Jim Croce’s Death 50 Years Ago Today Sparked a Posthumous Sales Boom – Billboard

Jim Croce’s Death 50 Years Ago Today Sparked a Posthumous Sales Boom – Billboard

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Fifty years ago today (Sept. 20), Jim Croce was killed in a plane crash in Natchitoches, Louisiana, during a concert tour of southern colleges. In the previous 15 months, Croce had amassed four top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100: “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” “One Less Set of Footsteps” and the sing-along smash “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” which spent the final two weeks of July 1973 at No. 1.

The sudden death of someone who was so new to the mainstream was of course a shock. But few would have expected what would happen next: Croce’s death triggered one of the biggest posthumous sales booms in history. “I Got a Name,” which was released the day after Croce’s death, reached the top 10 on the Hot 100 in November. The following month, the poignant “Time in a Bottle” (which had appeared on his 1972 album You Don’t Miss Around With Jim) became his second No. 1. It made Croce just the third artist in the history of the Hot 100 to top the chart posthumously, following Otis Redding (“(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” 1968) and Janis Joplin (“Me and Bobby McGee,” 1971). Moreover, Croce became the first artist in Hot 100 history to top the chart both while living and after his death.

Croce had even bigger success on the Billboard 200, where You Don’t Mess Around With Jim reached No. 1 on Jan. 12, 1974. Croce was just the second artist in the history of the Billboard 200 to reach No. 1 posthumously, following Joplin (Pearl, 1971). You Don’t Mess Around With Jim stayed on top for five consecutive weeks. For two of those weeks, Croce also had the No. 2 album, I Got a Name. He was the first artist to hold down the top two spots the same week since The Beatles scored in March 1969 with The Beatles (better known as The White Album) and the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.

Croce’s impact was also felt during awards season. At the first American Music Awards on Feb. 19, 1974, Croce won favorite pop/rock male artist, beating a pair of legends – Elton John and Stevie Wonder. “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was also nominated for favorite pop/rock song, but lost to Dawn featuring Tony Orlando’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” which had been the biggest hit of 1973.

“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was nominated for two Grammys – record of the year and best pop vocal performance, male. Croce was the first artist in Grammy history to receive a posthumous nod for record of the year. He lost in both categories at the 16th annual Grammy Awards on March 2, 1974. Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” took record of the year, while Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” took the male pop vocal prize. Wonder graciously saluted Croce in his acceptance speech: “I accept this award in memory of Jim Croce, who was a very talented man.”

Another pop legend paid tribute to Croce that spring. Frank Sinatra covered “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” His brassy version had a seven-week run on the Hot 100 in April and May 1974, peaking at No. 83.

Wonder had two more top 40 hits on the Hot 100 in 1974 – “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” and “Workin at the Car Wash Blues.” All of his hits were gathered in Photographs & Memories/Greatest Hits, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in November 1974, becoming his fourth top 10 album in less than a year.

Croce ranked No. 1 on Billboard’s list of Top Pop Albums Artists of 1974, ahead of Elton John, Charlie Rich and John Denver. He had three albums in the top 25 on that year’s list of Top Pop Albums.

Why did Croce’s music touch such a nerve in the year following his death? Partly, it was because of the sense of loss of a talented young artist who died just as his career was really taking off. The fact that Croce was approached to record “I Got a Name” is a sign of how quickly he was moving up to the A-list. Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox (whose hits include the aforementioned “Killing Me Softly With His Song”) wrote the song for the Jeff Bridges film The Last American Hero.

Also, Croce had some songs that resonated in the wake of his death, and almost seemed to foreshadow it, especially “Time in a Bottle” (“But there never seems to be enough time/ To do the things you want to do once you find them”). The title of “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” also seemed fit the circumstances. The latter song, at once polished and poignant, became Croce’s fifth and final top 10 hit on the Hot 100 in April 1974.

More broadly, Croce’s music was just right for that era, where soft-rock singer/songwriters were among the hottest acts in the business. His music was a perfect fit alongside such other hitmakers of the era as Denver, Carole King, Seals & Crofts, Gordon Lightfoot, Mac Davis and Dave Loggins.

Croce wrote all of his Hot 100 hits except “I Got a Name” and a 1976 medley of early rock and roll classics. His records were co-produced by Terry Cashman, now 82, and Tommy West, who died in 2021 at age 78.

Croce was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1990, alongside Smokey Robinson and Michel Legrand. In 2013, Garth Brooks included his version of “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” on his Billboard 200-topping box set, Blame It All on My Roots: Five Decades of Influences.

Croce’s widow, Ingrid Croce — with whom he recorded a duo album for Capitol in 1969 — is now 76. Their son A.J. Croce, who turned two eight days after the crash, is 51. A.J., who is also a singer/songwriter, has recorded 11 albums.

News of Croce’s death was reported on page 3 of the Sept. 29, 1973 issue of Billboard. The following week, there were two full-page ads paying tribute to the singer. One said simply “Jim Croce will be missed and deeply mourned by the Phonogram group of companies throughout the world.”

The other, signed by Jay Lasker, the president of Croce’s label, ABC/Dunhill, had an unusually warm and personal tone. It read, in full:

“Some people reach out and feel nothing. Jim reached out an in some way touched everyone.

“Some talk of love and goodness as if they alone remained its custodian. Jim gave his love and goodness as it if belonged to everyone.

“He told me, last New Year’s Day, that he enjoyed taking care of his son’s 2 a.m. bottle and diaper change because it gave him more time to spend with the boy, something he had precious little time for, in light of his heavy travel commitments.

“We are now all the losers for not being able to spend more time with Jim Croce.”

As we’d see in the weeks and months to come, many listeners, most of whom never met the man, felt the same way.

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