Jim Croce — Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Jim Croce — Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim”

The Album First Came Out on April 1, 1972

Apr 01, 2022
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Singer/songwriter Jim Croce’s third album, You Don’t Mess Around with Jim, also served as his commercial breakthrough, launching the formerly obscure guitarist from the shadowy confines of dimly lit New York clubs to the stage of American Bandstand, where he performed the record’s title track, his song soon peaking at #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The music of You Don’t Mess Around with Jim varies in sensibility, from rollicking early-’70s folk rockers highlighting the failings and peccadilloes of various ne’er-do-wells and social outcasts to intimately introspective ballads detailing the drastic changes occurring in Croce’s own life. It also showcases his and musical partner Maury Muehleisen’s massive talents as inspired guitarists, both artists having helped to define an important corner of their generation’s cultural soundtrack.

The album’s widely-recognized opening title track paints a uniquely gritty portrait of one New York City pool hall notorious for the patronage of “Big” Jim Walker—aka “the king of 42nd Street”—a physically imposing hustler who rules his turf with an iron fist. In a darkly amusing turn of events, Walker meets a notably bloody end after hustling the wrong pool-shootin’ southerner, known as “Slim,” who takes umbrage at the king’s presumption. The song’s groovy acoustic bounce and the rich backing harmonies on its chorus rendered it a cultural staple of its time, a recording which practically begged for ’70s radio rotation and has continued to enjoy generous airplay well into the current era. The subsequent “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be a Brighter Day” finds Croce offering earnest promises of romance and recovery, sweet nothings perhaps, though the track’s warm melody encourages one to believe Croce’s assurances that “nobody ever had a rainbow baby, until he had the rain.” The wistful “New York’s Not My Home” serves as a possible melodic blueprint for the following year’s awe-inspiring “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” the Philadelphia-bred Croce feeling alienated at the Big Apple’s bustling core, singing, “That’s the reason that I’ve gotta get outta here/I’m so alone.”

Humorous underdog anthem “Hard Time Losin’ Man” returns the album to an up-tempo beat, its down on his luck protagonist tricked by both an unnamed cigar-chomping car dealer (“Then I got on the highway, oh I feelin’ fine, I hit a bump/Then I found I bought a car held together/By wire and a couple a’hunks of twine”) and drug dealer called Pete (“Well he sold me a dime/Of some super fine dynamite from Mexico/I spent the whole night just tryin’ to get right/On an ounce of Oregano”), Croce’s delivery both sympathetic and comedic. “Photographs and Memories,” one of his finest ballads, possesses a mystical quality as the narrator revisits recollections of better times with a lost love, reflecting, “But we sure had a good time, when we started way back when/Morning walks and bedroom talks/Oh how I loved you then.” In his lifetime, despite having hits with upbeat numbers such as “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” Croce succeeded most as a sentimental searcher, rummaging through dated snapshots of everything that once was or could have been, his ballads among the most affecting played upon an acoustic guitar up to that moment.

“Walkin’ Back to Georgia” is a charming Croce deep cut, perhaps one of his finest recordings. A dejected narrator trudges back to his hometown in hopes of reacquainting himself with a former flame, recounting, “But she’s the girl who said she loved me/On that hot dusty Macon road,” a sense of cool nostalgia falling upon him in the warm evening sun. Will the narrator find his ex in town, just as he remembers her? We never do learn. He could very easily find his long walk even longer than anticipated—and therein lies the tragedy of Croce’s musical soul. The aching “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” stands as one of the greatest of its genre. The track, another tale of love lost, finds the narrator seeking her out with assistance from a telephone operator. “There’s something in my eyes/You know it happens every time/I think about the love that I thought would save me,” the narrator’s admission remains one of Croce’s most burning lyrical accomplishments, as he teeters back and forth between hopeful optimism and downtrodden pessimism. “I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well,” he attempts to reassure himself, before confessing, “I only wish the words could just convince myself/That it just wasn’t real but that’s not the way it feels.” With the exception of the rowdy “Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy),” the remainder of You Don’t Mess Around with Jim consists of more balladry, some tracks stronger (“Time in a Bottle” and “A Long Time Ago”) than others (“Box #10” and “Hey Tomorrow”), though all are indicative of Croce’s burgeoning skill as a premier songwriter.

On September 20, 1973—one day prior to the release of his hit single “I Got a Name”—the 30-year-old Croce, along with Muehleisen and four others, was killed in a plane crash, leaving fans to wonder what might’ve been, as the young musician and father had been advancing his sound with each release. That said, Croce left plenty of gems in his wake, and despite the sudden snuffing out of his waxing flame, managed to leave an indelible mark upon the face of popular music. In continuing the Croce legacy, Jim’s son A.J., himself an accomplished pianist and singer/songwriter, has recently begun performing his father’s songs. The younger Croce’s enthusiasm for the elder’s work gives fans plenty to anticipate, while You Don’t Mess Around with Jim remains a delight to revisit even five decades on. Jim Croce, despite the brevity of his run as a musical savant, is an American great, remaining one of his generation’s top lyrical storytellers—an elite class including such literate folk masters as John Prine, Harry Chapin, and Tom T. Hall. You Don’t Mess Around with Jim stands as a pleasant reminder that Croce’s output is always worth a listen, whether by longtime fans or more youthful seekers.



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