A.J. Croce Tears It Up with a Dozen Soulfully Rendered, Rollicking Covers on ‘By Request’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

In a setlist that covers artists from Neil Young to Brian Wilson to Billy Preston, Sam Cooke, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, among others, pianist/guitarist/vocalist A.J. Croce puts his own soulful spin on a dozen covers, tunes he has familiarized himself with over the years entertaining friends at his home. The effort is aptly titled By Request. While many of the tunes may be familiar, Croce takes them into new, even uncharted territory.  The eclectic nature of the material reflects Croce’s wide-spanning tastes.

Over his ten studio albums, he’s touched Blues, Soul, Pop, Jazz, and Rock n’ Roll. A virtuosic 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; Béla Fleck to Ry Cooder. A.J. has also co-written songs with such formidable writers as Leon Russell, Dan Penn, Robert Earl Keen, and multi-Grammy winner Gary Nicholson.

This project was inspired by not only the late-night gatherings of friends with Croce at the piano taking requests but of favorite artists and shows as well. This is the first album Croce has released since losing his wife of 24 years, Marlo Croce, after a sudden heart ailment. It’s also the first album by Croce to feature his full touring band: Gary Mallaber on drums (Van Morrison, Steve Miller band), GRAMMY®-winning bassist David Barard (Allen Toussaint, Dr. John), and up-and-coming guitarist Garrett Stoner. On many tracks, they are augmented by a three-piece horn section led by Nashville’s versatile Jim Hoke and three background vocalists, the Settles. Given that Croce’s last album, Just Like Medicine, was done with soul legend Dan Penn, much of that riveting soulful vibe colors this one. 

The rollicking piano drives the especially funky opener, Billy Preston’s “Nothing from Nothing” which recedes into a gospel, relaxed version of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” Randy Newman’s “Have You Seen My Baby” is especially poignant in that A.J. lost his famous father, Jim Croce, when he was just two years old. He pays tribute since the first show he attended was a bill featuring his dad and Newman. “I love so much of his music, and while this is by no means my favorite of his, it’s been a request at soirées. I sort of treated it as if Little Richard sat in with The Flaming Groovies and played it like I was 15, with reckless abandon.”

“Nothing Can Change This Love” is one of the lesser-known Sam Cooke songs but this arrangement showcases Croce’s multi-instrumental prowess with the B3 prominent. He also plays electric Wurlitzer piano, harmonium, and both acoustic and electric guitars on other selections. His friend and East Nashville neighbor, blues guitarist Robben Ford guests on the first tune that Croce learned on guitar, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s “Better Day.” That leads into vintage, faithfully rendered soul when he calls up The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child.” Croce plays a fiery Wurlitzer on Rod Stewart’s “Stay With Me,” with Billy Harvey’s and Stoner’s guitars adding crunch to capture every bit of the fervor and maybe even more than the original. He does a straight-forward version of Allen Toussaint’s “Brickyard Blues,” one that seems especially reflective of Croce’s piano style. Somehow Tom Waits is a natural in this array of artists, and “San Diego Serenade” provides some calm from the party-like burners preceding it and is Croce’s strongest vocal performance. This is also one of the best horn arrangements with strong turns from Hoke (baritone sax), Josh Scale (trombone), and Scotty Huff (trumpet, flugelhorn).

Croce has a rather bizarre approach to the Beach Boys’ “Sail On Sailor,” saying, “I reimagined the arrangement, wondering how Willie Dixon would have recorded it if he were on psychedelics.” “Can’t Nobody Love You” is an organ-driven ballad leading into the closer, an upbeat obscure song by Motown artist Shorty Long, “Ain’t No Justice,” perhaps inspired by the social unrest this past summer. 

Artists born to famous musicians often face tough challenges trying to attain or even live up to the legendary status of the parents (both of his were singer-songwriters), but Croce has done well.  Without delving into his biography full bore, these two anecdotes stand out.  First, he never knew his father, who died in a tragic plane crash just before his second birthday. A.J. purposely avoided his father’s music to establish his own identity. 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.

Prior to that, it’s important to know that whole 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. 

Croce has overcome more than one challenge and it’s refreshing to hear him turn loose on these covers. He has long been at a point where he needs to prove nothing. His 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. Best of all, he’s established his own unique voice along the way.

Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

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