Brick gin joints, gas lamps, baby grands and foot stompin', soul shouting blues all add up to one thing; A.J. Croce is hitting the ivories and raring up for his summer tour.
Timed to coincide with his self-titled release on Private Music/BMG (the first of six), his bright future is the payoff for years spent tinkering in jazz bars and nightclubs.
A.J., 21 years old, was born in Philadelphia to singing duo Jim and Ingrid Croce. Jim died in a plane crash while A.J. was just a small child. At this tender age, he and his mother moved to San Diego where she now owns a popular restaurant dedicated to her husband's memory.
It is in this environment that his interest in music was born, and like his father who played accordion at age six, A.J. played piano. But aside from the family resemblance, there is no confusing their unique styles.
It can be tough following in the footsteps of a music star parent, just take a look at Julian Lennon and Ziggy Marley. This has not been a problem for A.J. though, "I haven't encountered too much or too many questions, because when they hear the music it's so different they go 'O.K. it's something different!' I write differently, different songs. I love his writing, but it's just different."
Playing solo bar gigs since he was 13 years old, he formed Romy Kaye and the Swinging Gates with David Klowden and Romy in 1987. MC'd by pseudo-crooner Ulysses Flynn (Sean McMullen), they played the bar circuit and served up some pretty swinging entertainment.
After splitting up he formed his own combo with some of the heaviest guns in the game; Paul Kimbaron, Dave Curtis, Bob Boss, Paco Shipp and most recently, former Ray Charles's trumpeter Mitch Mankers.
The line up on his album is just as impressive, "The musicianship is really, really amazing; Jim Keltner playing drums (except the two cuts by Paul Kimbaron). On bass we, we had four great bass players. There was Ron Carter, Tim Drummond, Armando Compion and Dave Curtis. On guitar we had Bob Boss. Robbin Ford played most everything, and also Fred Tackett. Plus there's a cameo by T Bone Burnett, who produced it with arranger John Simon, who used to work with Janis Joplin."
And just how was the studio session? "It was fantastic!"
Recorded at the Oceanway Studios on Sunset, the sessions lasted a week and were recorded in rare form. Everything was done live, all arraigned big band style and conducted by John Simon with a rhythm section, five to ten horns, and it was all done, get this - in one take!
In a world where the average musician is 42, how did the ol' cats welcome such a young upstart like A.J.? "It's been very positive. I was very nervous when I got in the studio with Ron Carter because I had heard all these rumors about him that weren't true. About him saying 'You shouldn't respect young guys', and thinking that you shouldn't record before you're a veteran. He wasn't like that at all, he was very supportive, the same with Jim Keltner, Robbin Ford and Snooky Young."
His career sure has come a long way from providing background music for barflies to playing festivals with crowds up to 15,000. He has handled the transition well. Influenced by all forms of music, from country, funk and jazz to bluegrass, folk and classical, and even waltzes, A.J.'s style is definitely unique, born in his earliest days of performing.
"By the time I was 16 1 was playing a lot, and quite a few of the places I played didn't have a microphone for me so I had to sing over a grand piano. I adopted this style of singing that was really popular in the late '30s called 'Shouting'. It was invented by people like Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner. Even if I'm not playing that style necessarily, it's a singing style I've adopted."
When asked about the difficulty of busting into the big time, he offered, "It doesn't happen that fast, well at least it didn't with me. It's not too hard to adjust, but the hard part is going from no one paying attention, and then - blam!?All of a sudden it's a very serious thing when you're playing in front of thousands, they're listening and it's silent when it's supposed to be. It's great, but uncomfortable at first. It's a lot of pressure."
But pressure or not, he's up to par, and while nothing's finalized yet, this year is going to be a busy one for A.J. Planning on about three tours of America and Europe, he'll also be at the New Orleans Festival in San Francisco this June, Winterdale in Colorado and much more.
Bringing his showmanship into the public arena, A.J. likes to offer his fans the same things he expects from a player. "The entertainment point of view is a strange thing. It's what I like when I go out and see a show. I like to be entertained, not necessarily Las Vegas style, but to some degree I want the person to be interesting to watch, to listen to, as well as having fun. It's gotta be exciting or it's the same thing as listening to the record."
Not only does he set the criteria, he meets it as well. Catch him while you can while he's on tour, and if ya wanna take a listen to him at home, get A.J.
Croce is on the Private/BMG label, or better yet, invite him on over for dinner, 'cause he's just that kinda guy!?
Photography and text: Jeffree Benet. This profile was originally published in Sin Magazine in 1993 when A.J. just launched his career.