By Larry Widen Special to OnMilwaukee Published Apr 05, 2024 at 10:31 AM

"If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I'd like to do
Is to save every day 'til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you." -- Jim Croce

It’s been 50 years since folk singer Jim Croce lost his life in a tragic Louisiana plane crash. Only 30 years old, his hit singles “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” fueled Croce’s ascendancy to international fame. Although his life was cut short, his music sounds as good today as when it was first recorded. 

His son, A. J. Croce, shared his father’s love of music and began his own career 35 years ago. In that time, Croce has toured and recorded with industry superstars such as B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and Leon Russell. Although he shares his father’s name, A. J. never rode Jim’s coattails while assembling a resume of his own. 

Throughout the past seven years, A.J.’s “Croce Plays Croce” tour has sold out performing arts center across the country. Fan response from dropping in a song or two like “Operator” in his own show comes off astounding and deeply emotional, playing concerts that celebrate the legacy of his father’s songs, stories and music, as well as his own. The shows feature two generations of Croce music and many songs by other artists which connect father and son as performers.

The current “Croce Plays Croce 50th Anniversary Tour” will stop at The Pabst Theater on Friday, April 5. In a recent interview, A.J. talked about his father, some career highlights and what fans can expect at the upcoming show.

OnMilwaukee: Some people might feel you’re cashing in on an established musical legacy. Others say you’ve got big shoes to fill.

A. J. Croce: I get that, but for years I never played my father’s songs. I was determined to follow my own path, and I think I’ve done that. I was 18 years old when B.B. King took me on tour as his keyboard player. I was 21 when I played with Ray Charles. But later, I added some of dad’s songs into the setlist, and the reaction was great. On this tour we play some of the big hits like they were recorded out of respect for the audience. But we also delve into my father’s songbook and play the deep cuts in different and fun ways. Do I have something to prove? Absolutely not! I’m in a wonderful space right now and I’m grateful for that.

That so many proficient musicians want to work with you says a lot.

I was in New Orleans when I was 12 or 13 years and the legendary Allen Toussaint wanted to play piano with me. Pretty soon Irma Thomas comes in and starts singing, and I thought, "Wow, this is how music should sound. Raw, honest and beautiful."

There was a time when the musicians we love could perform, but they were barred from staying at white hotels or eating at white restaurants.

Racism is profound in the country, but one of the last times I saw Ray Charles, he was staying at the Four Seasons! Music is a religious experience and transcends all races. For that time, everyone is equal, and there’s no prejudice or bigotry. Music unites us all.

Does the setlist vary from night to night?

It does, because there’s a point where I let the audience tell us what they want to hear.

What if they ask for “Free Bird”?

(Laughs) They do it every night and we know how to play it.