A.J. CROCE BIO
Listen to A.J. Croce’s albums and it’s clear that he holds an abiding love for all kinds of music - Blues, Soul, Pop, Jazz, and Rock n’ Roll. It is readily apparent too that people love Croce’s diverse approach to music. His nine albums have all charted, and done so on an impressive array of charts: Top 40, Blues, Americana, Jazz, Independent, College, and Radio 1, to name a few. The Nashville-based singer/songwriter also has landed 18 singles on variety of Top 20 charts.
A virtuoso piano player, Croce toured with B.B. King and Ray Charles before reaching the age of 21, and, over his career, he has performed with a wide range of musicians, from Willie Nelson to the Neville Brothers; Bela Fleck to Ry Cooder. A.J. has also co-written songs with such formidable tunesmiths as Leon Russell, Dan Penn, Robert Earl Keen and multi-Grammy winner Gary Nicholson.
The late, great New Orleans piano man, and Croce hero, Allen Toussaint might have described A.J. most succinctly when he proclaimed: “In such a crowded music universe it is a pleasure to witness triple uniqueness: pianist, songwriter, singer and at such a level, and who does he sound like? The answer is himself ... A.J. Croce."
A.J. Croce approaches music with a great curiosity, and he is continually on the lookout to expand his artistic experiences. “I’m always trying to push to create new music that incorporates what I love into something new.” A.J.’s last two albums epitomize his philosophy. Croce, who self-produced several of his albums, constructed 2014’s Twelve Tales around two songs he recorded with six celebrated producers with the late "Cowboy" Jack Clement (Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley), Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Crowded House), Tony Berg (Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan), Kevin Killen (Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel), Greg Cohen (Tom Waits, John Zorn), and Toussaint (Dr. John, Lee Dorsey).
For his most recent release, Just Like Medicine, he turned to Muscle Shoals legend producer/songwriter Dan Penn, and an all-star backing crew that included Steve Cropper, Vince Gill, David Hood, Colin Linden, Bryan Owings, The Muscle Shoals Horns, and The McCrary Sisters to create sublime soul music, which ABC News praised as sounding “like it was crafted with the influence of greats like Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello in mind.”
One Just Like Medicine’s highlight is “The Heart That Makes Me Whole,” which Croce co-wrote with Leon Russell. A.J. had been friends and collaborated with Russell for a number of years, and they had a rather unique songwriting partnership. Russell would have A.J. come up with the music and sing or hum the melody to Russell, who would then compose the lyrics. A renowned piano-man in his own right, Russell called Croce his “favorite New Orleans piano player.”
Croce’s deep love for music is understandable considering that his mother, Ingrid, was a singer/songwriter as was his father, the late Jim Croce. He never knew his father, who died in a tragic plane crash just before his son’s second birthday. A.J., who started playing piano as a young age, purposely avoided his father’s music in order to establish his own identity as a musician. While admitting he probably could have fared quite well simply covering his father’s songs, A.J. is very glad he didn’t. “It was more important becoming great at what I did than having immediate success, and I was lucky that people dug what I was doing.”
A.J.’s relationship with his father’s music began changing around a dozen years ago, when he began digitalized his father’s tapes. One old cassette contained a bar performance of Jim Croce playing blues tunes that had influenced him. These were deep-cuts by folks like Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry, and A.J. was amazed since these songs were the ones that he had been playing since he was 12. “It gave me chills,” he admits, hearing his dad play Fats Waller’s “You’re Not The Only Oyster In The Stew,” because A.J. had played that obscure Waller gem at his first audition.
Discovering that “he was playing stuff I played myself” helped A.J. to connect more deeply with his father’s music. A talented multi-instrumentalist, A.J. learned his father’s songs by playing them on the guitar. He did this the old-fashion way by listening to the recordings because there were no Jim Croce chord books. He came away a bit surprised and quite impressed with just how sophisticated the guitar parts were to these songs.
In the past couple years, A.J. has begun periodically performing a “Croce Plays Croce” concert, where he does Jim Croce songs, his own tunes, and songs that influenced the two of them. He loves seeing “the joy it brings audiences,” as well as enjoying that he can keep the shows fresh and exciting because he has the flexibility to change up the set list each time out.
Just Like Medicine features the previously unreleased Jim Croce song, “The Name of the Game.” The choice to cover it wasn’t A.J.’s but producer Dan Penn’s, who picked the tune to record without knowing who had written it. A.J.’s moving performance reveals the common rootsy musical territory that father and son share. On the recording, Colin Linden plays the same guitar that Jim Croce wrote the song on.
A.J. also did a cover of the Jim Croce hit “I Got A Name” in 2018 for a Goodyear Tires ad that honored race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement. Over the years, A.J. also has written several tunes for commercials, including ones for Toyota, Coca Cola, and Levi’s.
A.J. Croce’s family musical legacy is just part of his very unique life story. Born outside of Philadelphia, A.J. moved with his mother and father to San Diego when he was two. Around the age of four, he went blind due to horrific physical abuse from his mother’s then-boyfriend. A.J. was hospitalized for half a year and was totally blind in both eyes for six years. It was during this time that he started playing piano, inspired by blind pianists like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Croce, who regained sight in his left eye when he was ten, went on to spend his early teen years performing including at his mother’s establishment, Croce’s Jazz Bar.
In addition to his Jazz, Blues and Soul roots, A.J. was influenced by the British sound of the 60s and the mod aesthetic. Along with playing around Southern California, in the summers he went to London and played in pubs, in pursuit of connecting to that era. He said “it was sort of like chasing a ghost.” He did find the great songwriters of that time in the 80s like Elvis Costello, Squeeze and XTC.
When A.J. was 16, the fabled blues piano man Floyd Dixon (of “Hey Bartender” fame) took him under his wing. He would open up for Dixon and then the two would end their gigs playing old Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons boogie woogie piano duels. Songwriter Mae Axton (best known for co-writing “Heartbreak Hotel”) was so impressed by Croce that she took the then-17-year-old to Nashville to meet with the legendary “Cowboy” Jack Clement at his studio. A.J. recalls seeing Jerry Lee Lewis walking out as he was walking in, and that Elvis Presley’s band were hanging out the studio’s couch. A.J. spent several hours in the studio that day, and would reunite with Clement years later to record tracks for his Twelve Tales album.
Even before Croce got an agent or a manager, B.B. King asked him to be his opening act. At 20, A.J. had the thrill of touring with his idol Ray Charles, and he would further his musical education going on the road with The Neville Brothers. A true student of music, Croce turned to two exceptional producers, John Simon (The Band, Simon & Garfunkel) and T Bone Burnett (Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan), when it came time to make his eponymous debut CD. He then had the revered drummer Jim Keltner helm his sophomore effort, That’s Me At The Bar, which numbers Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and guitar greats Robben Ford and Waddy Wachtel. Croce enjoys these types of collaborations, finding it “inspiring to play with talented people, and fun to see what we get.”
Besides attracting great musicians and producers to work with him, Croce also has attracted many critical accolades. Rolling Stones’ David Wild heralded him as “one of the greatest young songwriters.” In his Blurt review of Twelve Tales, Lee Zimmerman wrote that Croce has “come up with a pop-perfect album.” JD Nash in American Blues Scene hailed Just Like Medicine as “arguably his greatest effort yet…(and) stands as Croce’s hallmark,” while noted music writer Bill Bentley declared that the singer/songwriter has “entered that area where artists exist in a party of one.” Elmore Magazine’s Eric Russ proclaimed that “in his live show and in his recordings Croce’s formidable talents as a writer and player are undeniable.”
A.J.’s artistic drive extends beyond the studio and the stage. He also has taught a master class on the left-handed nature of 20th century piano music at the University of Barcelona as well as doing a TEDxLaJolla talk on meaning of time in music.
Willie Nelson has stated that “A.J. Croce has wisdom beyond his years. With his music, he represents his generation with a profound sense of honesty in his lyrics and quality in his delivery. The future of entertainment is safe in his hands!”
Whatever direction A.J. Croce takes next - whatever project or style he chooses to do - it will come from his passion for creating music and making it the best that he can. “I do it because I love it.”
A.J. Croce (quartet)
Gary Mallabar - Drums
Gary played with Van Morrison on two classic albums, Moondance and Tupelo Honey. He then joined The Steve Miller Band, where he recorded and toured for 27 years. He's been a studio drummer on countless albums including Kiko by Los Lobos. In 2016 he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a past member of Steve Miller Band.
David Barard - Bass
David is a New Orleans legend. He played with Dr. John for 30 years. Before that he toured and recorded with Allen Toussaint, Etta James, B.B. King and The Neville Brothers. He's played with just about every legendary New Orleans artist since the 60's.
Garrett Stoner - Guitar
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