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Jim Croce’s hit had roots in boot camp

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Updated: January 18, 2013 6:18AM

Jim Croce never had time to develop a major presence in Chicago, but his songwriting was in the reportorial style of Steve Goodman, John Prine and others who were part of the 1970s Chicago folk boom.

Croce scored three top 10 pop hits in 1973 alone: “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “I Got a Name” and “Time In a Bottle.” He died at age 30 in a Sept. 20, 1973, plane crash in Natchitoches, La.

Just seven months earlier Croce headlined the Quiet Knight, 953 W. Belmont, singing his hit “Operator.” In 1972 he opened for Woody Allen at the Mill Run theater in the round in Niles.

Croce’s widow, Ingrid, and her current husband, Jimmy Rock, have written a biography of the musician, “I Got a Name (The Jim Croce Story)” (DaCapo, $25). They had planned book signings Monday and Tuesday in the Chicago area that were canceled when Ingrid took ill over the weekend.

The 307-page memoir offers a rare look into Jim Croce’s songwriting process, flavored with letters and correspondence Croce sent to his wife, brother and others.

For example, in the fall of 1966 the 140-pound Croce was stationed in Army boot camp in Fort Jackson, S.C.

Croce met a sergeant from Chicago named Leroy Brown.

In a letter to his brother Rich, Croce wrote in part, “He looks like Sonny Liston. Yesterday in joking around (he’s really nice), he said, ‘Ahm Bad, You know where I lives all the bad people live on one street, and the further down you go the badder they is, and I live two miles down that road. Now I ain’t saying Ahm bad, but when all them bad peoples get together, they all call me boss.’ ”

Croce had a song.

“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” became Croce’s biggest hit.

The song earned him Grammy nominations for record of the year and pop male vocalist of the year. Frank Sinatra’s cover of the song cracked the top 100 on the pop charts .

Since 1985 Ingrid Croce has owned and operated Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar in the Gaslamp Quarter district of San Diego. The eatery is a tribute to her late husband and filled with memorabilia from his career. She also wrote the autobiographical cookbook “Thyme in a Bottle.”

“Every year two or three people come in the restaurant and tell me they are the real Leroy Brown,” Croce said. “Jim was an excellent listener. He had a photographic memory. He grew up in an era that was much simpler than the era we are in right now. He could take syllables and words and almost make them into haiku. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true.”

Jim Croce was a psychology major at Villanova University in Philadelphia, taught special education in Philadelphia and had a license to drive a Caterpillar tractor.

Ingrid Croce never threw much away. She kept detailed scrapbooks and clippings on Jim Croce’s career, and no quote in “I Got a Name” may be as insightful as what Jim Croce once told the Associated Press: “”I try to approach my songs so others can say they’ve had that kind of experience too. It’s like those old radio shows when you used to hear the door creak open in the background and everybody saw something different coming through it.”

Ironically, “I Got a Name” is one of the few Croce hits he did not write. It was penned by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. “I Got a Name” was the last song Croce played. It was his encore in a small concert at Northwestern College in Natchitoches. The very next week Croce was scheduled to play the College of Du Page in Glen Ellyn.

Croce, 65, said, “He started to write a children’s play called ‘Echo,’ ” she said. “It’s not formatted yet, but it will come out that way. There were a lot of things in the making. I never dwelled on what Jim could have done, because he did so much. He would have done many of the things Jimmy Buffett and Randy Newman [who wrote blurbs for the book] have done. Jim was in that ilk. He had a movie planned with Cheech Marin. He definitely would have gotten into acting.”

Croce said she is still looking for people to do a Jim Croce movie.

The memoir alone was a work in progress. “It took me a long time to figure this story out,” explained Croce, who in 1983 placed third in her age category at the Stockholm Marathon. “We started the book 25 years ago. I had gotten a bit of interest of people wanting to do a movie. My husband, who was my fiance at the time, kept listening me tell my story to these scriptwriters who were coming to us to do the movie. Every time I would tell the story they would come back with whatever they wanted to write. Finally I turned to him and asked him to help me write this book. He was hesitant to do it for all kinds of reasons, but he knew how much this would mean to Jim Croce’s fans. He also wanted me to help understand the story.

“I thought I did, but I didn’t.”

Dave Hoekstra

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