The wire-service story appearing in newspapers around the country 40 years ago did not generally appear on front pages. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it was on page 15. In San Mateo, California, it was on page 3. A few newspapers picked up the more immediate and personal story written by a couple of student journalists at Northwestern Louisiana University—a review of the last concert by Jim Croce.
“I’ve flown 700,000 or 800,000 miles just this past year,” the story quoted Croce as saying from the stage 40 years ago tonight, on September 20, 1973. “I’m starting to feel it now, too. You know, jet lag.” The story continues: “Then he gave his last concert before 2,000 laughing and cheering students at Northwestern Louisiana University’s Prather Coliseum. An hour later, after closing with ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown,’ he was dead in the wreckage of an airplane.” After the 35-minute performance that night, Croce’s plane hit a tree on takeoff, killing six people in all, including Croce, his guitarist Maury Muehleisen, his personal manager Ken Cortese, road manager Dennis Rast, comedian George Stevens, and pilot Robert Elliott.
At age 30, Croce had been on the scene for only a year, scoring the top-10 hit “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and taking “Leroy Brown” to #1. Three more top-10 hits would follow within the next six months, including the #1 hit “Time in a Bottle.” He remained one of the most popular singer-songwriters in the business through the late 1970s, as fans dug deeper into his catalog and discovered other characters as memorable as Jim, the “pool-shootin’ son-of-a-gun,” and Leroy Brown.
Four decades later, Croce remains one of the great what-ifs of popular music. One of his producers, Tommy West, saw beyond Croce’s potential as a musician in a news story published later in the week of his death. “He was only beginning to scratch the surface of what I think would have been a truly big career,” said West. “I wouldn’t call him a superstar because that has overtones of rock things and it went more beyond that. I think Jimmy could have been a Will Rogers or a white Bill Cosby.”
West was correct inasmuch as he suspected Croce would expand his horizons beyond music. He likely would have had to. Croce’s literate, confessional, acoustic songs would have had trouble finding a mass audience in the discofied late 70s and the jaded 80s, not like they had between 1972 and 1974. He seems a likely candidate to have become like Jimmy Buffett, a multimedia Renaissance man, a writer of short stories and books, a dabbler in other fields from acting to entrepreneurship, but always returning to his guitar and his songs.
Here’s a BBC-TV clip recorded the summer before Croce’s death, featuring Muehleisen on guitar, on what would become Croce’s last top 40 hit, “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues.”
(From my WNEW.com archives, revised a bit to reflect today’s anniversary.)