By DOUG IRELAND
This time, almost 50 years later to the day, Jim Croce drew an overflow audience in Natchitoches.
On the evening of Sept. 20, 1973, Croce played what turned out to be his final concert, at Northwestern State University’s Prather Coliseum, attended by a disappointing crowd of under 1,000 students. Accompanied by guitarist and singer Mary Muehleisen, Croce did a 42-minute set, including most of his popular and emerging songs, and did not perform an encore. An audio recording survives on the internet.
He was admittedly weary of extensive travel on his “Life and Times” concert tour, telling student reporter Melanie Babin (Torbett) shortly before the concert that he was tired after traversing nearly 800,000 miles across the country, and just wanted to get home to his wife and son.
There was a hurried exit from the concert site, after an apparent post-performance decision to fly out that night, not the following morning as expected, heading to the next concert site at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.
The plane barely got off the ground coming off the south runway, into a headwind, at the Natchitoches airport. It struck a pecan tree and all six on board were killed instantly. Croce, 30 years old, left his wife Ingrid and almost 2-year-old son A.J. in their new hometown of San Diego. An FAA investigation cited pilot error.
Monday evening, a standing room-only audience gathered at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum in Natchitoches for “Photographs and Memories: A Tribute to Jim Croce.”
About a dozen raised their hands to say they were at the concert that fateful Thursday night 50 years ago.
Many other NSU students – two-thirds of the college’s students then were women – stayed in their dorm rooms or apartments that evening to watch network television coverage of the ballyhooed “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between rising women’s pro star Billie Jean King and 55-year-old retired pro Bobby Riggs. An American audience estimated at 50 million tuned in. A well-attended high school football game was played at the university’s stadium across an adjoining parking lot from the coliseum.
Doubtlessly, some of those who stayed away then were in the audience of a couple hundred admirers at Monday evening’s tribute – despite a New Orleans Saints game kicking off at the same time.
Event organizers, board members of the Friends of Louisiana Sports and History, were gratified by the turnout. The audience was enthralled.
Croce’s music was a soundtrack during a reception before the program began with the reading of a quote from son A.J., from a story by Ted Lewis in Sunday’s New Orleans Times-Picayune (Google “Ted Lewis Jim Croce” to find it).
“Everyone dies sooner or later,” he said. “What interests me is how they lived.”
That was celebrated Monday night in a community that carries no small amount of angst about Croce’s loss.
Croce’s appearance – postponed from an earlier date due to a brief illness — was booked for $2,500 by the NSU Student Union Governing Board. Student promoter Doug Nichols carried guilt to his grave when he died in 2014.
“If it weren’t for me, he wouldn’t have been in Natchitoches,” Nichols told a reporter 25 years after the fatal visit.
“I think he just wanted to get away as quickly as possible, from a town that – by and large – didn’t bother to come hear him play,” then-NSU student Colleen Johnson recently wrote, also sharing glowing recollections of the concert.
A just-graduated Ron McBride, who had moved to Atlanta that summer, walked out of his apartment the following morning and was assailed by his neighbor, a devoted Croce fan. “You killed Jim Croce!” she shouted, beating on his chest. That’s how he found out about the plane crash. She didn’t speak to him for weeks.
For about 5-6 years before the Croce tragedy, the university had attracted a remarkable series of emerging and big-name acts: from Simon & Garfunkel, Seals & Crofts, John Denver and The Carpenters to The Spinners, Bad Company, Lynyrd Skynard and Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, and dozens more.
Afterward, said retired university music professor Richard Rose, bookings became difficult. “A lot of musicians didn’t want to fly into Natchitoches because of what happened, fair or not,” he said.
Any misguided guilty feelings among those attending Monday night’s program evaporated when longtime local musician Billy O’Con – who played Croce in a locally-produced 1998 docudrama – sat at a stool and began to perform “Operator” to kick off the event, drawing prolonged applause.
Natchitoches Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. read a beautifully-written, deeply historically-accurate city proclamation (it pointed out Croce’s parents did not want him to pursue a musical career, and funded his first album only on the condition that it was his last so he “would give up music after the album failed and use his college education to pursue a ‘respectable’ profession.”)
An 18-minute documentary produced by NSU New Media students a year ago was screened, featuring Torbett, Dan McDonald and Janet Tompkins, who were student journalists 50 years ago. A short clip from a soon-to-premiere Hollywood-produced short film “Jim Croce” followed, then O’Con returned to perform an elegant rendition of “Time in a Bottle,” followed by rollicking versions of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “Don’t Mess Around with Jim” that evoked singalongs and a standing ovation to close his set.
McDonald, Torbett and Louisiana Music Hall of Fame frontman and local attorney Rodney Harrington, also an NSU student in Croce’s concert audience, shared reflections for a few minutes, with audience members also participating.
One was David Curry, now a retired resident of nearby Alexandria. He stunned the room by explaining he was a classmate of Croce’s and over 700 kids at Philadelphia’s Upper Darby High School. Curry showed copies of pages from their 1960 yearbook, including their senior bio capsules, with Croce writing a short note to him. Music was not specifically mentioned among Croce’s activities, although he had credentials including “All-Academic-Gold,” “Class Dance Committee,” “World Affairs Forum,” and slightly foreshadowing his future, “All School Show Production.”
“I knew him a little bit,” said Curry, drawing gasps, “but I didn’t really know him. He was just a kid, a nice kid. He wasn’t on the ‘in’ crowd. I remember he was into music. A friend of mine did know him well, and used to do his English homework, so Jim could hang out with band folks.”
Harrington and Torbett each said “Time in a Bottle” was played at their weddings.
“We can only imagine and dream about what he would have done. Look at the songs he put out there in his short life, that are still played today. It’s an often-used phrase to say his songs are the soundtrack of our lives. Jim Croce’s songs were, and continue to be, held dear by all of us. His place in the pantheon of singer-songwriters is cemented,” said Harrington, “and he’ll live forever, I think.”
McDonald noted he is one of the millions of devoted “Parrotheads” fans of the recently-deceased musical genius Jimmy Buffett. And he’s no less fond of Croce’s work.
“They were different kinds of entertainers. But I look at them the same way. Are there better singers out there? Oh, no question. Are there better guitarists out there? Yeah, no question. These guys were writers. They were storytellers. They were poets,” he told the audience.
“I think that’s why it is lasting. There are a lot of other artists who might perform those songs better in some way,” McDonald said, “but I don’t want to hear any of them. I want to hear Buffett, and Croce, forever.”