enormously popular San Diego restaurant Croce’s, A.J. was off on his own, to begin his own musical career. Far from copying his father’s finger-picked acoustic guitar story songs, A.J.’s songs were more piano-based with elements of blues and jazz and clearly inspired by a healthy diet of Stevie Wonder and Dr. John.
That’s where the frustration for an A.J. Croce fan comes in. The man has paid his dues. Despite his own songwriting, which has become more solid and accessible with each passing album, and despite years in the music business complete with major TV appearances and some minor chart success, Croce, who is turning 40 later this year, has only managed to carve out a cult following, performing at smaller singer-songwriter friendly venues like Zoey’s where he will share the bill with Norah Jones’ guitarist Adam Levy this week. The show marks the well-traveled Croce’s first-ever appearance in Ventura and those who make the effort to catch him will be treated to a performance of a seasoned veteran who, in a fairer world, should be around the corner filling the Ventura Theater. From a mainstream success standpoint, it seems entirely possible that A.J. Croce would have experienced a lot more success if he weren’t the son of Jim Croce. A.J. himself is open and honest about the sometimes bittersweet role that being the son of a famed musician has been.
“I’m glad I didn’t use the name to try to jump ahead in line. There would have definitely been more exposure and probably more money (laughs) but the nature of celebrity, or secondhand celebrity, really does change how people treat and view you,” explains a reflective Croce. “People see the name and suddenly they’re a whole different person. Disappointing to see sometimes. With that said, I really do love his songs. He reached so many people. The stories I get to hear, so touching, really moving. I am always grateful to hear them. I think I’ve reached a nice place where I can help in my own way to keep his legacy alive, play a few songs of his every night, help with placements in TV and film for his music, but I still have my own career. I definitely feel that I’ve kept my integrity as an artist.”
A.J. Croce performs at Zoey’s on Thursday, July 21. For more information and tickets, visit www.zoeyscafe.com.