8 p.M. Marks the beginning of his band’s evening off, with A.J. Starting on Main Street 59 at the Odeum in Greenwich East on February 24th. A.J. Is still carrying on his father’s legacy of playing music, but sadly, his father died in a plane crash at the height of his popularity in 1973. A.J. Is known for his unique vocal delivery and his radio hits, such as “I Got a Name,” “Leroy Brown,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “Operator,” “Time in a Bottle,” and “Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”
After his ongoing tour, we discussed his upcoming plans and the objectives he aspires to achieve through these specific performances. Prior to the show, he shared insights on how he conceived the concept for “Croce Plays Croce” while collaborating with the iconic B.B. King.
‘How did you come up with the vision for ‘Croce Plays Croce’? It seems to have a deeper meaning than just playing your father’s songs. Obviously, it shares a connection with the musical bond you both had, depicting an oral picture with your performance.’
It’s amazing how, 10 years ago, I put on a show with a bunch of his stuff and thought that it would be his 70th birthday. Then, I got into promoting his music and got the opportunity to do my thing behind the scenes. I felt good about introducing his music to new audiences and protecting his legacy as a publisher. Over the past 25-30 years, I’ve spent a lot of time doing this. I didn’t really think there was any integrity in it, but of course, since I was a teenager, I’ve always wanted to perform his music and there have been people who wanted me to do it. It happened in a very organic way over a long period of time: J.A. Croce.
He never knew that he liked the same music I never knew he played, and I’ve been playing those songs since I was 12, 13, 14 years old. It was eerie because those were the songs I played, and it happened probably 20 years ago when I was doing transfers of his home recordings. There was this particular tape where he was playing really obscure old jazz, country songs, R&B, blues, and it was fun because it was very improvisational and free. I wouldn’t have to stick to a particular setlist every night, I could switch it up and have a lot of fun. It’s amazing how all of that came about, and I could incorporate our common music into it if I had thought about this idea before. Then, it would be something really fun that I could do again. The audience was just eating it up, it was a lot of fun.
I never thought I would have a deeper musical connection than the moment I realized that my whole life had been playing these things. The songs of McGhee Brownie & Terry, Sonny and Rodgers Jimmie, Bessie Smith, and Anderson Pink, and even the obscure tunes of artists like Waller Fats, were known as “You’re the Only Oyster in My Stew,” “You Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do.”
Did you acquire knowledge while listening to his recordings or did you utilize the authentic writings he had for the songs when you initially began familiarizing yourself with your father’s discography? That’s remarkable.
Learning a new technique was like getting my hand back on the guitar, as I already knew the songs. Even though it seemed complicated at first, one part that really helped in the learning process was being able to listen to Maury Muehleisen’s guitar on the other side and then listen to my dad’s part, thanks to the separation of guitar parts that you can hear if you’re listening on headphones. It doesn’t seem like the first step, but it really is the best way to do it and there are many ways to learn the material. Initially, it was a challenge for me to learn the guitar parts, especially since I am primarily a piano player.
How was the experience of traveling with him and being a member of his musical group? B.B. King is an iconic figure in the blues genre and regarded as one of the most significant artists in history. Therefore, I am curious to know when you joined him on tour and what your impressions were of collaborating and spending time with him. On the topic of your role as a pianist, you had the opportunity to go on tour with B.B. King at some point. Could you please share how this opportunity came about?
I started my musical career in Southern California but I didn’t have any record label, agent, or manager. When I was 18, I would have gone on the road if someone asked me, and my friend dug my playing and heard me play after hearing B.B. King. Shortly after, I had my first piano recording session, which was hired by Jack Clement, a friend of her called “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley. This woman named Mae Axton got me to play for her and I did it for about half a year on and off. After that, I started playing around Southern California when I was 16 with a guy named Floyd Dixon, who wrote a bunch of blues standards. It all came about when I started playing around Southern California.
He felt like he was something, contributing and doing, over the years he mentored dozens and dozens and dozens of musicians. He was one of those guys who really loved music, especially the great artists like B.B. King and The Nevilles. Playing with all these heroes of mine, especially Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Ray Charles, I felt like I was being shot out of a cannon.
Overall, what is your primary objective with the show? What do you aspire to establish a connection with the audience on when you execute your father’s melodies during the ‘Croce Plays Croce’ performance?
Wonderful, he’s also played with Bonnie Raitt, Joe Walsh, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Miller, and Van Morrison in the ’60s and ’70s. He has been touring with a great band, which includes Gary Mallaber on drums and a fantastic rhythm section. The show is a lot of fun and it’s exciting to play both his and my own music, even though they have opposite styles. I think the key to making the show work is finding a balance between playing familiar hits and deep cuts that aren’t as well-known. I’ll also be sharing stories about the songs and where they came from, which I love doing. Obviously, I’m trying to entertain and do the real thing. Some people might think it’s a relatively quiet concert with all these ballads, but there’s a lot of energy and excitement in the music.
Each evening, we enjoy ourselves and this musical group is truly remarkable. Numerous other musicians, including Dr. John, have collaborated with David Barard, my bass player from New Orleans, for more than four decades.
What are your plans for the upcoming months after the spring run of “Croce Plays Croce” shows concludes, RD? It seems like it will be quite enjoyable.
Next year, I will start promoting my new record at the beginning of the year or towards the end of the year. Then, there will be a bigger show, with more people involved, and it will be a multimedia event. Additionally, there will be a celebration of the 50th anniversary of “Times and “I” and “Name a Got I.” This is also going to be a celebration of Jim’s life, so don’t mess around with it. Last fall, I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my last two albums, “Croce Plays Croce.” But this summer, I will be touring all over and recording an album with my own material.