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A.J. Croce celebrates love, friendship and the joy of music on 'By Request'

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Remember how much fun it was to have a houseful of friends over on a Saturday night? Those days will return. In the meantime, singer-songwriter A.J. Croce, with his friends, have put together “By Request,” an outrageously fun album of diverse pop, rock, jazz, blues and soul cover songs – from Randy Newman to The Beach Boys - that gives us a glimpse of how much fun it would be to crash a Croce house party.

A.J. Croce has become firmly established over the last three decades as one of America’s finest musical craftsmen through nine albums of original songs encompassing multiple genres. It became evident during an interview with The Maine Edge that he’s also a musicologist in possession of an almost encyclopedic knowledge of music history and music-makers. Croce says he did his best to tighten the reins on his broad taste when it came to selecting titles for “By Request.”

“As much as this album is a celebration of different kinds of music I love, it’s about the celebration of friendship, being together and entertaining friends,” Croce said. “This record was recorded live in the studio, and I produced it with that in mind, as if I could welcome the audience over to my place, hang out and play music for them.”

“By Request” features a mix of well-known songs and others that are waiting to be discovered by new listeners, as Croce (who augments his piano by also playing guitar, organ and harmonium) and his touring band deliver each one with a great spirit of fun and spontaneity.        

Music has always been around…”                                                    

For as long as he can remember, Croce says music has been a constant in his life.

“Since I was conscious, music has always been around,” he said. “Both of my parents played music and musicians were always over at the house when I was growing up.”

Croce’s father, the late Jim Croce, released three albums of gorgeously crafted original songs in the early 1970s before his life and career were tragically cut short when his touring plane crashed after a concert in Louisiana in 1973.

Jim and Ingrid Croce (A.J.’s mother) recorded an album together for Capitol Records in 1967.

For the first 20 years or so of his career, A.J. says he avoided discussing his father’s music during interviews and never played his Dad’s songs live, not until he became comfortable with his own identity and abilities.

“What was more important to me was being great at what I do,” Croce explained.

Once he let that go and felt at ease performing Jim Croce’s music, A.J. began performing “Croce Plays Croce” concerts, playing his own songs, his father’s songs, and the songs that connected them, some of which can be found on “By Request.”

A.J. credits his parents with contributing to his lifelong obsession with music by exposing him to multiple genres during his childhood. The top-40 hits of the time also drew his attention, he says, as the 1970s charts were populated with such diversity.

“I listened to my Dad’s record collection a lot, and I would listen to the radio and play along with that when I was a kid,” Croce said. “I’d hear the latest hits from E.L.O. or Paul McCartney or The Rolling Stones, and I’d run down to the piano and try to figure it out. Music from all different genres has always been part of my life, and I try to learn from all of it, whether it’s Indian ragas or electronica, there’s something great to learn from every genre of music.”

Like most every performing artist, Croce is anxiously awaiting the return of live concerts. He had planned on performing some shows in Maine last year which had to be postponed due to the pandemic. In March, Croce and his band staged two streaming concerts to benefit The Opera House at Boothbay Harbor, among other venues. He said he hopes to perform here later this year.

“I’ve been to Maine and I love it,” Croce said. “Since everything from last year has been rebooked – just moved down the road a little bit – I’m hopeful that I’ll have the opportunity to play in Maine soon.”

Recording “By Request”

According to Croce, “By Request” was recorded and mixed in about one week, an almost unheard-of turnaround for any artist. It was ready to go last January, he said, but the pandemic delayed its release until now. He said he had no idea how relevant the album’s theme of love, friendship and togetherness would become.

“By Request” has a warm rich sound that can be attributed to the fact that it was recorded on analog tape using vintage gear, not too dissimilar to the gear used by the artists who recorded the original versions of these songs.

“There’s something about that I’ve always loved even though I’ve deviated a couple of times over the years,” Croce said.

“By and large, I record live and to tape. In the case of the last album (2017’s “Just Like Medicine”) that I recorded with Dan Penn (Aretha Franklin, The Box Tops, Percy Sledge), it was done live to two-inch tape. We never used more than 16 tracks. We did that album very much like he recorded stuff at Muscle Shoals (historic recording studio in Alabama) and similar to how he produced things for groups like The Box Tops. He had only three tracks to work with then, one for the vocals, one for the band, and one for horns and strings. That was kind of how we treated my record.”

Croce says the analog tapes were transferred to digital for mixing which dramatically speeds up the process.

“With Dan, it was all hands on deck, very old school where each mix is completely different,” Croce said. “I don’t regret that at all. It had been a long time since I’d done anything like that but it’s hard to do. It’s time consuming but end up with something incredibly unique.”

Some songs on “By Request,” like the opener, “Nothing From Nothing” (Billy Preston), “Stay With Me” (by The Faces), and “Ooh Child” (by the Five Stairsteps), stick fairly close to the original or best-known arrangement of the song while others, including “Have You Seen My Baby” (by Randy Newman) were recast in a new light.

Mixing It Up

Croce said he based many of the album’s arrangements on which version his friends were most familiar with.

“When friends would come over and the evening would unfold, sometimes other musicians were present and they might be more familiar with a particular version of a song,” Croce said. “With the Randy Newman song, a friend knew the version by The Flaming Groovies but not the Randy Newman version. So I did it with a tip of the hat to the original but reimagined the song as if Little Richard was sitting in with The Flaming Groovies.”

Croce said he loved the experience of presenting some of these songs with altogether new arrangements.

Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is arranged like a gospel song on “By Request.” Members of Nashville’s Settles family, an in-demand group of performing family and friends, accompany A.J. Croce on backing vocals.

“I had a lot of fun with the arrangements and the idea of it,” Croce said. “All of it can be performed by myself or with friends so that’s something I kept in mind. I wanted it to feel live like you were sitting with me.”

The late legendary songwriter, arranger and producer Allen Toussaint has a presence on “By Request” in the form of “Brickyard Blues,” also known as “Play Something Sweet.” The song has been recorded by a number of artists, including Little Feat, James Montgomery and B.J. Thomas, but is probably best known in a hit version by Three Dog Night.

In the liner notes for “By Request,” Croce remembers Toussaint as “an inspiration, my producer and my friend.” Toussaint was one of the producers Croce recorded with on his 2014 album “Twelve Tales.”

“He was such a gentleman,” Croce says of the influential music maker, responsible for dozens of classic songs, including “Fortune Teller,” “Working in the Coal Mine,” “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and “Lady Marmalade.”

“He was one of the most dignified individuals I’ve ever met,” Croce says of the late musical legend. “He was always smooth, always dressed in a suit and sandals, that was his signature. He was an influence of mine since I was 13.”

Croce recalls performing with Toussaint during a concert where A.J. opened the show and they finished together playing four-handed piano.

“We just really hit it off. After we became friends, whenever I would play in New Orleans, he would join me on stage for a song or two which was a real thrill. I had gotten to know his stuff through the music of Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, The Meters, and Patti LaBelle and all of the stuff he did with Dr. John. He was such an amazing songwriter, arranger, piano player, singer, producer, he could do it all.

In the liner notes for “By Request,” A.J. Croce writes: “There’s no way that I could record the thousands of songs I’ve performed at home over the years, nevertheless every song on this album has been requested by close friends who have hung out at my place many times for many years. Welcome to my home, by request, you’re hereby invited to join the party.”

More with A.J. Croce

The Maine Edge: I love the stylistic variety you present on “By Request.” That kind of eclecticism has been evident throughout your career going back to the first album (1993’s “A.J. Croce”). Did you know going into this project how varied it would become?

A.J. Croce: Once I settled on a set of songs, I had an idea of how diverse it would be, and it’s one of the things about the album people tell me they really like. Music from all different genres has always been part of my life and I take something from all of it. I feel like until you sit down and try to play something, you can’t be a true critic. Once you play a particular genre of music, you come to learn some of the idiosyncrasies, the things that make it a challenge and the things that make it joyful.

The Maine Edge: Your version of The Beach Boys’ “Sail on Sailor” is so soulful. How did you come with that arrangement? It’s such a great song and I don’t that I’ve heard anyone else attempt it.

A.J. Croce: With “Sail on Sailor,” I wondered “What if Chess Records (legendary Chicago blues label) had a psychedelic period in the late ‘60s? What would it have sounded like?” It starts out almost like a blues song but the changes and melody are so unique, and you hear Brian Wilson’s brilliance in there. I’m playing piano and singing live and then switch to other instruments like the organ and harmonium for overdubs. There’s a bass harmonica in there too, panned left and right with the harmonium.

The Maine Edge: In the liner notes, you write that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s call-and-response blues “Better Day” was the first song you learned to play on guitar. You do some nice picking on there and what a treat to hear the great Robben Ford take the solo. Is he really your neighbor?

A.J. Croce: He lives close to me in Nashville. I played the acoustic guitar on it and thought it would be fun to have Robben come over to add some electric guitar. I knew he would know exactly what to do with it. I took some liberties with that song in the tempo and the structure. I used a number of additional chords in there (laughs) because it just felt good to me.

The Maine Edge: Your version of “Stay With Me” by The Faces sticks pretty close to the wild rocked up abandon present in the original version. The keyboard sound you achieved is also quite close to Ian McLagan’s sound on the original. I love his work with The Small Faces and The Faces. Did you have a chance to meet him in your travels?

A.J. Croce: I got to play with Ian McLagan a couple of times. He was such a sweet, sweet guy. I loved what he did with American R&B and early rock and roll and the way he interpreted it with The Small Faces, The Faces, The Stones, Dylan, and everybody he played with. And Rod Stewart is one of my favorite rock and roll singers of all time.

The Maine Edge: You wrote in the notes that you won’t get into your Rod Stewart story. You must have known that would only encourage people like me to ask you about it (laughs).

A.J. Croce: (laughs) I would but it takes a long time to tell it properly and I’m not sure if this is the right venue for it.

The Maine Edge: Your father’s music has always been very important to me and my family. It seems like his records (and 8-track tapes) were always playing when I was growing up. His songs mean even more to me today because I feel that connection to my family when I play them. Music has a most amazing way of doing that. Which songs of your father’s mean the most to you?

A.J. Croce: There are a lot of them. “Time in a Bottle” was written for me so it’s a personal song. It was hard for me to listen to it for a long time and even harder for me to sit down and play for many years. There are so many that I love, like “Box #10,” and “These Dreams.” He was such a great songwriter, and he was really on fire. Those three albums were all recorded in just 18 months. A couple of things on the first and second record had been written a couple of years earlier, but most of it was finished shortly before it was recorded.

The Maine Edge: A few years ago, you released a cover of “I Got a Name,” which was one of Jim’s only songs that he didn’t write. The cover had a mockup similar in design to the “I Got a Name” album. How did that recording come about?

A.J. Croce: Honestly, it was because Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked me to record the song for his retirement. Goodyear Tire wanted to have me record it for their commercial that featured Dale Jr. for the Daytona 500. I didn’t expect it to be released as a single. I took that photo with a friend as kind of a tongue in cheek takeoff of the original cover of “I Got a Name.”

It’s such an interesting song because it’s something he could have written and it’s a song I know he related to based on the first verse of the song and that’s part of why I’ve always related to it.

The Maine Edge: Are any of the songs you selected for “By Request” connected to your Dad in some way?

A.J. Croce: The songs by Sam Cooke (“Nothing Can Change This Love”) and Solomon Burke (“Can’t Nobody Love You”) were part of my Dad’s repertoire. Before he released “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” he was playing on the weekends, he wasn’t yet playing full time. He had a day job doing all kinds of things. So he would play a lot of cover songs at that time, and a lot of them we have in common. Especially the older stuff like Mississippi John Hurt, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Pink Anderson and also the ‘50s rock and roll stuff that he loved.

You can tell what a great influence those Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller songs that he loved had on his writing. Those songs were all playing in Philadelphia on South Street where he grew up. He would be inspired by a great Leiber and Stoller song like “Little Egypt,” “Charlie Brown,” or “Hound Dog,” and internalize it and make it very personal in a song of his like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” or “Rapid Roy,” or “Roller Derby Queen.” He becomes a character in the song.

You can hear the R&B influence in a song like “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” It’s like a Jimmy Reed riff not too far removed from “Big Boss Man,” or “Bright Lights, Big City.”

I play some of those songs that connect us during my “Croce Plays Croce” concerts. When I started playing those shows, it was really liberating to be able to acknowledge my family, my history, and also show how I interpreted these things and where I came from, because it was quite different, our lives were very different.

The Maine Edge: Have you ever been stuck in the middle of writing a song, not sure where to take it next, and wondered “What would Dad have done here?”

A.J. Croce: Not really. As a piano player, and growing up playing all kinds of music, and certainly playing jazz and stride, and knowing all of these unusual chords that were options, I think the options sometimes got in the way more than anything else. That’s really why I started playing guitar in my 30s. It was one of those things where I could see so many options on the piano for writing. I could go to a bridge here or there or take it from a minor key to a major key. Those options were crystal clear to me and I always heard it in my head. With guitar, I had about a dozen chords maybe that I had learned and that was about the limit of it.

When I think about my father’s music, it really comes to the songwriting and the way he was able to touch on a theme or a character or story and make it universal. He was able to take something very personal and found a way to share it. That’s something I’ve always kept in mind when writing, even if I choose to deviate from it. Instead of it being a conversational lyric, I might choose to make it more metaphorical. While I’ve written plenty of conversational songs, I experimented, and I try to experiment every day.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 April 2021 11:51

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