When I was eight years old, my dad was accepted into a graduate study program at the University of Wisconsin, so that summer our family moved from Norfolk, Virginia to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, a small town just outside of the state capital and university locale, Madison. Being a military family, we had already moved a couple of times before when I was younger, but this move was really the first one I was fully aware of. At that point, everything within the scope of my young awareness had been formed while I lived in Norfolk, and now that place was no longer to be my base. It was sad leaving behind friends like Ricky, Craig & Paul, and Warren & Wendell - kids who had lived in that neighborhood just as long as I had. It seemed that they were not only the best friends I ever had, but the best friends I'd EVER have in life - that's the sort of stuff you think about when you're eight. But even with all of that, I was still excited about the move. It was going to be a change, an adventure, a chance to see a new place and meet new people. I was looking forward to getting to Wisconsin and seeing what it had to offer.
And what it had to offer was plenty. Being fully immersed in the rural Midwestern experience was quite a change to a little boy who was used to "city" living (Norfolk wasn't a huge city, but it WAS an urban area). But for the most part, I found life in Wisconsin to be great, and in many ways idyllic; almost a living, breathing stereotype of what life for children was supposed to be like back then. Our new home was on the edge of the neighborhood, with a huge cornfield immediately beyond our backyard. In summer, the six-foot stalks would stretch behind us as far as the eye could see, and my new friends (the place was full of kids) and I would play hide-and-seek amongst them all day (never going too far inside, of course - the LAST thing you wanted to do was get lost in a big cornfield). My first winter there was the first time I'd ever seen snow piled so high - seven/eight foot drifts, a welcome sight to a little boy's eyes (the all-too-true 'joke' at the time was that you built a snowfort there by getting a shovel and digging straight down . . . ). Sun Prairie (BTW - what a great name for a Midwest town!) was the sort of place where the arrival of spring was heralded by boys and girls getting their marbles out of storage and having intense playground marble competitions; a place of spelling bee champs (the 1974 state champ came from my school), annual corn festivals, variety stores, tetherball and four-square, free milk & peanut butter sandwiches in the lunch room, and fresh air and good churchgoing people (we attended every Sunday, and practically every family in our neighborhood was there; I was even an alter boy for a time). It was sort of geeky, and completely "small town" . . . but nice. And I loved it.
But with all of the carefree, sun-drenched atmosphere of the place, there was a sort of dark undercurrent running below the surface appearances of country good times and happy, sunny days. Not a Blue Velvet-ish version of crime and menace, mind you, but a new feeling that became a significant part of my awareness just the same. It was while I was in Sun Prairie that I first became fully aware of the concept of mortality.
The first time I can recall a death even remotely touching my life occurred during fourth grade, my first year of school in Sun Prairie. We arrived back in school after the Christmas break to find that one of our classmates, a girl who lived on a farm just outside of town, was absent from class. Our teacher told us the reason why she was missing - her younger brother, a second-grader at our school, had been killed in a farm accident just after the holiday. I knew the boy (it was a small school, so pretty much every kid from kindergarten through 6th grade was acquainted with one another), but not that well. Still, it was shocking to know of someone who had actually died, who no one would ever see again on Earth. I remember when the girl came back to class a week or so later, and seeing her sad, pale face. I felt horribly sorry for her, but of course I wasn't old enough to know the right words to say or the right things to do. Before her return, our teacher had advised us to treat her as we did before the tragedy. But that was a difficult task - the death was always there, sort of like a grey mist floating all around us.
Later that same winter, the skeletal hand appeared once again. A man who lived in the circle across the street from our house, the father of two boys my brother and I played with quite a bit, was killed in a car accident on a snowy Madison highway. This time, the death felt a little closer - I knew this man and his family very well, a lot better than that girl in my class and her brother. They had his funeral at our church; my siblings and I didn't go, but my parents did. A couple of weeks later, compounding the tragedy for me, those two little boys moved away from Sun Prairie with their widowed mother, and we never saw or heard from them again.
Even with the poppy, lightweight stuff on the radio in that era (Three Dog Night, Seals & Crofts and Chicago were huge in those years), the music of the time also seemed be taking on a darker tone. The big hit of my first summer in Sun Prairie was Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)". I used to think this song was profoundly sad; the part near the end, when the singer sings about his father and mother dying, always made the 8-year-old me cry. When Casey Kasem would play this song on American Top 40 on Sunday nights back then, I would run out of the room, so my parents wouldn't see me break down. Another monster maudlin hit from around that time was Terry Jacks' "Seasons In The Sun", a similarly depressing tearjerker about someone kicking the bucket. Despite the morbidity of this song, for some reason it was hugely popular with kids; I recall at our school spring pageant later that year, it was one of the songs sung by the 6th grade class. I could give you many more examples - Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"; Don McLean's "American Pie" (which I understood early on was about the death of Buddy Holly, although I didn't hear his name mentioned in the song) . . . shoot, even Loudon Wainwright's "Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road" - behind the bright, sunshiny appearance of my life in Sun Prairie, death seemed to be infusing everything around me.
So when Jim Croce died in September 1973, I was very much aware of it; it was really the first "celebrity death" story that I followed closely.
Jim Croce was born in South Philly in 1943. After his graduation from Villinova in 1965, he busked around the Philadelphia area for several years, first with his wife Ingrid as a duo, and later as a solo act. The couple parlayed their hard-earned local recognition into a one-off deal with Capitol Records, releasing Jim and Ingrid Croce in 1969, and over that year traveling hundreds of thousands of miles across the U.S. and Canada in support of the album. But both the tour and the record were not as successful as the label or the Croces wished, and by 1970 the couple was back in Pennsylvania. Jim took odd jobs in construction and trucking to pay the bills, and it seemed that his hopes of becoming a successful musician were dead.
However, later that year, an old college friend introduced Jim to a guy named Maury Muehleisen, a talented pianist/guitarist from New Jersey whose first album, Gingerbreadd, was about to be released on Capitol. Maury was looking for a backup guitarist for some scheduled gigs in the Philadelphia area, and Croce jumped at the chance. The Gingerbreadd concerts weren't all that successful, but Croce and Muehleisen instantly bonded, and together started creating a sound that quickly caught the attention of their record producers. Although Jim initially backed Maury, eventually the dynamic was reversed, with Croce's extensive catalogue of songs (many written in off hours from his truck driving work) and outgoing personality making him the front man and driving force of the partnership.
In 1972, Croce and his partner signed a three-record deal with ABC Records. His first album, You Don't Mess Around With Jim, was released that April and met with gradual but widespread success, spawning two US Top 20 hits ("You Don't Mess Around With Jim" and "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)"). Croce and Muehleisen immediately embarked on months of nearly nonstop touring all over the U.S. and Canada.
The buzz around and about Jim Croce began slowly and steadily growing - a whirlwind of traveling, television appearances and concerts in front of crowds of more than 10,000 people. Recording sessions were sandwiched in between tour dates; in late 1972 the pair recorded the follow-up album, Life And Times. The lead single, "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown", was released in April 1973 and became Croce's biggest hit, reaching #1 by the end of that spring and remaining on the charts all summer. The album, released a couple of months later, was as successful as its predecessor, making it into the US Top Ten by the end of August.
Croce's songs were very popular with children back then; the words and harmonies were simple enough for kids to get the gist of them. And of course they were all over the radio. "Leroy Brown" was a special favorite that summer; I can once recall walking back home from the nearby school playground, arm-in-arm in a line with my friends, singing "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" at the top of our lungs, and thinking it was the greatest song in the world.
Meanwhile, the pressures of being a suddenly-popular musician began mounting for Jim Croce. With a Number One song on the charts, the tour schedule became even more hectic. ABC Records had scheduled studio time for Croce and Muehleisen at the Hit Factory in New York City that summer to record the third album (I Got A Name) under his current contract. The label was anticipating even greater success with this upcoming release, and was preparing a new contract far better for Croce than his initial three-album deal. The future looked pretty rosy from Jim as he recorded his final song for the new album on September 14th, then headed out on the road again with Muehleisen for a scheduled tour of the South and Southwest . . . a tour they never completed.
The plane crash in Natchitoches, Louiaiana that killed Croce and Muehleisen, along with two other people, was front-page news across the country; I recall picking up the local Star Countryman newspaper on the evening of September 21st and being so shocked and stunned by the news that I immediately burst into tears. For someone who had made such an impact in the music world in so short a time, to be suddenly and cruelly taken away - that seemed so unfair to me. I was too young to have lived through or to recall the plane crashes of Buddy Holly or Otis Redding, which occurred under similar circumstances and at similar points in their careers. But with Croce's death, I began to understand the profound loss behind those earlier tragedies.
I guess the thing I began to feel from these three recent events in my life was that death appeared to be random and arbitrary. That no matter how young or old you were, how good or loved you were, or how much you had accomplished or had yet to accomplish in your life, the Grim Reaper didn't care. This was an absolutely chilling concept to an eight-year-old boy, and it took a long time for me to come to grips with it, and work out in my own mind what life and living is all about. I still haven't got it completely worked out yet . . . but who amongst us has?
I hate to play upon this "loss of innocence" thing too heavily . . . but really, when I look back on it, Sun Prairie was the last chance I had to really be a kid, before moving again (after two years in Wisconsin, we moved to Maryland) and facing all of the pressures involved with moving out of childhood, leaving elementary school, and taking more and more responsibility for my life. And a significant part of that change can be traced back to that cool autumn evening, when I picked up the paper and saw that something and someone I enjoyed no longer existed.
I got this attached compilation, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown & Other Favorites, from my younger sister a few years ago. Frankly, it's really not a very good overview of Jim Croce's brief career - it's missing some significant hits, including "I Got A Name" (his first posthumous hit) and "You Don't Mess Around With Jim". I've included both songs in separate files here along with the album, released in 1994 by CEMA Special Markets. Enjoy, and let me know what you think:
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