A.J. Croce

Songwriter and piano player A.J. Croce is playing the Dennison Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 2. Croce was only 6 years old when his father, the songwriter Jim Croce, died in plane crash.

Sebastian Smith, courtesy photo

To say that A.J. Croce “discovered” his passion early in his life is a misnomer.

His conditions were circumscribed by the slick, erratic slant of destiny.

At age 3, Adrian James Croce suffered from a brain tumor syndrome that blinded him. Within several years of affliction, partial sight inexplicably returned in one of his eyes.

Living in a single-parent household after a plane crash claimed his father's life, A.J. taught himself to play piano. At the age of 6, he wrote songs and caressed piano keys eight to 10 hours a day.

“I sat down and I played and I thought that Ray Charles was the easiest to learn,” said A.J. Croce. “As a little kid I’d play Ray Charles’ stuff and then the harder stuff, and the blues scale, and that did it for me. It didn’t take a lot to make it feel soulful and right. I didn’t know the names of the scale — F Major, F Diminished — and down the keyboard.

"It was a little bit at a time. I sang a lot and I was practicing, and, as a teenager, I was working on things like trying to get the left hand solid and without thinking about playing with the right hand. The left-hand stuff was demanding, making sure the left hand was completely solid, and that the left hand knew it and forgot it, before the right hand came along.”

A.J. Croce mined hardship for his creative freedom.

Croce, at age 45, has lived 15 years beyond the age his father was when he died. (Jim Croce, known for hits such as "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," was killed in a plane crash near Natchitoches, Louisiana, on Sept. 20, 1973.)

Sensing that he had a role to play in keeping the whole drama and passion of music alive, A.J. Croce started gigging as a piano player in his late teens and has since hurdled over each new creative block with self-aplomb. “Just Like Medicine,” a fluid fusion of sorrow and gratitude, was released in August 2017. His nine albums have been released by the use of both major and independent labels, and have charted 17 Top 20 singles, across genres including Top 40, Americana, Independent, Blues, and Jazz.

Indeed, Croce gives us music with layers, angles, depths and sparks. He tosses in some authentic-feeling strides and he conveys his showmanship ability to lead not by caper or stunt but by such devices as timing, tone, and a workable tenor.

“Well, it’s been 30 years of touring and I started out as a teenager and playing the blues with Floyd Dixon at age 16 and the (South) Central Avenue blues scene (nightclubs of Los Angeles),and the garage bands doing '60s stuff, and the jazz groups playing keys and not singing. I’d be playing in pubs in the summers from age 14 till age 16 for a few months and I’d play for tips and food at the pubs and then rent a little place. ...

“What I’ve taken away since then is that if I’m inspired, then the audience is inspired. I actually felt old in the process of promoting this record ("Just Like Medicine,") giving songs away in the lead-up, giving half the record away to premiere a song, to Rolling Stone, to different magazines and networks. Everyone wants the exclusive, and then it goes to Spotify, and I recorded this record with that process in mind.”

In all his years of performing, he has had one absorbing and inspiring idea, and has worked towards it with unyielding zeal: to give — in simple and stark form — the story of his life as he has existed.

“I’m not a carbon copy of my father, and, honestly, I attempt far more challenging music than what he was playing, and I like to challenge myself continually. Every experience, you keep your ears open and your mind open. At age 18, B.B. King heard me and I went on the road and ever since I’ve gotten along playing the music I’ve wanted, and I’ve had to work outside the box with it. With rootsy blues and jazz, it becomes a museum piece unless you push it forward and challenge it. And it’s not for everyone. Sometimes the label itself is not into it, but I’ve always been reaching for music that is challenging and inspiring to me. I like the simplicity of rock and roll, Little Richard, the Rolling Stones … and I’ve ended up in more categories than anyone else I know…”

It’s patently clear that Croce is an immense fan of music, especially Ray Charles and all of the vivid, interesting showmen and performers who’ve influenced Charles, including jazz pianist Art Tatum and early ragtime and jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton. He still feels spiritually akin to legendary influences such as composer and bandleader Duke Ellington, and he admires the singularly elastic vocal range and depth of the early blues performers.

“The voice is one of the least predictable parts of being a performer,” said Croce. “I stay conscious of not letting the spirit and emotion of singing take over, or over-singing, and yet there is a way to emote greatly and soulfully without doing that. I lost my voice during the third record in Memphis and there were stress nodules on the vocal cords, and I took medicine, though I was never allowed to take a break from touring. I did take a break for several years, and I think that I have broader range now than I’ve ever had before and I can cover for more ground now. The other part – the songwriting – I love the elements of those little pieces and how they can tell a story; anything complicated gets lost and it's critical that however creatively you choose to tell it, tell it briefly, and to the point.”

The artist in Croce will do anything he can in order to further his creative visions, his dreams of a constantly outspreading love of music. His patience never runs out. Each new recording sets a unique cycle in motion.

“I didn’t have to be following in my dad’s footsteps,” said Croce. “My dad’s career lasted 18 months and I’ve had 30 years, and I saw the footsteps, and I’m taking another path away from where his footsteps stopped, and there are one less set of footsteps. I didn’t allow questions about my dad for the first 15 years and I despise the headlines of ‘following in the footsteps.’ Maybe after the first album it made sense (to write that).”

Indeed, Croce could have very well emulated the approach of his father or stuck to emulating the plethora of other manners or styles which have influenced his train of thought. But that’s something that he is only willing to do a few times a year: co-eternal nights of father and son, of two musicians, specially titled “Croce: Two Generations of American Music.” After all, what music lover wouldn't be transfixed by the sacred, paternal nature of the exchange? Dad’s songs have themselves aged pretty well, and A.J., though ceaselessly striving toward the future, has artfully revised how we view the past.

“I’ll play the piano and the guitar and the (multi-generational) show really gives people a sense of nostalgia. I’ll have 25 years of my own recorded music to draw from, and I can draw from the 100 years of music that have influenced both my father and I. The songs are a fluid part of the show and unique, but the one consistency is my father’s material. I’m not trying to sound alike or to be a carbon copy. There is an energy and unity to the shows. I try to include a number of styles in the piano numbers, so you can come as a fan as my dad, and leave as a fan of two generations. It’s the blending of the generations of my own and my father’s, and what connects us.”

Croce finds the uncertainty of his own future exciting. Yes, he’s got a name that he carries with him and it is one that he shares with his revered father, and, yes, he carries it proudly. But he’s earned his very own tag and designation, harbors his own appetite for creation, his own restless and creative energy, his own principles feeding on conflict, desire, loss, and thriving on beauty, stability, order. At this point, he can be heard at the height of his powers.

“It was the piano that developed first for me,” said Croce, “and then came the songwriting, and then the voice. It’s interesting that all three disciplines came independently, and all three disciplines came in their own time, with much practice.”

Helena-baseed writer Brian D’Ambrosio may be reached at dambrosiobrian@hotmail.com. He is at work on his next book which chronicles the history of both famous and forgotten entertainers and performers in Montana.

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