You might not think that a Pennsylvania born, California raised young man would be so heavily influenced by the boogie woogie piano music that circulated down in the deep south of New Orleans. But he was and now A.J. Croce is a man with eight albums under his belt and a new one on the verge of being released; a piano player and singer who follows his muse no matter what genre of music it invokes inside him.
With the August 11th release of Just Like Medicine, Croce starts off with a surrealistic pillow of mind-bending inner thoughts on “Gotta Get Outta My Head” before he eases into a New Orleans style boogie beat with “The Heart That Makes Me Whole.” He sidles up to the New York soul flavored title track, does a fun soft shoe boogie swayer with “Full Up” and honors his father, the late singer/songwriter Jim Croce, by recording the elder’s unreleased “Name Of The Game.” Add in tracks like “The Roads” and “The Other Side Of Love” and you’ve got some prime steak that makes for a quite satisfying meal of an album.
Croce took to piano early, signed his first record deal at nineteen, has opened for BB King, the Neville Brothers and Rod Stewart, written songs with Leon Russell and has had seventeen Top 20 singles. And that’s only a small portion of what Croce has accomplished in his twenty year career. With album #9, Croce wanted to step back to the days of mono and analog tape. “Not to be cool or trendy but because these days everyone seems to be listening to music primarily on little devices and tiny speakers,” Croce explained recently. “In a world of amazing audio possibilities, we’re all basically listening to music on transistor radios again.” Stepping back to old days, he felt the music would sound better. With help from producer Dan Penn, notable for his work at FAME Studios, and Vince Gill and Steve Cropper, Croce has accomplished his goal.
Now contentedly living in Nashville, with an album release show at the Winery on August 10th before he heads out on a tour, Croce chatted with me about making it in music as a piano player, songs on his new album, the influence of New Orleans and temperamental pianos.
How did you turn into a Nashville boy?
(laughs) You know, I’ve been coming here since I was seventeen to play piano for folks and to write. In 2008, I moved here. My daughter was off to college, my son was going into junior high, and we just decided to try it out and that was it. We moved here, and we kept a place in California, but after three years or so we went back and my son finished high school out there and then when he finished, we moved back here. It’s a beautiful city and there’s such a diverse musical scene these days. It’s a good hub because of location and it’s fast to get here and so forth so I like it.
Your new record, Just Like Medicine, has some great New Orleans music vibes. When was your very first exposure to New Orleans Jazz type music? How far back does that go?
You know, honestly, it started with Irma Thomas when I was thirteen. I found Irma Thomas through a Jim Jarmusch movie. My friend worked at the movie theater and I forget what movie it was but it came out around 1982 or something like that. I think it was called Stranger Than Paradise. Anyhow, I heard her and I just fell in love with it and from there I’ve always been a student of the liner notes and got into everything Allen Toussaint did. She led me directly to the source. The only person I wasn’t really familiar with until I was signed and had a record release was Dr John, ironically. He’s the most well-known New Orleans artist in the last sixty years and I don’t know how I missed it but I had listened to all of his influences. I listened to James Booker and I listened to Professor Longhair and Huey “Piano” Smith and I listened to even older guys like Jelly Roll Morton.
I was always a fan of that music and for whatever reason that left hand, being a lefty, it was a joy to play. It was really fun and I found that I had a sort of aptitude for playing that style of piano. I don’t know why it is. I was born in Philadelphia, I grew up in California. I can’t tell you why but I just understood it. The other thing that I understood about it that was really sort of fundamental, I felt, was that if you are copying note-for-note what Fats Domino is doing or what Professor Longhair was doing or what Henry Butler was doing, it lost something. You had to put something of yourself into the interpretation of the music. And I think for a lot of outsiders, I think that’s something they don’t hear. They just learn how to play it exactly like the record and they’re playing New Orleans piano. For me, it was not that at all. It was about taking an individual approach to it.
I toured a bunch with the Nevilles when I was real young and sat next to Art Neville on the planes and we must have done sixty or eighty shows together all over the US and Europe. We talked all about piano stuff and same thing with Cyril Neville, the idea of it being pure joy and a serious nature. I always loved that about Toussaint’s writing as well. It was not one-dimensional. It had a lot of diversity. Then over the years I’ve played many shows opening or on the same stage as Dr John and I got to play with a lot of New Orleans heroes and of course got to work with Allen Toussaint on my last record [2014’s Twelve Tales]. So New Orleans music has been a part of my life. It’s not the only thing but there’s not any one thing that drives me. I’m kind of driven by listening to a lot of music.
Did you ever get to eventually play with Irma?
No. There was an opportunity actually on this record to maybe get together but I pay for my records by myself and then I license them to a record company and that way I own them and they end up coming back to me – not that it’s very good really financially (laughs) but it does, mentally at least, makes me feel like I have control of my own music. If I would have had a budget and had the opportunity, it would have been great. My bass player lives down there and his name is David Barard and he played with Dr John for, I don’t know, thirty years, and Toussaint before that, and Etta James. I met him in the early nineties when he was playing with Dr John.
Why did you call the new record Just Like Medicine?
Well, because I liked the name. Just Like Medicine, for me, it was very descriptive of what music, and especially what soulful music, is about. And it’s not just for the listener but for the person who is playing it too.
To you, what do you think is the most powerful line or lyric on this new record?
Oh, I really don’t know. I think there’s a lot of them. It’s a pretty introspective project. I mean, the first song [“Gotta Get Outta Of My Head”] opens up and I was in a really dark place in my head and I was pretty depressed. I was about to move out of my house. I was selling it because I didn’t have money to maintain it after twenty-six years and I was about to move and I was in a really bad headspace. So I wrote that in the kitchen, “Gotta get outta my head cause I can’t take the company.” I think that for me was like the start of this record, this dark, dark frame of mind. Once I did that, everything changed in a really positive way. I moved into a great place in Nashville and I’ve been really fortunate. Things ended up working out.
You know, you go through times in life that are challenging and that song was definitely something I wanted to record. I wasn’t sure how we were going to do it but we ended up doing it in one take. There was no fixing anything cause it all came through on the mics of me playing the percussion and the vocals on that track. In fact, most of the tracks are me and the band, my vocals and piano, and then the band. There are no overdubs in that regard.
There was no room in the studio for horns and singers so we did it like Dan Penn had done so many things at Muscle Shoals and at FAME and American Studios in Memphis. We recorded in mono, we recorded it sixteen track to tape through the original Motown mixer from Detroit. You know, walking into Dan’s place was like walking through seventy-five years of musical history. It was a collection of visual and physical connections to his life and music, all this stuff he wrote for Aretha and Otis Redding and Arthur Alexander and Solomon Burke and James Carr; you name it. Then we kind of took this approach that he did with the Box Tops where, even though we had sixteen track, he had a three track for that recording of the song he wrote for them, “The Letter.” With “The Letter” he said it was just one track for the band, one track for the vocals, one track for the horns and strings. So that was kind of our jumping off point.
But why record in mono?
The reason I wanted to do it mono and record it the way that we did was because some of my favorite records, first of all, are mono. Then second of all, I started noticing that everyone that I know listens to music on the modern equivalent of a transistor radio. People are putting all this money into hi-fidelity and then they squash it down to an MP3 and then it’s compressed again via radio or Spotify or some digital radio station. So I thought, if people are listening on these tiny speakers I want to make it the best experience that I can for them, sonically. I think that period of time really accomplished that cause they were recording for kids that had a turntable with one speaker. It was still a world where hi-fi didn’t exist like it did in the seventies. So I wasn’t really trying to go backward as much as making music relevant for today’s listeners.
That’s a great analogy between the little radios of our youth and where people listen to music today, which is on their phone or an iPad.
Yeah and they’re going, “Wow, the new iPad has great sound!” And you’re like, sounds like a transistor radio I had as a kid, maybe not as good (laughs). It was just a Radio Shack model, it had AM and FM, and at that time I was listening to a pop radio station, top 40, in southern California, and it was all over the map. You’d hear Bowie and you’d hear Elton John, you’d hear ELO, you’d hear the Stones or maybe a Beatles thing, whatever was pop music. It was all over the place. You might hear the O’Jays or some Philly soul thing, Chaka Khan or Stevie Wonder. It was all over the map, it was everywhere. You’d hear Patti LaBelle followed by Blondie. It was whoever was selling.
And that’s what you would play?
I just played along at the piano and learned from that. Then as I got older I got turned on to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder; then went further back to their roots with Charles Brown and Nat Cole and the boogie stuff from the forties like Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson; then further back still to the guys that were really truly amazing like Fats Waller and James P. Johnson and Willie “Lion” Smith. I always felt like it was critical, if I was ever going to be a writer and be able to contribute something, I needed to understand the music of the past. Maybe I hold on to some of it more than other artists because I have such reverence for it and respect but I didn’t feel like I could really create something new until I understood something old. Picasso wouldn’t have meant anything, certainly not to me, if he hadn’t mastered the masters as a kid and the same thing goes with people that deconstruct music, whether it was Monk or Coltrane or Harry Partch or any number of modern classical composers you might name. They came at this with an understanding of the past and the tools to be able to perform it and to play. They could play a piece by Bach, they could play a piece by Mozart or Chopin and then they could also play Ellington or Gershwin or whatever. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Their experiments had a source.
Are you as comfortable on guitar as you are with piano?
I wish (laughs). I’m getting more comfortable all the time but I think when you are playing well on any instrument, it requires a certain amount of fearlessness and the greatest amount of fearlessness that you can have in approaching a new instrument, the faster you are going to excel on it. But if you are trying to accomplish something, say playing a song that already exists or play a certain thing and not make a mistake, then all of a sudden you’re listening for mistakes instead of listening for the stuff that is interesting. When you’re a kid, you have the ability to do that much better than you do as an adult. I don’t mind making mistakes. In fact, I push myself to do stuff every time I play live and often mistakes are made because I wouldn’t be happy doing this if I wasn’t pushing myself to do something challenging.
And that goes with the guitar too. I’ve gotten a lot better on the instrument. This is the first album I didn’t actually play it myself in twelve years but there are so many good guitar players here in Nashville and just having Colin Linden and Steve Cropper on the record and Vince Gill, it was like there was no need for me to play guitar (laughs). If I thought there was, if I thought I could add something, I would have done it but there really was no reason.
Who played your father’s acoustic on this record?
Well, “Name Of The Game” was a previously unreleased song. I believe it was the last song my dad wrote and was going to be for the follow-up album to I Got A Name. He recorded it at home, I think we were in Pennsylvania before we moved to California, and he just put it down on his tape player, or his tape machine, and it was on this 1933 Gibson L-O. He had traded a banjo for it. Back then, those old guitars, that was it, they were old guitars. Everyone wanted a big Martin or Guild or Gibson. At the time, you know, it wasn’t a practical instrument to tour with, and it was pretty fragile even in the sixties, being thirty-something years old, and early seventies. So I brought the 1933 L-O in and Colin plays the acoustic guitar up to halfway through the solo. He plays the first half of the solo and then Vince Gill comes in on a 1930’s Martin, which I thought was really sweet because my dad, up until the very end, mostly played Gibsons, and Maury Muehleisen, who was the guitar player that played with him, played Martins, and the combination of the two instruments is really beautiful. One is darker and one is brighter. So we kind of captured a little bit of that, a little nod to that tone in the process of doing this. You know, I didn’t want it to be just a rip-off of something. Even though it was his song I wanted to do my own thing and I’m playing electric piano on that one and it’s live. You’re hearing us play it live.
How do you see piano-driven music like yours evolving into the future?
That’s a good question. You know, I don’t really know the answer to it. I certainly hope that the acoustic piano remains an instrument that is inspiring not just to composers and older people but to younger people as well. I have a feeling that because of the way the world is and because people are checking Craig’s List, it’s like they got to get rid of their upright piano and they are willing to take nothing for it if they’ll just come and pick it up. I think those kinds of things are going to possibly bring the piano back. Want a free instrument? Here it is. I think that could be the savior of the piano.
I did a clinic at the University Of Barcelona on the 20th century piano and how it’s really left-hand based. You had this instrument that was everywhere. They were in every bar, they were in every restaurant. This was the entertainment for most of America; most middle-class houses had one, even people with less money had pianos in the early part of this century; and the twenties were the highlight of that. And I think because of that, before there were record players or 78 players or victrolas or whatever, people were listening to other people play. Entertainment was all sit down and play a song we all know and this person is going to come sing. In the fifties, at the parallel time you have rock & roll developing through R&B and that’s all of this boogie woogie stuff that was being played by Pete Johnson and then later with Chuck Berry; of course Little Richard and Fats Domino played it. Everyone was playing that boogie woogie which became known as rock & roll. Then folks in England dug it and Ian McLagan and guys like that were playing with Small Faces and the Faces and the Stones and they were playing essentially boogie. They were playing something that was from the forties but it was slightly simplified. Then when the singer-songwriter came in, the left hand became much more simplified and all of a sudden by the eighties, my left hand is behind my back and I’m playing groove but it’s really I’m trying to stay out of the way of the guitar.
And you had all these synthesizers coming in like with Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman.
Yeah but there was still piano players like Elton John that you were hearing on the radio. You were still hearing piano in ELO and on Stones songs all through the seventies and even the eighties. So to me it was like, there was still hope. People were carrying on the tradition. I certainly don’t want to be a museum piece but I do value the knowledge of the history of it and I’m always happy to share it. I just think you’ve got to learn that stuff and then you’ve got to forget about it and use your own personality to tell a story.
When you first started performing, what was most difficult about trying to make a name for yourself? Were you playing piano then or guitar?
Guitar came in my thirties so I only played piano. You know, if someone saw me playing guitar and asked me for one of my dad’s songs, I didn’t want to disappoint them and even though I liked my dad’s music, I was not trying to be him or play him. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really found a connection between the two of us and enjoyed doing these 2 Generation concerts, maybe half a dozen a year, to really just talk about his music, my music and the stuff that influenced us both, mostly old R&B and country and folk.
But no, it wasn’t. I was just a kid. People were willing to give me a listen and people were willing to give me at least the benefit of the doubt – let me hear if he is going to do something cause maybe I can make something off this kid. For greedy reasons I think people were interested early in my career and for fifteen, twenty, years it was in my rider that you can’t ask any questions about my dad, you can’t advertise about my dad. And when I did those Tonight shows and Lettermans and all those things, they never mentioned him, and that was on their part.
For me, when I started off, I think I wasn’t thinking about comparisons. I was trying to master an instrument so I was trying to learn from the masters, whether it was Toussaint or Fats Waller or Ray Charles or Charles Brown or Nat Cole. I wanted to learn everything. But I was listening to rock & roll and so when I started there was a combination of like, yeah, I’d play a Memphis Slim song or I’d play a Ray Charles song and a Rolling Stones song and then a Velvet Underground song (laughs). It was really all over the place but I was a piano player and I was playing it with my style. I went and saved up and I went to London for a few summers and that really helped me learn how to play to a crowd in a way that I hadn’t learned before cause I was just playing in pubs for whatever tips I got. This was like fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, I was going there alone and playing three months at a time. I learned how to work an audience and learned how to get tips and learned how to stretch a song out and learned that it was important to change the set. The next time people came maybe they wanted to hear one of the songs but they didn’t want to hear the same set. So there was a lot of learning.
Then when I was sixteen or so, Floyd Dixon and I met. He was the guy that wrote “Hey Bartender” and “Wine, Wine, Wine,” all these drinking songs and he took me under his wing and we did a lot of shows together and we’d always finish the show with, he had a piano thing and it was like an Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis kind of song. Then BB King heard me play and he certainly didn’t need me to go out on the road with him because of my name or anything (laughs). But you know, as I got older, I was always aware of that. I wanted to do it on my own merits so I worked as hard as I could to become as good as I could, to be able to say, Hey, I’m proud of what I’m doing. This is something my dad couldn’t do. I may never write “Time In A Bottle” but I am able to play something he was never able to play. It wasn’t a competition, it was just like I have my path and he had his.
Your first record was very Jazz [1993’s AJ Croce] and yet you didn’t continue that all the way through your career. You kept evolving.
You know, I actually started the first album in New Orleans with Greg Cohen producing. Greg Cohen is best known for working with Tom Waits for like thirty years. He’s a real avant-garde arranger, a lover of all kinds of music. So he put this band together that was totally outside the box and when the record company heard it, it was too weird, there was too much of this funky voodoo thing that was happening with it that I think that the label went, “No, we need to go in a different direction.” So he brought in John Simon who arranged in much more Jazz fashion and they brought in T Bone Burnett and that record was done live. I don’t think there were any overdubs. I sang it live, I played it live, all the horns were there and being conducted by John live.
But my second record was so hard because the label wanted the first record again and I just refused to give it to them. I didn’t want to be a museum piece. I didn’t want to, even if I was writing my own songs, and nothing against him, but I didn’t want to be another Harry Connick, who was recording his first stuff at the same time. So I just went, “Yeah, there’s only really enough room for one of us and you should do what you do good and I really want to stretch out and go somewhere else.” So I did an album of drinking songs called That’s Me In The Bar and it was totally different. Jim Keltner produced it and had Ry Cooder and Waddy Wachtel and it’s just such a total departure from the first one. But I would be interested in going back and listening to the tapes from those New Orleans recordings cause I do have them.
You obviously had to play on pianos that were already there in the venues when touring. How temperamental can a piano be?
Very. Every single night I’d play on a different one. I remember playing at the Maple Leaf one night an upright, I think James Booker used to play on it all the time, and that thing was just always a beast because it just depended on what kind of day it was how it sounded. Fortunately, most of the shows I’m playing now are in theatres and they have nice pianos. Yamaha has been backing me, and Steinway backed me for many years, but Yamaha has been so great with getting me instruments that I’ve been really fortunate. I almost would rather have kind of a blown out, crappy, upright piano than a keyboard. But sometimes a place doesn’t have the right mics to be able to mic a blown out piano so it ends up sounding so terrible and you end up having such bad feedback and such bad issues that I’ve really learned how to be an engineer on the instrument because I’ve played thousands of them, literally. You can tell by sitting down and what the action is like and how much it’s going to give and how hard you’re going to have to hit it. They’re all different.
I’ve played instruments at beautiful venues that aren’t necessarily symphony hall and they’ll get a brand new Steinway or a Yamaha and they won’t have it regulated. That’s like buying a guitar and not tuning it, essentially. It’s really common you get somewhere and they’re like, “Yeah, we’ve got a beautiful nine foot Steinway,” and you get there and it’s like lifting fifty pounds every time you hit a big chord. Then the opposite is you get somewhere and you play it and there’s nothing there. It goes all the way down before you hear clink (laughs). It’s my life of every night a different instrument.
You know, sometimes you feel it physically. I know my wrists do but also sometimes you don’t have benches that are the same so you’re not sitting at the correct height. Just about anything that can go wrong with a piano has gone wrong. But I’m used to it. It’s like playing a new room. Everything has it’s idiosyncrasies and each night I play a new piano (laughs).
What can you tell us about the song you wrote with Leon Russell, “The Heart That Makes Me Whole,” which is on your new album?
Everything on the album I performed for Dan Penn and I wanted him to pick. He’s such a great songwriter. I didn’t tell him who wrote it, I didn’t tell him if I co-wrote it, didn’t tell him if I didn’t write it. I would just play something and go, “What do you think?” We went through twenty-something songs. Every song had to pass on it’s own merits and that just happened to be a song I wrote with Leon Russell. We had written a bunch together. He lived here in Nashville, about twenty minutes from me, and I had hoped he would come down and play organ on it when we were recording it but sadly he passed. We had a really unusual way of working together, even if we were in the same town, which was he always wanted to have me write the music and sing melody. I would do that in my phone and from there he would send back more lyrics. So with this song, it’s one of the two songs where I kind of struggled with the lyrics a couple times and we ended up changing the title and I ended up finding the title for it in the end and collaborated a little bit more on the words than we had in the past, except for “Rollin On,” which I wrote the chorus to; otherwise he wrote all the lyrics and I wrote the music and melody. So it was just one of those things that was very different than any kind of writing collaboration I’ve done and I used to do them five days a week here in Nashville. It was just his comfort zone and that was good enough for me and we ended up with a bunch of fun songs.
Why was it difficult to finish the lyrics?
The original chorus wasn’t great. The original lyrics weren’t great. It took some thinking. A lot of times you realize you have to turn things around. I needed to change the title of it. It started off as a song called “Angel In The Darkness” and it ended up being called “The Heart That Makes Me Whole.” It was sort of a little bit at a time. I’d send something to him and I’d say, “Hey, do you like this?” So there was a back and forth and at a certain point I think, you know, he didn’t have a lot of patience for that stuff so he’d go, “That’s fine, that’s great, whatever.”
But some songs take thought. Like, in writing “The Other Side Of Love” with Dan Penn, we wrote the song pretty much the whole thing very quickly, maybe in an hour, hour and a half. But there were little things that we kept nit-picking and we did that for about a month and a half. It wasn’t like all the time. It’d be like every couple of weeks Dan would call me and go, “Hey son, I think I’ve got an idea. What if we do this?” And I’d go, “Okay, that works.” We figured out there was a line that was funny that we wrote and it started off in the pre-chorus, (singing) “With no affection.” But it started off, “With no direction.” But when you heard it, it sounded like “With no erection.” (laughs) And the more we laughed about it, we said we got to change it. So I called him one day and said, “How does this work?” We wrote like ten different rhymes for it before we came up with that particular one.
I like that song but I think my favorite on the record is “Just Like Medicine.” It really was a very personal thing and totally true. I couldn’t be more sincere. I talk about having these regrets and a gratefulness I feel for the people that helped me in this life, my wife in particular. I think it was just like that. You asked me in the beginning, why Just Like Medicine. Because music has that healing ability, has that healing power, and I needed it at the time.
Photo by Sebastian Smith