On July 1, 1973, Philadelphia native Jim Croce released his fourth studio album, Life and Times. A little over one year earlier, in April 1972, Croce’s rollicking and humorous songs of barroom brawls—“You Don’t Mess around with Jim”—and his tender ballads of love gone wrong—“Operator”—from his third album You Don’t Mess around with Jim had launched Croce’s folk and folk rock career. By the time Life and Times appeared, the singer songwriter had a legion of fans awaiting more tales of working class bravado—the devil-may-care trucker “Speedball Tucker” and the take-no-prisoners women of the rink in “Roller Derby Queen”—and wistful love songs such as “It Doesn’t Have to be That Way.”
Jim Croce started singing in the early 1960s when he was a student at Villanova University. He joined the Villanova Singers and sang folk, country, blues, and rock. He married Ingrid Jacobson in 1966, and the couple sang the songs of Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, and Arlo Guthrie in coffeehouses, but they soon started writing their own songs.
Encouraged by producer Tommy West—who with Terry Cashman would later produce Life and Times—the couple moved to New York and made their own album Jim & Ingrid Croce in 1968. To make ends meet, Croce took a number of odd jobs from driving trucks to construction, and his experiences and the characters he met on these jobs later made it into his songs.
In 1970, Croce met up with pianist and guitarist Maury Muehleisen, originally backing him on lead guitar before the pair changed places, with Muehleisen providing the crystal clear lead lines on Croce’s songs. The duo released two albums—You Don’t Mess around with Jim and Life and Times—before their lives were cut short in a plane crash in September 1973. They had completed their third album I Got a Name just before their untimely deaths, and it was released posthumously in December 1973.
Life and Times features several of Croce’s most memorable songs—”Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “One Less Set of Footsteps,” “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way”—all of which charted on Billboard Hot 100. “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” charted at #1, and it earned Croce Grammy nominations for Pop Male Vocalist and Record of the Year. The album itself reached #7 on the Billboard charts in the US, though it went to #1 on Canadian charts.
Life and Times opens with the pattering country folk rambler “One Less Set of Footsteps,” an ironic breakup song, with Croce’s canny lyrics: “if that’s the way that you want it/that’s the way I want it more.” The bright, almost sing-along, tempo of the song belies the pain at the center of the song. The shuffling “Roller Derby Queen” captures a bar denizen’s love of those roller derby queens he watches every night on the tavern’s TV. Croce brilliantly evokes the motion of a roller derby match in the rhythmic motion of the music.
The title track, of course, is a modern day “Stagger Lee,” replete with jealous boyfriend, mayhem, and murder; it’s a stride blues fueled by Tommy West’s striding piano. The slowly unfurling nostalgic ballad “Alabama Rain,” with its cascading guitars mimicking the rain in which the young lovers stroll, while “A Good Time Man Like Me Ain’t Got No Business Singing the Blues” rolls on its merry way, living up to its title as a good time song with a bluesy foundation. The rollicking Django Reinhardt-like “Careful Man” features Eric Weissberg on a breakaway fiddle set in the jump blues tale of a man who’s changed his bar-hopping ways, while the careening “Speedball Tucker” tells the tales of the trucker trying to get his goods to port in a wired together truck. The album closes with ringing guitars of the blue Christmas carol “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way” with its ray of hopefulness.
Listening to Life and Times fifty years later underscores the musical brilliance of the album, and the shimmering sonic structures of these short songs—only two of which are over three minutes long—as well as the ways it resonates with a simple folk spirit.