Retrospective review: Jim Croce's 'I Got A Name'

Croce was a great artist who died too soon.
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Fifty years ago – December 1, 1973 – Jim Croce released his third major album. I Got a Name was actually the fifth release from the Philly-based singer-songwriter, but the first two were virtually unknown at the time. He had self-released Facets in 1966, and three years later put out an album with his wife called Jim & Ingrid Croce.

I Got a Name entered the Billboard Top 25 within a few weeks of its release and remained up near the top of the charts for the next three months. It climbed as high as Number 2. The only release that kept it from the top spot was Croce’s first album, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, which stayed at Number One for most of January, ’74. In fact, as the year turned over from 1973 to 1974, all three of Croce’s major-label releases (including Life and Times) were in the Billboard Top 15.

Croce was indeed popular, but there was a sadder reason for this extraordinary success. Jim Croce had died in a plane crash in September, ’73. The title track from the final album was released as a single the day after his death. He was 30 years old.

When an artist dies young, he leaves so many “what ifs.” It is hard to decipher the line between his actual work and the death-tinged impression that outlives him. (We’ll be taking a similar retrospective look at a posthumous release in a few months when Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel celebrates its 50-year anniversary.)

Another look at a Jim Croce classic

Croce exploded on the scene in 1972 with You Don’t Mess Around With Jim. It was the era of the singer-songwriter and he fits in nicely with the likes of John Prine and Cat Stevens. Croce was closer to Prine, and though he was not as incisive a songwriter, he was far more popular. "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" from Life and Times made it to Number One in the Summer of 1973. ("Time in a Bottle" from You Don’t Mess Around With Jim would be his other Number One hit following his death.)

With I Got a Name, we are left to look for signs of where Croce might have gone were his life not cut short. The album is his first (apart from the little-known debut Facets) for which he did not write all the songs. And, perhaps due to that, it is the weakest of his three releases. But that’s not to say there are not plenty of gems to be found.

The title track is an upbeat statement of self-empowerment, which never loses its tinge of sadness. That was one of Croce’s great strengths. He could blend funny and sad with the best of them. Oddly, though the song sounds so much like a Croce original, it was written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, who also wrote Roberta Flack’s smash hit "Killing Me Softly With His Song" (along with an uncredited Lori Lieberman).

Croce’s experiments in more complex orchestration are perfectly suited for the song. He begins simply finger-picking an acoustic guitar. A piano joins midway through the first verse. Then some background echoes on the chorus. By the time we hit the second verse, we get the full orchestra, with rolling violins carrying us “down the highway.” Throughout his brief career, Croce would ping pong between bouncing caricature songs about Leroy and Jim and Rapid Roy -  and his heart-on-sleeve ballads about love and loss. I Got a Name takes up space between those extremes and it is one of his greatest recordings.

The other masterpiece on I Got a Name is all Croce. On his free-wheeling tale of woe "Working at the Car Wash Blues," he writes lyrics worthy of Prine:

“They wouldn’t listen to the fact that I was a genius -
The man said “We got all that can use.”

Self-deprecating humor and a catchy tune. Of all his portraits of self-important lowlifes who overvalued their own worth, this may be the breeziest and the best.

He had other songs that showcase the dichotomy in his songwriting, from the quiet preciousness of "I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song" to the rollicking shuffle of Lil and Gil and the whole staff of the "Top Hat Bar and Grille." He resuscitates "Age" – a sweet little ballad co-written with his wife – from their first and only album. He does a nice upbeat heartbreak song written by longtime friend Sal Joseph called "Thursday."

But not all the imported songs work. His friend and collaborator Maury Muehleisen (who was also killed in the plane crash) penned "Salon and Saloon," which sounds a little too much like cut-rate Billy Joel. And some of Croce’s originals – "Recently" and "The Hard Way Every Time" – explore some different orchestrations, but remain minor songs.

I think the two most intriguing songs on I Got a Name are the ones that occupy a middle ground. The second and third tracks – "Lover’s Cross" and "Five Short Minutes" – reveal both the strengths and weaknesses of Croce’s craft. Lover’s Cross is a heartbreak song that throws in a clever minor chord every so often to suit the lyric. But that lyric remains a little bit judgmental and obvious. Compared to Prine’s magnificent breakup song "Far From Me," it stays a little too much on safe ground, without digging into the two hearts that have been broken.

"Five Short Minutes" poses a completely different problem. It opens with a honky tonk piano and lowdown guitar and the beat of one of his minor classics like "Roller Derby Queen" from Life and Times. But the breeziness of the music does not mask that this is a song about statutory rape. Jimmy Buffett would score a minor hit with "Livingston Saturday Night" a few years later with a similar message, and Jack Nicholson would boast about it in the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest around the same time. It would be a couple of decades before the topic would find its way into better, less smirky songs like "Janie’s Got a Gun" (Aerosmith) and "Run a Mile" (BR549).

Croce was touring when his plane went down. He would have three albums released in less than two years, and the grind and the travel was taking its toll. He had talked about giving up music in the months before his death. Some of his songs had been used in film projects, and perhaps that link led him to imagine a career as a screenwriter. We’ll never know what kind of tales he could have come up with in a different medium.

And we’ll never know just what kind of musical evolution he may have discovered. Croce wrote a lot of great songs and some were just mediocre. But he was only thirty. It is reasonable to believe that even had he drifted away from music, he would still have offered us a lot more great songs as he aged. As it is, I Got a Name is the last time we heard from him in the form of a legitimate original album. As with a lot of what Jim Croce accomplished in his too-brief life, it still gives us a lot of joy, even if the thought of what is missing spawns regret.

"Like the north wind whistlin' down the sky, I've got a song, I've got a song. Like the whip-poor-will and the baby's cry, I've got a song, I've got a song. And I'll carry it with me and I'll sing it loud. If it gets me nowhere, I'll go there proud."

Jim Croce, singing lyrics by Norman Gimb

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