The late singer-songwriter Jim Croce, who was killed in a plane crash in the fall of 1973 just as his star was beginning to rise, wrote his hit song "Time in a Bottle" for his infant son. He and his wife named the child Adrian James, calling him "A.J."
A.J. Croce is now a 41-year-old singer-songwriter in his own right with eight albums to his credit. If you want to have a good cry, watch the "Time in a Bottle" video of him as a 2-year-old, cavorting with his dad, who would die at the age of 30 not long after that footage was shot.
In all the years he's been touring, by himself or as an opening act for the likes of Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Dave Matthews, had never played Marin County. He made his debut here on Friday at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.
Obviously, he has no first-hand memory of his father, who wrote a host of great songs in his tragically short career. "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and "Time in a Bottle" were both number one Billboard hits, but he also penned "Operator," "You Don't Mess Around With Jim" and "I Got a Name," to name a few. A.J.'s personal favorite is the poignant "Lover's Cross."
"It's unfortunate, but I got to know him the way most people do, by listening to his music," A.J. told me from his home in San Diego. "And he recorded everything from about 1966 on — songs he'd written, songs he was working on, even conversations with friends (like James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Arlo Guthrie) about the kinds of music he liked.
As if losing his father wasn't hardship enough, a brain disorder when he was 4 left him completely blind. As he struggled to gradually see again, he learned to play the piano, emulating blind keyboard stars like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. By the time he was 10, he regained vision in his left eye.
His father was an accomplished fingerstyle guitarist, but A.J. didn't pick up the guitar until about 10 years ago. It was a very special guitar, a 1933 L-00 Gibson acoustic.
"I inherited that instrument from my father, which is the only material possession I have of his," A.J. said. "He wrote everything on his first two albums on that guitar. So I wanted to make sure I did it justice and played it."
Although Jim Croce had four hits on the charts and was just beginning to headline concerts, he had little more than the clothes he was wearing when his chartered plane crashed an hour after a show in Natchitoches, La. His rise to fame was so swift, there wasn't enough time for him to collect royalties or make money on the concert trail.
"He had two shirts, a pair of boots and tennis shoes when he died," A.J. said. "He had hit records, but it wasn't like there was anything to show for it. He was broke. At the very end of his life, he had a guitar that Ovation (the guitar company) gave to him and the one I have now."
Unlike his father, who had to scuffle for years, A.J. signed with Private Records when he was just 19. His eponymous debut album was produced by the prestigious T-Bone Burnett. His sophomore album, "That's Me in the Bar," featured David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Ry Cooder.
Because his music was too eclectic for the label to market as a popular genre, the albums sold only moderately. In 1998, A.J. formed his own company, Seedling Records, to release his music. His most recent album, 2009's "Cage of Muses," earned a four-star review in Rolling Stone magazine.
"I recognized that I'm outside the box," he said. "Being eclectic is not a choice. It's who I am. I'm going to continue to write different kinds of music. That's what I love about music. It has different facets."
He's currently at work on a new album with several different producers. He plans to release one song a month all of next year.
When he was younger and wanted to develop his own identity, A.J. didn't perform his father's songs. But now that he's older and established, he often includes some of them in his set, usually by audience request.