Chuck McPherson, Charles McPherson, A.J. Croce, Jim Croce
You gotta make money, man! Tired of being broke, man!” Charles McPherson Jr. — son of alto sax giant Charles McPherson — grins as he shouts over the music blaring from the boom box on the table. The music we’re listening to is his: conventional black pop from an album he’s recording in Palm Springs. The songs grab with the traction of good tires, but their commercialism jolts me, given my experience of Chuck as a straight-ahead jazz drummer and his father’s reputation as one of the most uncompromising jazz musicians in the business. The sweet sax parts I hear floating over the electronic burble of Chuck’s synthesizers and drum machine are played by Charles McPherson, Sr.
We’re standing in Chuck’s living room in the cottage in La Jolla that also serves as his father’s office and studio. On the coffee table before me are two books that Chuck has borrowed from the library: The Africans by Ali Mazuri and The Laws of Success by Napoleon Hill. Dressed today in knock-around pants and a sleeveless T-shirt, Chuck is taller and more gangly than his father, his round face showing little resemblance to Dad’s angular features. He came here from New York 11 years ago as an 18-year-old to spend time with his father. Although I’ve chatted with Chuck after his gigs and we used to play basketball together at the rec center, I know little about him. Our previous dialogues have been all-form, no-content affairs.
So we start with the basics, including his name. Chuck carries his father’s considerable legacy right on his driver’s license. And these days, that’s exactly where he’d like to leave it, despite his obvious reverence for the man who has also been his mentor. “I don’t want people to think that all of my merits are just based on the fact that I’m his son,” he says firmly. “A lot of people might think that makes my path easier, but in reality, it’s much harder. Expectations are higher. If I had the same ability that I had right now and he wasn’t my dad, I’d get a lot more adulation.” Lately Chuck has taken to calling himself Charles Edward (his first two names) professionally.
The upside of the legacy, of course, is not to be dismissed. Chuck remembers, from the age of three, musicians like Cannonball Adderley, Barry Harris, John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, and others dropping by the McPherson home in New York to play with Dad. He tells me about Mom presiding over huge, joyous meals with everybody afterwards. (I decide not to tell him about the time my folks brought me Gregory Peck’s autograph.) Chuck’s ready with the story of his first “gig” at age eight, when he messed around with his dad’s group after their date at the Waldorf-Astoria. “I jumped up there and kept a little time on the cymbals,” he recalls.“Channky chang, channky chang. After that, everybody was like,‘Yeah, you did all right, Chuckie!’”
Chuck normally emanates the kind of kinetic energy that can drive a band all night. Today he seems reserved while picking his way through his memories. But the bebopping cadence of his voice returns as he describes his early efforts, starting at age 11, to master an instrument. He covers his brief fling on guitar (during which he played in a kids’ band with current drum celeb Omar Hakeem on bass) and a more sustained go at trumpet, which he quit after being undermined by his bandleader’s less talented and jealous son.
Despite the setback, Chuck’s passion to play music could not be diverted. He was captivated by the funk music of the time and took up one of the rhythm instruments that propelled it, the electric bass guitar. At the same time, he began studying the acoustic bass with the orchestra at his New Jersey high school.
But his efforts on bass ended as abruptly as those on trumpet. During a theft in the school band room, vandals knocked over the bass, breaking its neck. Faced with having to leave the orchestra because he had no instrument to play, he watched the marching band practice and had the vision of his reprieve: “I said to myself, ‘Instead of playing the bass fiddle, I’ll take that rhythm and put it into the bass drum.’”
Chuck’s teacher liked the idea, too — the band needed bass drummers. After a week, however, Chuck had memorized all the drum parts and had a serious case of Improviser’s Itch.“In the music we rehearsed, usually the bass drum was just on the first and third beats, like very simple, right? So I said, ‘Hey, let me spark it up a bit.’ And so these guys would start playing and I’d be [playing air drum as he vocalizes the beat] boom chikka chakka chikka chakka b-boom chi b-boom chikka chak b-b-boom chak chikka chak boom chakka chik... ” He goes on for 16 bars or so, a James Brownian rhythm growing more rap- like by the measure. “Funk it up a bit. The guys in the band were like, ‘Yeah, man, you’re the one right there!’ So, I said OK, I’m cool, I’m on the bass drum, and I played in the marching band for a semester.”
Using school instruments, Chuck worked his way up to the whole drum set at age 15. Although he still saw himself as a bass player on a holiday, friends kept calling to ask him to drum in their bands. So the accidental drummer got serious, encouraged by his father, who liked what he heard on the rare occasions when they were together. (The McPhersons had divorced a few years earlier, with Charles Sr. moving to Connecticut and the rest of the family to New Jersey.) He enrolled in workshops with noted pros Freddie Waits and Charlie Persip, learning a range of professional skills, including reading music. But it was Dad who taught him to love jazz.
“I didn’t dislike jazz,” Chuck remembers,“but I didn’t have aspirations, like, ‘Yeah. I want to grow up and be a jazz drummer.’ That was the farthest thing from my mind. My friends weren’t into it at all. Then I went to visit my dad one time, and it just went off like a light bulb, clicked, you know what I mean? He was playing these Bird [Charlie Parker records and talking about music. I’ll never forget it, Swedish Schnapps was the name of the album, and he played that record and it just hit me!”
Chuck began studying the techniques of bebop innovators like Max Roach and Kenny Clarke from their recordings. He got further support from a classmate, Kevin Jones, a conga player who knew the music of Charles Sr., and made the name association with Chuck. The two began jamming together and poring over Jones’s considerable jazz record collection, which sealed Chuck’s conversion.
By this time, Charles Sr. had moved west and taken up residence in the La Jolla cottage his mother owned in front of her home. Chuck, meanwhile, was at odds with his mother’s second husband and felt a need to reunite with his real father. When he called him to propose that he spend the summer there, Dad had a counterproposal: Come out and play on my next album.
Telling the story now, Chuck’s voice is subdued. He seems reluctant, without refusing, to expound on the nonmusical aspects of the companionship he sought.“It was important for me just to be around him. I was totally into music at that point, and I needed to be...sometimes you hang around musicians even if they’re not related to you, just for guidance. I needed that guidance.”
It’s easier to talk about the record.“He was like,‘Hey, man, I’m gonna use you on the date, and I want you to get ready for it.’ I was like,‘Hey, cool, I’ll get ready for it, man.’ I was very excited about it but very nervous, because — though I was motivated to do it and it was a great opportunity — musically, I wasn’t really ready for it, man.”
Ready or not, though, he played on the record (the 1979 Xanadu release Free Bop, which includes the McPherson Sr. composition “Chuck-a-luck” and also features Kevin Jones on congas). The experience was sobering. “I can remember listening to it and saying, ‘Well, man, that’s pretty good, but you got a long ways to go.’ It wasn’t like I did that record and all of a sudden started ego-tripping. I didn’t go out of that studio feeling good.”
And what did your dad say about your performance? “He said it was good but pretty much the same thing, you got to work on it.”
Does he think his dad’s offer had been motivated more by fatherly than professional considerations? “Yeah, he was trying to give me a start in my career. If you’re gonna be a musician, you need to start doing it at 18 or 19. This is when you make your mistakes.”
But Dad’s generosity, which continued throughout the summer as Chuck played on many of his engagements, wasn’t exactly gift-wrapped in tissue and little bows. Charles Sr., who in my experience is one of the gentler souls on the planet, was apparently a harsh and demanding teacher. Chuck laughs,“He’s not gentle about music. He pushes you. It’s like, ‘If you want to learn this instrument and be in this business, then we’re gonna work this out,’ know what I mean?”
Chuck had asked for guidance, and he was getting it in the same brusque way that Charles Sr. had gotten it at the same age. Still, he admits, “Sometimes his approach bothered me a little bit, only because he’s so cut and dry, he’s such a perfectionist. Like a lot of times he would say, ‘Man, you’ve got to learn to play tempos better than that,’ but I couldn’t really do it. That’s the way that he was taught, through Charlie Mingus and people like that. That part was good — good training, good development. There was nothing neg- ative between me and him.”
Even when the lessons took place in public.“I learned a lot about music right on the job, put up or shut up, do it now, man. One time I was taking a drum solo and I was really just terrified to solo. It was at like a really brisk tempo. All of a sudden I just stopped. He turned around and made this incredible angry face and said, ‘Why did you do that?’ I remember feeling like three feet tall.” He laughs, doing a Robin Williams-like impression of an incredible shrinking man pleading in a tiny voice, Help me! “A lot of times he does that, but I don’t pay that much attention. That’ll ruin the way I play. But, yeah, he did it then and he does it now.
“When my dad yelled, he would explain after what you should be doing. ‘When you take a drum solo, you don’t just begin banging on the drums and just playing, man. You got to play the song, just like you were a horn player or a pianist.’ Now, when I play a drum solo, people can hear the tune. When it comes to music,” he adds, “we’re just two men playing in the band and he’s the bandleader...”
He’s just finishing his point when the phone rings and he excuses himself to answer it. Someone is calling about a demo tape he had mailed to addresses gathered off record albums. The caller is a Paris J. Smith from “the neighborhood” in New York. Chuck’s goodbye: “Paris, be cool, man. Boom. Hey, man, sounds like a winner to me, man. All right, boss. Be cool.”
Chuck flies back into the living room after hanging up the phone.“This cat called me from New York, man!” he gushes. “I mailed my tapes to a management company, and this is some rap group named EPMD, but they got platinum records out. He just called me up and said,‘You got any more material? Mail it to me. We loved that cassette!’” Within a minute or two, he is calmer. EPMD’s enthusiasm has been duly noted and marked for a future professional response.
A week later, wanting to hear the rest of Chuck’s demo tape, I call him to arrange picking up a dub the next night. We make a date to go to Elario’s jazz club afterward for the last set by the esteemed Cedar Walton trio and Billy Higgins, both of whom have recorded with Chuck’s dad.
At the cottage the next night, he’s dressed in sweat clothes, having just come from playing basketball and lifting weights. James Brown — the good, good stuff from the prime of his career — is blaring from a cassette in the boom box. “I’ve been getting back into James Brown, man,” Chuck shouts, showing me a remaindered bio of Brown he recently purchased.
While he runs the dub, we enumerate our musical faves. Embellished by Chuck’s gift for impressions, this becomes a full-bore musical revue. When it comes to ’60s soul tunes, Chuck mimics the vocals, hooks, and rhythms of each in impeccable vocalese. When the topic switches to Miles Davis, Chuck says,“He’s got that tone, man, it’s like a whisper!” and picks up a tarnished trumpet lying on the piano to blow a fair approximation of it.
After Chuck showers and dresses, we drive the couple of miles to Elario’s. The music hasn’t started yet, so Chuck walks up to a stout man wearing a conservative coat and slacks and starts a congenial conversation with him. He then introduces me to Cedar Walton. Eventually, a smaller, bearded man, natty in a brown suit with red shirt and dark tie, walks over. Chuck and he begin a good-humored exchange, with Chuck supplying most of the verbiage while the other man beams and laughs. This chap, I’ve figured out, is Billy Higgins.
Chuck also greets the bass player, Tony Dumas, when he walks by, then turns to engage another acquaintance, a young man leaning on the door frame at the club’s entry. He has that unmistakable look of a jazz musician hanging — hiply underdressed, cigarette dangling from his lower lip, slouching in a way that tells you he’s not just another casual patron.
The performers walk to the stage in the front of the room and, after Walton makes a brief welcoming, begin playing. Higgins’s interplay with Walton’s dense, melodic improvisations is so subtle that at times it sounds like an overtone emanating from Walton’s piano.“He’s got some serious touch, man. Serious,” Chuck says to me, listening with one ear as he yaks with the Hanger, also a local drummer.
After the show, Chuck has some parting compliments for Walter and Higgins as they leave, then we rejoin the Hanger at the table. What has been mainly musicians’ gab widens to include me as Chuck begins the tale of the first commercial concert he attended (at age eight), a triple bill at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. I discover that Chuck’s first musical idol wasn’t Dad at all, but the man heading the bill at the Apollo, THE HARDEST-WORKING MAN IN SHOW BUSINESS, MR. JAAAAMES BROWN! Chuck’s description of Brown’s hyperdramatics is hilarious, and his parroting of the music nails it. “That’s when I knew I wanted to play music, man,” he tell us.“I didn’t know what instrument, but I knew I wanted to be a part of that.”
It’s almost 1:00 a.m. by now, the club nearly empty except for the usual sad cases at the bar. As we migrate towards the exit, Chuck and the Hanger perform their final obligatory scan for available women — at this point, one or two waitresses. The Hanger even returns to the club to ask one of the women out, another obligatory (and ultimately unsuccessful) act performed more for our benefit than his. After dropping Chuck off at his place, I make the drive home. Too wired now to sleep, I wind down by playing some of Chuck’s tape on my living room stereo:
- Tonight’s our night,
- Tonight’s our night for love,
- come on, baby,
- Tonight’s our night, I need your touch
He sings on one song, pleading with last night’s blind date to, uh, widen the context. Chuck had earlier expressed distaste for the single-guy-onthe-make conventions of male pop songwriting, yet most of what I’m hearing on the tape fits the same party-guy pattern. Nevertheless, he does it well — the songs are tuneful with glassy, balanced arrangements. But music like this is too facile for my tastes, and I head off to bed hoping that Chuck the jazz drummer will get a break, rendering his alternative career unnecessary.
I’ve learned from our conversations that Chuck’s foray into commercial music is not as anomalous as I first thought. Mom, Chuck tells me, was a gifted — although frustrated — rhythm and blues singer, and her second husband, Andrew “Mike” Terry, had credits in commercial music almost comparable to Charles Sr.’s jazz resume. Terry, another saxophonist, had been an arranger for Motown and Bill Cosby, among others. He had also played baritone sax on a number of ’60s Motown classics including Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around” and Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike.”
It was through Terry that Chuck gained entry into the world of record production. Terry had started working at Sugarhill Records, then known as All Platinum, as a staff arranger under owner Sylvia Robinson of Mickey and Sylvia (“Pillow Talk”) fame. His difficulties with his stepfather healed, Chuck began following him down to the studio, not realizing he was about to participate in a little piece of popular music history. Sugarhill Records would become the first label to break rap music, and Robinson’s sons, with whom Chuck became friendly, invited him to the sessions where the perceptive Robinson was getting the first rappers on tape.
“Around that time, rap was an underground thing that you only heard among black kids in the ghetto of New York,” Chuck explains. “You didn’t even hear it in New Jersey. This was around 1979, 1980. I would go to the studio and see these people make demo tapes, but nothing really jumped off because the rappers at that time would use a lot of profanity. Motherfucker this and that. This woman, Sylvia, couldn’t get the New York rappers to water down their rhymes for the market, so she found three guys in my high school, and she called them the Sugarhill Gang, after her record company. At that time, all of the rappers named themselves after gangs — you know, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kool Moe Dee and the Treacherous 3 — because they idolized gangster types. In the ghetto, the gangsters are always the people who’re successful. The dope dealers and the guys in the pits, the underworld guys.
Chuck heard little in the early sessions to interest him musically. But then the Sugarhill Gang record “Rapper’s Delight” became a huge crossover hit. His attention properly captured, Chuck got Sugarhill to hire him as a studio percussionist on a number of sessions, including some of the seminal early recordings. “I did some stuff with Grandmaster Flash — ‘Freedom’ — also Sequence’s ‘We’re Gonna Funk You Right On Up.’”
The advent of the drum machine ended his run as a studio musician there, but he was included as part of the rhythm section for a Sugarhill tour featuring the half a dozen or so groups now signed to their label. “We played at the Stanley Theater, at the Roseland Ballroom where Duke Ellington’s band and Fletcher Henderson’s band played,” he reminisces. “I played at the Copacabana, the Savoy, different ballrooms in New York. A lot of it was very, very negative, though. Promoters were taking our money and robbing us, not paying us. The main thing I learned from it was the potential of commercial music. I was seeing guys go to their mailboxes and say,‘Look what I just got’ — 16 grand. Twenty grand. Eighteen years old. So from that point on, I told myself, I’m never gonna turn my back on jazz music, but I’m not gonna turn my head to what’s happening in this commercial music either. I’m gonna immerse myself in music, period.”
Which he did, learning music production by querying the engineers at Sugarhill’s big mixing boards. At 22, he and a friend invested in an eight-track studio with the goal of starting their own record label. One of the groups they recorded is now a major artist for Motown.“I first saw them singing in a park,” Chuck tells me. “Now, the name of the group is Today — but back then they were called the Cents. They were my idea of competition for the New Edition.” Chuck helped them polish their act, produced their demo tape, and even pressed their record with his partner after they were unable to secure a record deal. The album sold about 5000 copies.“If I’m not mistaken,” Chuck says,“these guys now have a number-one record on the black charts. They’re riding around in Mercedes-Benzes and buying condominiums, and I’m almost broke. When I started them out, they knew nothing.”
Hungry to play live music again and free himself from the hustle of the music business, Chuck moved to San Diego for good five years ago. But things have gone less than swimmingly. Most of his work lately has been out-of-town gigs with ex-San Diegan Harold Land. Although these and the occasional dates with his dad are prestigious jobs, it’s not enough work to pay all the bills. Chuck says he made maybe $12,000 a year in his best years here, working three to four nights a week. But it’s been a year or more since he made that. His out-of-town gigs, though infrequent, pay much better: $500 last summer in Texas, $1000 soon in Florida.
“I love straight-ahead jazz, man, but I’m having a hell of a time making a living doing it,” he protests.“Nobody hires me here, and I know I’m one of the best drummers in this city. I don’t need nobody to tell me that; I know what I can do.”
We’re interrupted by a phone call from Daniel Jackson, a local saxophonist/ pianist who wants Chuck for some future dates. Why isn’t he called more often? He pauses.“Most people would rather hire their friends. Some of it might be me,” he says solemnly. “You know, if something is wrong, just because of the way I’ve been trained, I might express my anger on the stage. I might not really be the most likable person in the world.”
Chuck’s stage manners are on display six weeks later when he plays with Daniel Jackson’s group downtown at Croce’s. Chuck sounds crisp and assertive on drums during the band’s warm-up jam, occasionally dominating the sound when he should be supporting it. I marvel at the shadings he creates, deftly switching between sticks, mallets, and brushes like dipping paints from a palette. At the break, I wave him over to my seat and compliment him on his playing, which he appreciates, but when I extend the compliment to the band in general, the smile fades. “It’s all right,” he replies without conviction or explanation, although he brightens when he talks about Jackson.
When the band opens the second set, Chuck’s playing is more in sync with his bandmates. Still overwhelming the others on occasion, he’s now pushing them from behind rather than pulling them from in front, his eyes fixed on Jackson for cues. Although he doesn’t show the same face to the band that he showed to me, I hear the source of some of his dissatisfaction. This group does not yet function well as a unit: they’re like a basketball team together for the first time on the court.
A month later, I hear Chuck McPherson in more favorable circumstances, backing his father’s group at a taping of the nationally distributed jazz television program Club Date . Chuck’s playing is precise and inventive; he seems comfortable in the rarified company of his father and distinguished pianist Kenny Barron, who guests on a few numbers. Earlier, producer Paul Marshall had made a joking reference to nepotism. Charles Sr. then snatched the mic and quipped, “It’s pragmatism. I keep Chuck working so he won’t borrow money.” The sad truth is that Charles himself is forced to travel all over the world just to get enough bookings to make a living.
Charles McPherson Sr. insists that he’s behind Chuck’s commercial efforts when I query him about it by phone. “There’s nothing about what he’s trying to do that’s anti what jazz is supposed to be. Superficially, there might be certain things, but the core is still there. I can come right in and lay a track on what he’s doing and not change too much about the way I think about music.” Still, he admits it would sadden him if his son left his jazz career behind for the commercial arena.
“If this was heaven and I could map out my ideal career,” says Chuck Jr.,“I’d be playing the drums like Art Blakey or Max Roach. I’d have probably liked a seven-piece band with the best musicians I could find. But the reality of the matter is, that probably won’t happen for me. If a man like my father is not wealthy and well known, then that’s a little bit discouraging to me.”
Even without major-label exposure, however, Charles Sr. has a definite presence in the fraternity of musicians. Chuck, though, wants none of the reflected light. At 29 he’s already reached his first midlife crisis.“I need to do my own thing or leave it alone. And I don’t want to leave it alone, so I have to do it.”
Music-star dad, aspiring son, part two. I’m waiting at the carved-wood door to the house in Hillcrest where 18year-old A.J. Croce, the late Jim Croce’s kid, lives with his mother and stepfather. I’ve only spoken to A.J. by telephone, never met him. Nice kid, kind of halting speech, polite.
The door opens, and I’m face to face with A.J. He’s wearing pointed black shoes (scuffless, even on the tips), black pants with pipestem legs, a white shirt buttoned to the top, a plaid woolen sport coat that slumps just right on his slender shoulders, and the kind of narrow-brimmed black fedora that you’ll never find in any white-boy’s clothing store. Pleasant, but too shy to smile easily, he invites me in.
We step into the living room where brightly painted plaster snakes, modern furniture, an antique bench, and a black grand piano peacefully coexist. I follow A.J. to a conversational grouping in the center of the room and sit down on one of the chairs while he settles down on the couch, which half swallows him. Hanging above A.J.’s head is a large painting of a black man sitting on a chair, singing and accompanying himself on an electric guitar. As with the other paintings in the room, this one has a little white placard beside it naming artist and title, but I can’t read it from my chair, so I ask A.J. to identify the subject. “That’s Muddy Waters.” He’s searching my face for name recognition of the great bluesman. Does he like Waters? He smiles with obvious regard.“I love Muddy Waters .”
That little exchange, however, does not prepare me for what A.J. is about to share of his own music. He had played La Jolla’s Sherwood Hall the previous evening as a solo act, opening for the Russian rock group Dinamik as part of the Soviet Arts Festival. As he shows me a videotape of that performance on the 50-inch television near us, I experience a case of cognitive dissonance: the nice kid is pounding out your basic New Orleans whorehouse piano and singing in the voice of a 225-pound black man. ( A.J. looks to weigh about 125, tops.) The music is pure mimicry, but then so is the music of most artists his age — except they aren’t as discriminating in their choice of idols.
I came here to find out how a musical kid follows up the career of his famous dad.
Some of that pain is inherited. It is well known that father Jim achieved most of his superstardom posthumously, after his death in a plane crash in 1973. However, little is documented about his struggles during the two years prior to his death, which were A.J.’s first two years. “The producers and managers really screwed him over,” A.J. explains.“That wasn’t really brought into the public, so they don’t want those stories in the public. They made him a star, but they didn’t make him any money. They made a lot of promises.” He adds, “He worked every day, 360 days a year, for two years on the road. He made a bit for it, to get him through the week or whatever, but he never really got paid.” That’s not unusual for an unestablished musician, but as A.J. explains,“This was when he had three gold albums and five gold singles. When you see a million copies sold, it’s depressing to think, ‘Where’s the money? What’s happening?’”
What was happening, as A.J.’s mother Ingrid Croce will clarify for me later, was that Croce’s management had skimmed nearly all of his earnings. (At the time he died, he was making $10,000 per performance, from which management was paying him $100 per week. He never received any of his royalties.) In addition, Croce’s contract had cost him what would be his only time to know his son, although he had formulated a scheme to rectify that before he died. Croce, who had moved the family to Point Loma from Philadelphia (A.J.’s birthplace) in August 1973, was planning a bigger move to Costa Rica to get a break from his contractual arrangement. When his plane crashed the next month, Ingrid Croce went down there anyway for six months with A.J . and another family. (Later, A.J. will show me the truck they drove to Central America, parked down the block and recently painted.)
A.J.’s own pain began shortly thereafter; when he was four years old, what seemed a simple ear infection built up pressure in his spinal column to the point where he went temporarily blind. Although surgery restored his sight in one eye, he still does not see out of the other and has trouble reading — including reading music.
A.J. was hospitalized for over half a year. He and Ingrid spent the next year in Costa Rica and several years after that shuttling between Central America and San Diego. By this time, Ingrid Croce was heavily enmeshed in what would be a 14-year battle to recover the royalties that were now rightfully hers. In the meantime, she was making her house payments by borrowing her own money from the same management team she was suing. A.J., still just a child at the time, is understandably vague when referring to this period of his life, but it is clear that the stress of the legal proceedings was horrendous for years on end. The strain eased for A.J. and Ingrid around 1981, when the tangle of litigation began to resolve in their favor.
A.J.’s interest in old R&B and jazz music grew out of his captivation with the revival craze when he was 12 years old. The Mod fascination with ’60s music led A.J. to investigate vintage popular music in general. He began listening to old 78s, and it was like falling in love with time travel, except that he got stuck and never came back. His musical idols are mostly long since deceased — people like Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Errol Garner, Fats Waller, and an obscure rhythm and blues artist named Cecil Gant. The only influences he mentions who still perform are Mose Allison and Georgie Fame. (He dismisses the music of his own generation as “modern trash.”)
As for his father’s music? “I like it. I think it was overproduced. I really like the tapes I have of where he and Maury Muehleisen [the guitarist who accompanied Croce and died with him in the crash] are playing guitar. I like traditional American music and they were making American folk music.” Still, his father is not among his musical models. “No, not at all, because I’m really much more influenced by intricate music like jazz. He played in a blues style, and I love old blues, but there’s something about Errol Garner and Fats Waller and the like. My father loved that music as well.”
Because Croce was always on the road in the two years before his death, A.J. has no recollection of him. “Dad” is just a vague amalgam of Ingrid Croce’s stories about him, tapes of his music, and the distorted impressions created by his records and media coverage. A.J. does know Croce had a strange sense of humor — he once fed his newborn son a spoonful of horseradish to see how his face would contort — and he does know of his dad’s hopes for his son, as relayed to him by Ingrid: “First of all, don’t let him be an asshole, and second of all, I don’t want him to work a nine-to-five job.”
A.J. seems to have avoided both so far. He will never be forced to make the type of career choices facing Chuck McPherson. But he is not content to take his good fortune lying around on the couch. “I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world. I don’t take advantage of that and I don’t take it lightly, because I realize that everyone has to work for what they want to do, and some people have to die for what they want, and some people just die [he laughs].” He practices eight hours most days and gigs up to six days a week. (He dropped out of his senior year of high school to concentrate on his career.) “For the last year, I guess, I haven’t borrowed money or taken money. I just make it off what I play,” he says earnestly.
A.J. needs a smoke, so we go outside to the wooden deck overlooking the tennis court. Then, at my request, A.J. takes me downstairs to his practice studio, a narrow room next to what I assume is his bedroom. At one end of the room is a wine-red piano that A.J. identifies as a 1938 Packard baby grand. Hanging over the piano is a classic microphone — a 1955 Shure, he tells me — suspended from an old stand. “I swear by these,” he says, noting their utility for reproducing an old-time sound. A standup bass that he rents for the band (Romy Kaye and the Swinging Gates) leans against one wall. On the opposite wall hangs a large, metal “Drink Coca-Cola” sign, circa 1940, a birthday gift from his mother, who saw the sign among the rubble from a building being demolished and rescued it for her son.
A.J also collects, of course, vintage music, specializing in jazz and R&B 78s and 45s. He’s anxious to play me a little gem he garnered last week on a trip with his girlfriend to New Orleans — a 45 from 1964 by the recently deceased Alvin Robinson. We listen to both sides on the stereo in his practice room; it’s primitive New Orleans R&B, Robinson sounding like a rawer Otis Redding to me. A.J. agrees. When I ask him why he plays the collector’s item instead of preserving it on tape and listening to that, he replies, “I love the sound of vinyl.”
The Croces’ previous home caught fire two years ago; A.J. grabbed a bottle of fancy wine and a suit he’d had made for a performance before leaping out a second-story window. His rationale for the peculiar order of his priorities? “I kind of did it in a humorous way because of a song by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross called ‘Gimme That Wine.’”
Back upstairs, A.J. tells me that being the son of a superstar kept him in the presence of notable musicians, even without his father around. (Arlo Guthrie and his wife were guests in the Croce home just the week before.) “I always thought of myself as an entertainer. I guess to someone that’s young, that sees people they also see on television or in a magazine, it makes them think everyone does that. That’s where I think I got the idea, you know,‘Everyone does that, or if they don’t, they can.’”
Still, his path has not been as easygoing as many might assume. Ingrid Croce, who also recorded and performed before throat nodules ended her singing career, has given A.J. what career guidance she can, but as for impressing record producers, her connections have only gotten him to the base of the hump, not over it. “You know, I haven’t had anyone really say, ‘I want to hear your thing,’ never had a company say, ‘We’re interested’ or anything like that,” he shares honestly. “I played in Philadelphia for a huge Hall of Fame award. Every record company was there. No one said a thing.”
The following weekend I hear A.J. play twice: Friday with the band and Sunday as a solo. Friday night, Romy Kaye and the Swinging Gates, featuring A.J. Croce (as they are billed), are booked at the Top Hat and Grill, a club next to Croce’s that is also owned by A.J.’s mother. I arrive as the band is setting up for its first set, the Gates wearing white dinner jackets with black-bordered lapels, to which A.J. adds gray sharkskin slacks, white shirt, skinny black tie.
The band opens with a warm-up number without female lead singer Romy, a medium-tempo blues shuffle with A.J. soloing first. The sax player shows off his sleazy saxman sound and look but little else; the guitar player is only marginally more interesting.
On Sundays, A.J. performs solo at Croce’s, where he has played most Sundays from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. for the past two years. As I enter, he’s banging away on the bar’s black baby grand and singing with passion, but it’s almost impossible to hear him, even after I take a seat just two tables from him. (Clubs in this downtown district that serve food are prohibited by ABC regulation from presenting amplified music.) So I spend much of what’s left of his first set studying the bar — a huge painting of Jim grins down on customers drinking shots and beers; photos of Croce at various stages of his truncated life cover much of the south wall. One photo in particular — of a boy in white shirt, suspenders, and hand-painted tie — could easily be A.J., who tells me at the break of other photos where the resemblance is even “spookier.” A.J., by the way, is also wearing a white shirt and hand-painted tie tonight under his wide-lapelled suit, as well as the omnipresent shoes and hat.
Following A.J.’s suggestion, I sit at one of the barstools directly opposite the piano for the next set so I can hear better. Although the bar noise overwhelms the music even from here, A.J. is locked onto another frequency, closing with a long, spirited medley that includes “St. James Infirmary,” “Route 66,” Louis Jordan’s “Knock Me a Kiss,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and, as a finale, Memphis Slim’s slyly obscene “If You See Kay.” As I leave, jazz saxophonist Joe Marillo, in for his regular show, compliments A.J. on the force of his playing.
Like Chuck McPherson, A.J. craves to be evaluated on his own merits. To a large extent, he says, that’s already happening. “I think audiences receive me well. Most of the time, they don’t really know my background, and that’s good.” That may be because of A.J.’s clandestine efforts. “I often call myself something else, just, for the hell of it...Hurricane Slim or Aloysius Barbital, something like that. I’ve thought about releasing my records, when I do, as Adrian James.”
Whatever he calls himself, he will always face the blend of ease and burden as the child of an accomplished parent. “There were times that I resented that he was famous and that no matter what I did, I would be following. And now it doesn’t bother me. I’m proud that he did it, and what I’m doing in a way is similar. If someone chooses to think of it as carrying it on, yeah, I guess it is, but for me it’s just doing what I want to do.”