Jim Croce, Five Others Die in Plane Crash

Singer-songwriter was riding a wave of overdue success before tragedy stuck

Musician Jim Croce, guitarist Maury Muehleisen on the Helen Reddy Show, 1973 Credit: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

Natchitoches, La. — Pop singer-songwriter Jim Croce, 30, was killed September 20th when the single-engine plane in which he and five others were riding hit a tree on takeoff.

The other victims in the accident were Croce's second guitarist, Maury Meuhleisen; road manager Morgan Tell; comedian George Stevens, a booking agent, and the pilot.

Croce had gained headliner status only recently, following his hit records, "Don't Mess Around With Jim" and the current "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." He was en route from a college concert at Northwestern State College, 75 miles southeast of Shreveport, to another in Sherman, Texas.

"It was a single-engine plane, I believe," said deputy Walter Braxton. "It was taking off and it did not get any altitude." The plane went past the runway, hit the tree, and spun around in the air before crashing.

Croce is survived by his wife Ingrid and their two-year-old son, Adrian.

Corb Donahue, a friend of Croce's and an employee at his record company, ABC/Dunhill, described Croce as "simply one of the finest human beings I've ever met." The sentiment was echoed by others who knew him.

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Jim Croce was born in south Philadelphia January 10th, 1943, and brought up on ragtime, country and Dixieland music. He played the accordion as a child and taught himself guitar, but did not play professionally until 1964, while he was at Villanova College in Pennsylvania. There he formed various bands and played fraternity parties. He also worked on construction crews to support himself.

Talking to Rolling Stone in London while on a promotional tour there two months ago, Croce recalled: "I've had to get in and out of music a couple of times, because music didn't always mean a living. You don't make that much in bars; I still have memories of those nights, playing for $25 a night, with nobody listening." Outside the bars, Croce had teaching jobs: In 1966, he taught guitar at an arts camp, and later, he taught emotionally disturbed children in Philadelphia. "I would never teach again," he said. "What a year that was, beat up by a girl who was 260 pounds in junior high." And, he said, "My one and only shot at an office gig was working at radio station WHAT in Philadelphia. I was writing jive commercials for an R&B station. I'd be up on Germantown Avenue trying to sell time to a jazz bar. I was the only white person to walk into some of those bars, and they'd think I was either a cop or a collection man."

Croce and his wife Ingrid were in Mexico, where she had a grant to study pottery, when he reunited with a college friend, musician Tommy West, who urged him to try the New York coffeehouse circuit. Croce, with West and Terry Cashman producing, cut an album in 1969, and when it failed to sell, he became a truck driver until he and Ingrid moved to a farm in Lyndell, Pennsylvania. When money ran low, Croce went back to construction work, doing some session singing for commercials on the side. Finally, after one rejection from ABC/Dunhill (which Croce had framed and put on the wall next to his first gold record; the rejection regretting that his songs were "not strong enough for us"), he signed with the label and cut a couple of songs he'd written in a truck cab, on his construction job: "You Don't Mess Around With Jim" and "Operator." Both became hits and led to a second album, Life And Times, the Number One single, "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," and a new career in TV and film work.

"'Leroy Brown,"' he said in London, "came out of the American street tradition. I wrote a lot of things in street terms, a lot of truck-driving songs. 'Leroy' I wrote at home and was based on real characters. The jobs I've had attract characters." (Said Donahue at ABC/Dunhill: "There was no persona between Jim and his songs; he was a strong man who wasn't afraid to be gentle.")

"It's a nice feeling having a Number One record," said Croce two months ago. "It's a strange feeling. After having played for such a long time I don't even know how to describe it."

Croce had just completed a third album for Dunhill, I've Got a Name. The title cut is part of a soundtrack for 20th Century Fox' new film, The Last American Hero.