Music News & Reviews

A.J. Croce: Making a name for himself

At age 16, A.J. Croce started singing and playing piano in his mother’s restaurant, ‘Croce’s.’
At age 16, A.J. Croce started singing and playing piano in his mother’s restaurant, ‘Croce’s.’ COURTESY PHOTO

If A.J. Croce learned anything from his songwriter father, it had to be through his records. Because, in one of music’s most shocking tragedies, Jim Croce was killed in a 1973 plane crash just as his music career was taking off.

At the time, his son was just 2 years old.

But while A.J. found inspiration in his father’s records — and no doubt benefited from his musical genes — it was another traumatic event that prompted him to take up piano: When he was 4, he was blinded by a brain tumor.

“I think when you’re a kid and you go through stuff, you take it a lot better than you would as an adult,” said Croce, who opens for Yes front man Jon Anderson in Paso Robles June 30. “As a kid, a lot of times you’re pretty resilient.”

While surgeries would restore vision in his left eye over the next six years, the self-taught Croce continued to hone his brand of boogie-woogie piano. A professional musician since 16, Croce began his career playing at his mother’s place, Croce’s restaurant and jazz bar, in San Diego. Since then he has traveled the world as a performer,

performing with acts such as B.B. King, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Dave Matthews. His original songs have climbed the charts in several genres, including blues, Americana and the top 40.

Croce talked to The Tribune about his father and his own music career.

Q: If someone were to interview you and not ask about your dad, what would you think?

A: I would think I was going back in time because for a lot of years it was part of the deal that there were just no questions about my dad. But, you know, I got older and I quit caring about that as much, and I feel comfortable talking about just about anything you want to talk about.

Q: When you were younger, did you just get tired of it?

A: I don’t know if it was tired, because it didn’t happen in a public forum. It just wasn’t something that I was comfortable talking about at all because I really wanted my own identity. As a young performer until I was about 30, I never talked about him. Letterman didn’t mention it, Leno didn’t mention it — no one ever mentioned it on those shows. So it allowed me to have a certain personality of my own.

Q: I’ve interviewed several offspring of famous people. What’s the best strategy — should we ask (about the famous parent) early on, get it over with, or wait until the very end in case the person gets mad?

A: I don’t know. I think that if someone’s comfortable talking about anything, then that’s that. But I think if they’re not, I’d wait until the end.

Q: When you were into the music of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles (as a child), was it a coincidence that they couldn’t see?

A: No, it was like, people were around, going, “Hey, here’s a kid who can’t see. These guys can’t see, so maybe it’ll be inspiring.” And it was.

Q: Your guitar playing is really good, too. Did you start (guitar and piano) at the same time?

A: No, I started on guitar about seven years ago. Finally, I’m just starting to get to the place where I’m comfortable playing, and if something happens to the keyboard, we can make it work.

Q: Your own style varies a lot, even in the vocals. A song like “People Call It Love,” you had a real, soulful, raspy sound whereas with “Coraline” it’s sort of soft pop.

A: I had some voice problems in ’98, and it totally changed the way I sang. During the recording of “Transit,” I wasn’t really able to stop touring at that point. But it totally changed my voice. So I had a couple of years where I just didn’t tour. That definitely saved my voice.

Q: So the way you were singing took a toll on your voice.

A: When I started singing in public for real I was about 16. And I was singing at a couple of different piano bars in San Diego. One of them was my mom’s place, “Croce’s,” which I probably played at twice a week. And I played at another place around the corner about once a week. And they didn’t have a permit for amplification, so I just started shouting over the piano, which was a terrible way of doing it. But I thought, OK, Joe Turner did it. All of the great guys from the ’40s and ’50s just shouted over the piano.

Q: So you had to change.

A: I had to—yeah. I was fortunate. I just had to change the way I was doing it, take singing lessons and learn how to do it. And all of a sudden I realized I had a different range, and I wanted to take advantage of it.

Q: I read that (Jim Croce’s) “Time in a Bottle” was about you. Is that true?

A: That was about me. That’s right.

Q: That’s kind of cool to have that.

A: Yeah. I was talking about that last night. It’s pretty cool to have a song written about you by anyone. And then to have it be something that really affected a lot of people is a really powerful thing.

Q: You haven’t had an album in a while. Have you focused on performing lately?

A: I was in Nashville for about 2-1/2 years. During that time, I was really focused on writing, with the idea of writing for other people.

Q: And you were a session musician for a while. Was that like taking a break for you?

A: I love it, because it’s nice not being the center of attention.

Q: I saw some interview with you on YouTube — from Amsterdam or something — where you mentioned that your dad had recorded everything, all his conversations and stuff like that ... And now you’re on YouTube for your kids — or whoever — to see in the future.

A: It’s pretty scary. Before every show I’m thinking about what I’m performing more than ever because I know I’m going to get recorded on somebody’s phone, and it’s going to get uploaded before the end of the show. So I really need to think about how willing I am to take risks. Whereas before I would have taken a lot of risks for the benefit of the show, to be more exciting.

Q: That’s sort of a weird change.

A: Yeah, but it keeps you sharp — you have to be on it.

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.