Just Like (Good) Medicine
Just Like (Good) Medicine
A Q&A with A.J. Croce
By Geoff Gehman
A.J. Croce’s latest album, “Just Like Medicine” (Compass Records, 2017). has many good doctors operating with the veteran pianist, vocalist, composer and sonic pilgrim. It’s produced by Dan Penn, writer of hits (“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”), producer of hits (the Box Tops’ “The Letter”), and a member of Croce’s all-star team of producers (Allen Toussaint, “Cowboy” Jack Clement). Croce wrote “The Heart That Makes Me Whole,” a shuck-and-jive that showcases his deep New Orleans roots, with Leon Russell, one of his early keyboard heroes along with Ray Charles and Art Tatum. Vince Gill plays guitar on the first polished recording of “The Name of the Game,” the last song written by Croce’s father Jim, who died in a 1973 plane crash before A.J. turned two. Dog-tail-wagging and defiant (“Losin’ ain’t the name of the game I play”), it has the dyed-in-the-wool authenticity of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “Lover’s Cross” and “Time in a Bottle,” which was inspired by the creation of Jim and Ingrid Croce’s only child.
Stretching the spectrum is common for A.J. Croce, who will play his tunes (“Coraline”) on piano and his dad’s tunes (“Box #10”) on guitar Aug. 16 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. He was five years old and blind in his right eye–a condition caused by beatings from his mother’s boyfriend–when he began teaching himself piano while listening to records by fellow blind pianists (Art Tatum, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder). As a teen he played four-handed piano with R&B king Floyd Dixon and toured with blues king B.B. King. His first record was co-produced by T-Bone Burnett, today’s go-go-to guy for shepherding Americana. He made his 2013 CD “Twelve Tales” (Compass) with six producers and six bands in five cities, in the process honoring Allen Toussaint, whose records with singer Irma Thomas inspired a 13-year-old Croce. His current project is a collection of numbers steeped in origin stories—religious, scientific, mythological—cut with Antibalas, a 12-member Brooklyn ensemble specializing in Afrobeats.
Croce comes to Jim Thorpe just 13 months after his wife Marlo—mother of their two grown children, best friend, muse—died suddenly from a rare heart virus. In the email interview below he discusses her rare musical honesty, musical heroes he shares with his father, and his dad’s blunt advice for behaving like a human being.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that wormed its way into your ears, mind and soul? Don’t worry if you can’t stop at one. Taj Mahal gave me six, five of them Louis Jordan tunes.
A: There are so many I don’t even know where to begin, so I’ll just do my best. I can understand why Taj mentioned Louis Jordan. He wrote and recorded so many great songs; “Caledonia” was memorable to me. I remember Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Four or Five Times,” [David] Bowie’s “Changes,” “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks. When I was about seven [Talking Heads’] “Psycho Killer” came out and I loved that single. “My Generation” by The Who, Countless Beatles and Stones songs. The first time I remember hearing “The Weight” by The Band. The voices of Al Green. Stevie Wonder and Rod Stewart were a part of my childhood but when I got a little older, things got really diverse. I loved “It’s Raining” by Irma Thomas, which I first heard in a Jim Jarmusch film, and Mose Allison. Allen Toussaint was a big influence and mentor.
Q: What were some of the Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Art Tatum numbers you cut your teeth to as a budding pianist? And did it make a difference that all three of your early musical heroes were also blind?
A: It wasn’t so much individual songs as complete albums. I was turned on to them as a kid because I was blind and it was inspirational. I still listen to them all the time.
Q: Who are some of the musicians you discovered in your dad’s record collection who continue to shape you musically, so much so that you reference them in your show “Croce on Croce”?
A: Sam Cooke, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Otis Redding….
Q: I’m always fascinated by the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect them to zig once you release them to the world. Is there a song of yours with surprisingly long legs, that unexpectedly ended up in weddings, funerals, even bar(t) mitzvahs?
A: It’s a funny thing, I’ve had songs in films, on TV and in commercials that I never would have expected. People have tattooed some of my lyrics on them. You never know where a song may end up.
Q: You’ve made records with an all-star squad of producers, from Allen Toussaint to Dan Penn. Can you spin a story about one of them taking you in a completely different direction in the studio, one that changed the way you record, write and even play live?
A: Yes, although I don’t think my live performance was really affected. Mitchell Froom had a perspective about creating new sounds from vintage instruments. I had always let a beautiful vintage instrument speak for itself by using great mics. Mitchell had this perspective that the greatness of an instrument was innate, and so he works hard to make it sound like nothing you’ve ever heard. That really gave me a new perspective.
Q: What’s the best advice your musical mom Ingrid, who performed with your dad, gave you about remaining relatively healthy and, hopefully, happy as a professional musician?
A: She didn’t push me into music and my dad and her really never toured like I have, so I think she just wants me to be happy at what I do.
Q: Any recent discoveries/revelations about your dad as a song writer, especially when playing one of his tunes on guitar (i.e., “The Name of the Game”)?
A: Not really. He was a great writer but that wasn’t a revelation
Q: What was your most bitter time in the music trade, when you seriously doubted your calling?
A: There have been so many. Some because of the toll it took on my family, some from bad management, agents or labels. I’ve managed to weather the storms and feel grateful that my career is better than ever.
Q: What was your sweetest time in the music trade, when the planets aligned and almost everything almost made sense?
A: Probably right now. I have the ability to be creative in every way I can imagine. I work with a great manager and the whole team at the label and agency really care. It only took 30 years.
Q: You’ve said that your late wife Marlo was your muse as well as your best friend. How did she inspire you as a musician and a human?
A: We were in love, best friends and a great team. We laughed a lot. She was honest with me about my music, which is not always easy to find, because touring and recording musicians are relatively insulated. Marlo was a musicologist like myself, so she always understood where I was drawing from. She gave me confidence when I doubted my work.
Q: How have you coped since she passed? Are there new habits/rituals that help keep you steadier and saner?
A: It takes time; healing from that kind of loss isn’t easy. I continue to practice and push myself as a composer in new directions. Music is great therapy.
Q: What origin story launched and/or anchors the recording you’re making of songs prompted by origin stories?
A: It originally started as an album idea based on international folk tales about 15 years ago. Then six years back I took the basic concept and applied it to origin stories. It touches on mythology, history, cultural anthropology, science and religion. At this point it’s well organized and I’m working on songs with Antibalas.
Q: So, A.J., what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from a world tour to world peace. Any ways, for example, that you’d like to improve as a musician?
A: I try to improve every day. I keep my ears open, my imagination well lubricated, and am fearless when it comes to creativity. I don’t like drama in my life, I keep things as simple as I can and wake up with the idea that anything can happen.
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List? Musicians have told me everything from ending oppressive religions to assassinating all snakes.
A: I can only be the best person I can be. My dad gave me advice as a child: “Don’t be an asshole.” I think if everyone followed that advice we’d live in a pretty amazing world.
Q: Why did you decide to record “I Got a Name” [a posthumous hit for Jim Croce, which he recorded for the movie “The Last American Hero”] for Goodyear Tire’s tribute to Dale Earnhardt Jr., the retiring race-car champ?
A: Like my dad’s recording for the [NASCAR legend] Junior Johnson biopic it was a work for hire. I thought it was a curious thing that we’d both be asked to record something we didn’t write, for race-car drivers, and yet the words take on a special and personal meaning. Sometimes you do things in life because they just seem right at the time.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, which published his first interview with A.J. Croce 20 years ago this month. He can be reached at email@example.com.