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Italians Who Changed the Music Industry: Jim Croce

There are few songwriters whose legacy includes inspiring Dolly Parton, Frank Sinatra, Lykke Li, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Jim Croce, however, was no ordinary songwriter. 

Born in 1943 to an Italian American family living in South Philadelphia, Croce was always musical but started taking it seriously when he was a student at Villanova. Here, Croce formed his earliest bands. He would play anywhere and everywhere, from fraternity houses to coffee shops. The ethos would prepare him well for life as a folk singer. 

In 1966, Croce recorded his first album, Facets. Only 500 copies were made. However, every single one sold. While it was an auspicious sign of what was eventually to come, Croce was far from an overnight success. After the album was released, he went back to gigging wherever he could around Pennsylvania. He did a stint in New York City in 1968 but didn’t take to the music business. Soon enough, he was back in Pennsylvania working strings of odd jobs.

For a while, it seemed like this would be Croce’s fate: living a regular working-class life while scribbling down songs for himself. However, when his wife became pregnant, Croce was filled with new resolve to make it in music. 

It was just the push he needed. In 1972, Croce was signed on to make three albums for ABC Records. The first record was You Don’t Mess Around With Jim. The album’s good performance was a welcome surprise. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels,” “Time In A Bottle,” and the title track all made it on the charts. His follow-up record, Life & Times, yielded his first number-one hit – and the now-classic folk song– “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Finally, Croce was starting to gain recognition for being the folk hero that he was. With the third album already in the pipeline, momentum was at an all-time high– until it wasn’t. 

The day before the lead single from I Got A Name was released, Croce (and five others) died in a plane crash in Louisiana. Croce was only thirty years old. He had only gotten the briefest taste of his success.

In a twist of fate that seems like it could be pulled from a folk song itself, Croce became a household name only after he died. I Got A Name was released posthumously and went straight to number one. Now that the world was finally paying attention to Croce, they wanted more: His sophomore album entered the charts and went to number two. Suddenly, the Top 10 was full of singles by Croce. 

It has been decades since Croce was alive to steward his legacy himself. However, legions of fans and dozens of artists have done the work for him. His songs have been covered by icons across all genres of music, highlighting how Croce had tapped into something universal with his songwriting. All his years spent juggling a regular working-class life and a troubadour's dream were what allowed Croce to create something so remarkable: His lyrics brought the wonder and the suffering of everyday life into view. Listeners of Croce’s have all lived richer lives for it.

Natalli Marie Amato

Natalli Amato is a music and lifestyle journalist from Sackets Harbor, New York.  Her bylines include Rolling Stone, Vice, and The Boot. She is also the author of several collections of poetry.