“You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” by Jim Croce
ABC Records ABC-11328, 45 r.p.m. single, 1972
Also released in several Latin American and European territories on the Vertigo label; subsequently reissued in various markets on the Philips, Lifesong, Castle, Atlantic, 21 and other labels
The first time I ever heard Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” was in the early summer of 1972, while listening late at night to the Chicago “Top 40” radio station WCFL. The staccato rhythm guitar, bass and snare drum pattern that starts the record off for four measures in 4/4 time had an immediate effect on me that I can only liken to a quote I heard over 25 years later, on a TV documentary about the legendary “Cinema Fist!” film director Samuel Fuller. In that documentary, the great modern-day director Jim Jarmusch (whose Down By Law has much of the same flavour that a compilation tape of Croce’s character songs would) recalled Fuller’s advice on writing a screenplay:
“When you start your script, if the first scene doesn’t give you a hard-on, throw the goddamned thing away.”
Considering I was eleven years old and already experiencing puberty, I probably had a hard-on and was dealing with it when the record started playing. But that intro, stabbing through WCFL’s audio compression and over 200 miles of AM signal propagation from their suburban Chicago transmitter to my Oshkosh, Wisconsin, bedroom, indeed gave me the “hard-on” that Fuller was talking about. Fuller’s movies frequently started with an image or sequence that held so much power that its kinetic energy pushed the rest of the picture along in its wake. (My favourite example is the title sequence to Forty Guns, wherein a horse-drawn cart on the trail to some 19th Century Arizona town is suddenly engulfed by dozens of horsemen riding that trail in the other direction. The dust kicked up by those dozens of horses seems to linger throughout the remainder of the picture.)
I doubt that Jim Croce ever met Samuel Fuller; by the time of the release of “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” Fuller had been a long-time resident of France, where the young cinephiles of the ‘60s looked upon him as a god to behold in terror and awe. But it was obvious that Croce knew a few of Fuller’s movies, as Croce’s songs told their stories in the same vivid, and often violent, manner as Fuller’s pictures. The opening of “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” at the right – or wrong – volume was the aural equivalent of Smokin’ Joe Frazier playing conga with your breastbone.
Jim Croce’s first taste of public performance had been as a member of The Spires, the semi-official folk singing group of Villanova University upon Jim’s beginning his freshman year at the Philadelphia school. Another member of The Spires was Tommy West, with whom he would develop a friendship that led to West co-producing Croce’s records ten years later. Croce also ventured into radio, becoming a blues disc jockey on Villanova’s radio station. One of Croce’s earliest recordings was something he titled “Charlie Green, Play That Slide Trombone,” which had been recorded in the 1920s by Bessie Smith as “Trombone Cholly.” The Charlie Green of the song was a New Orleans jazzsmith who had indeed played trombone on many recordings of the period by Smith, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Buster Bailey and James P. Johnson. By the time he married Ingrid Jacobsen and started performing with her as a folk duet act, Croce was as well-versed in Ma Rainey and Lonnie Johnson as he was in his two modern-day idols, Gordon Lightfoot and Merle Haggard. (Among the ‘60s folk crowd, Jim vastly preferred Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton to Bob Dylan, who Jim thought was almost criminally vague in his lyrics. Ochs and Paxton would come out and state positions boldly in their songs, while you began to wonder where you stood with Dylan after a few years.)
Jim and Ingrid Croce began writing songs together during their courtship. A few months back, I was startled to encounter a version of one of these songs, “Age,” in the middle of an hour-long 1969 aircheck of Frankie Crocker’s show on WMCA New York; Joel Whitburn’s Pop Singles Annual 1955-1986 doesn’t list “Age” as having ever entered Billboard’s Hot 100, let alone at any time in 1969, and I can’t figure out the name of the performer from the telephoned listener’s request for the song on the tape (Crocker himself never mentioned the name). Around the same time, Jim & Ingrid Croce recorded the song for Capitol Records, on an album titled Croce; when the album was reissued by Pickwick after Jim’s solo success on ABC, the album was retitled Another Day, Another Town, after the first song on Side One of the Pickwick version. Jim would record the song again for his I Got a Name LP in 1973; curiously, while Ingrid was listed as one of the composers of “Age” on the Capitol and Pickwick albums, her name was absent from the label of the ABC album. This became the basis on which Ingrid successfully sued West and his business and artistic partner, Terry Cashman, for ownership of Jim’s master recordings for Cashman & West’s Interrobang Productions (Interrobang leased the material to ABC Records in the U.S. and Canada and Vertigo Records throughout the rest of the world); Ingrid successfully argued that Cashman and West illegally removed her credits from songs that were jointly copyrighted by Jim and herself. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
The Capitol LP was a commercial flop, and the Croces returned to Pennsylvania, where Jim worked as a school teacher, construction worker, telephone lineman and truck driver to support himself and Ingrid. The Croces lived on a farm near Lyndell, a rural community north of Philadelphia; the cover illustration on the You Don’t Mess Around with Jim LP showed Jim looking out a window of an outhouse on the farm. He also showed an insatiable curiosity about people; on one of the various TV specials about Jim in the years since his death, Ingrid recalled one incident in which, although Jim despised the Ku Klux Klan, he invited a known Klansman to stay at the farm for a weekend so that he could possibly gain some insight through conversation as to why anyone would be so moved to join the Klan in the first place.
On one of those construction jobs, Jim injured his left hand while operating a jackhammer; after it healed, he found he had to alter his guitar playing style. Around the same time, Cashman & West produced an album by a young folkie named Maury Muehleisen, Gingerbread, a copy of which had been sent to Croce. Jim became entranced by Maury’s lyrics and guitar picking, and before long Maury was acting as Jim’s lead guitarist while Jim himself played rhythm. Working with Muehleisen inspired a new sense of lyricism in Croce, arguably most pronounced in “Time in a Bottle,” a song Jim wrote for his newborn son Adrian in 1971. (Adrian is now better known as A.J. Croce, the blues pianist and vocalist.)
This didn’t mean that Jim’s love of the blues was taking a back seat, however. In the autumn of 1971, Cashman & West brought Croce and Muehleisen back to New York’s Hit Factory studio to cut a new album. Almost immediately, it was decided that one of Jim’s blues tunes, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” would be the lead cut on the LP and its first single. That driving rhythm that hooked me upon my first listen led into a meaty pulp fiction about a Manhattan pool hustler who finally meets his match in an Alabama-bred drifter out for revenge. Croce named the Manhattan hustler Jim Walker, lifting the name from New York’s flamboyant but corrupt mayor of the 1920s; by the time the boy from ‘Bama, named Slim, was through with the unfortunate Mr. Walker, Jim had been “cut in ‘bout a hundred places and shot in a couple more.” At a time when reruns of Batman and Mannix were being curtailed from American television because of their violence, Jim Croce’s first hit single was simply bringing that violence back to radio, where, curiously, a revival of old reruns of The Shadow, the notoriously violent weekly crime melodrama of the ‘30s and ‘40s, was proving to be a surprise hit at the same time.
“You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” seemed to owe quite a lot to a blues single of 1968, “Cadillac Jack” by Andre Williams. That song was the story of a Chicago pimp (the song itself used the phrase “mack,” a street term for pimp that had not yet become widely circulated among white audiences, which probably explains why a lot of white-oriented pop music radio stations gave that record airplay) who gets gunned down after bothering another fella’s babe. Croce was obviously familiar with that record; his later hit “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” virtually pilfered the story structure of “Cadillac Jack” and had a climax almost as explicitly violent as “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” (A piece on “Cadillac Jack” is planned for posting on this blog sometime in the next few weeks.)
Unfortunately, just over a year after “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” was a hit, Jim Croce and Maury Muehleisen themselves became the victims of an incident that could have easily fit into one of Jim’s pulpish story lyrics. During their U.S. tour of early 1973, Croce and Muehleisen had to postpone a concert at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, because they were snowed in at Philadelphia. September 19th was the make-good date, after which the duo were to fly to Houston for a concert there. The pilot of their chartered plane chose to catch up on his sleep at a motel while Jim and Maury performed their concert. As it turned out, the pilot overslept and ran the three miles to the airport after checking out of the motel in order to make the trip on time. The pilot, who had cardiac disease, suffered a heart attack during takeoff, crashing the plane into a grove of pecan trees just beyond the runway. There were no survivors. Ingrid Croce, who’d moved with Jim from Philadelphia to San Diego a few weeks earlier, was informed of Jim and Maury’s deaths by her mother, who’d seen a report about the crash on the East Coast feed of NBC-TV’s Today program, aired while Ingrid was still asleep in California.
By sheer coincidence, Jim’s I Got a Name LP was slated for release a week after the crash, and advance copies of the single of the LP’s title song were already being shipped to radio stations for airplay. “I Got a Name” was Jim’s venture into film music; an early mix of the song appeared on the soundtrack of The Last American Hero, which starred Jeff Bridges as a North Carolina moonshine driver turned stock car racer, proving his individuality against The System on both fronts. It would be the only hit single Jim ever had that he didn’t compose; it had been written for the film by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, who had already written music for The Harrad Experiment, and whose song “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (about the experience singer Lori Lieberman had gone through upon hearing Don McLean perform his song “Bad Girl” in a 1972 concert) had become a #1 hit for Roberta Flack a few months earlier.
Arguably the biggest irony of Jim’s entire career was that, a few days earlier, ABC-TV had aired a Movie of the Week titled She Lives!, a low-rent Love Story retread that had used “Time in a Bottle” on its soundtrack (ABC owned the publishing rights to the song through its Wingate Music subsidiary at the time). The next day, radio stations around the country were deluged with requests for the song, which was then merely a track tucked inside the You Don’t Mess Around with Jim LP, which had dropped off most U.S. album charts months before. After the “I Got a Name” 45 finished its chart run, ABC reissued “Time in a Bottle,” this time as a single; the power inherent in the idea of the recently-deceased Croce singing his line “There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do, once you find them,” propelled the single into a couple of weeks at New Years’ at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and made You Don’t Mess Around with Jim one of the best-selling albums of 1974, two years after its release and one year after it first dropped off the LP charts.
After the plane crash, Jim’s records got so overplayed by radio stations that WCFL’s star disc jockey, Larry Lujack (himself an admirer of Croce’s music), went so far as to crack a well-pointed but tasteless joke on the air one February 1974 afternoon. After one listener wrote him, saying that he should play more Jim Croce records, Lujack cracked, “I’ll play more Jim Croce records once he goes back into the studio to record them.” The wisecrack became headline news in Chicago, where Lujack’s program was the #1 afternoon drive radio show in town at the time. Even Lujack recognised he’d gone too far and apologised on the air for the comment, but the point of his frustration was still valid; at Christmastime of 1973, with “Time in a Bottle” still climbing the charts, ABC tried to wring more drops out of the Croce catalogue by issuing “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way” as the A-side of a single (it had already been the B-side of Croce’s third chart hit, “One Less Set of Footsteps,” which itself spent only one week in Billboard’s Top 40 that March). It became the only one of Croce’s ABC singles not to crack the Top 40 in either Billboard or Cash Box’s charts. ABC had oversaturated the market with Croce releases, and Lujack was simply getting bone tired of it.
One person who wasn’t burnt out by that oversaturation was Jerry Reed, the brilliant guitar picker and Country crooner whose own recording career shifted easily between comedy (“When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”) and tough blues (“Amos Moses,” a hit in early 1971 that did for the Louisiana swamps what “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” did for the seediest of New York pool halls). Reed was so heavily a Croce fan that, in 1980, as one of his last projects for RCA Victor, he cut the album Jerry Reed Sings Jim Croce, the only tribute-type LP Reed ever recorded. (Ingrid Croce wrote a brief thank-you note for that album’s back liner.) On that LP, Reed performs “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” by approaching it as a straight-up blues, adding a honking blues harp to the arrangement.
Now, it’s going on four decades after Jim’s death (he only walked the planet for 30 years), and my two oldest daughters report they still love Photographs and Memories, the “Greatest Hits” compilation that ABC released of Jim Croce tracks in 1974. And dozens of current Country performers list Croce as a primary influence, itself ironic as Croce himself couldn’t get Country radio airplay until several months after his death (“Workin’ At the Car Wash Blues”) and several labels tried cover versions of Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” when Country radio stations wouldn’t play Jim’s original. As for me, the memory of that first listen to “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” is still amazingly vivid. It remains a personal landmark.