I first woke up to popular music just about the time I entered seventh grade, 1972-73. I had been given an AM clock radio and suddenly the whole world of AM Top 40 radio in all its ’70s splendor was open to me. At the same time came the general combined world-broadening and adolescent hell that is junior high school. And just as that was happening, I was hearing Jim Croce on the radio.
I have a really strong memory of listening to Jim Croce’s “One Less Set of Footsteps” in my old tiny bedroom (still shared with my younger sister at that point), on that cream-colored clock radio with the light-up dial and the three-inch speaker. The song came out in January of 1973, spent 10 weeks on the charts, and immediately struck me as something different from, and maybe more than, the songs I knew up to that point. Even in a time when “Brand New Key” and “American Pie” had been big folk-rock hits in the year before, there was something different about the guitar sound on this one, something different about the vocal delivery, something that sounded much more genuine than much of the slick pop that was out around that time.
One less set of footsteps on your floor
One less man a-walkin’
One less pair of jeans on your door
One less voice a-talkin’
And the lyrics made a huge impression on my little 12-year-old brain — in part as a clever, indirect way to tell the story (“one less set of footsteps” is a lot more artistic than “I’m leaving”) , and in part because there was something that seemed so adult about hanging your jeans on someone’s (presumably bedroom) door. This hinted at something that I knew nothing about — every breakup song talked about pining and heartache and all that other muck we think we understand when we’re (almost) teenagers. But here was something concrete, a view into relationships that I had no inkling of. (Also, this is 1973, and the idea of people living together without being married is still controversial.) This says when we break up, here are the things that will be different: you won’t hear me walking around this space, you won’t see my clothes hanging on your door. What a picture to paint — in, what, 24 words?
So yeah, I fell for Jim Croce hard. This was a time when most of my budget went to 45s — 79 cents at Apex Music Korner for a sure thing (and if you weren’t sure, you could use one of the store’s turntables, put the flip side of the 45 on, and listen through a little monaural speaker pressed to your ear). Albums were an investment, and while I had a few, well, I’m not sure I had more than 50 by the time I went off to college. I had hundreds of singles.
Croce, unfortunately, died in a plane crash just as he was getting huge. He had released two albums in the ’60s, but it was his collaboration with Maury Muehleisen that led to the songs that got him a contract with ABC Records, and that first big hit with “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” One could be forgiven for thinking he was a novelty act on the basis of that one huge hit, but once you heard his other work, it would be clear: this was a storyteller. He could mix funny with deeply touching in a way that few ever could.
After he died, this greatest hits collection, “Photographs and Memories,” came out in 1974, and I bought it to fill in some of the songs I had missed in my singles shopping. It is a fantastic collection. In fact, too fantastic. Including a posthumous release, Jim Croce had put out three albums for ABC. This collection has 14 songs (a huge number for the time): with six tracks from “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” four from “Life and Times,” and four from “I Got A Name,” it would be hard for a penurious 14-year-old to justify buying any of those records when he already had this one. Economically effective, but it meant there were a number of worthwhile songs I never got to know. And by the time I was digging through used record bins a few years later, I wasn’t digging for this kind of music.
Still, I have had this record all these years, in surprisingly good shape, and it is always good, always worth revisiting. When my older kid got into roller derby a few years back, it occasioned a lot of plays of “Roller Derby Queen,” and I picked up some of the great live tracks that are available now. Prior to moving here, I can’t say that I associated Croce with Philadelphia, but oh yes, he was big in the Philly scene, and is buried not far from us, so one of these days we’ll have to make a visit.