A.J. Croce, who visits Seaside’s Alternative Café on Saturday, endured a lot of hardships as a youngster. He was left completely blind for six years after suffering a brain tumor at the age of 4. More tragically, his father, Philly folk star Jim Croce, known for his enduring hit “Time in a Bottle,” died in a plane crash just a week after his son’s second birthday.
Croce says he got through the sizeable obstacles by using his sense of humor as much as possible.
“When you’re a kid, you take things in stride in a certain way,” he says. “When you don’t see you pay attention to other things.”
In Croce’s case, one of those things was Ray Charles, who inspired him to take up the piano. And he credits music as the most crucial comforting light that ultimately helped him to happiness.
“As a kid, I was really fortunate that there was a piano and instruments at my house,” Croce says. “The piano was my solace. It was a way for me to express myself and I really enjoyed it.”
The musician-in-the-making would spend several hours a day sitting at his piano practicing, learning and eventually began writing his own music around the age of 12. His first paying gig came at the same age when he was paid $20 to perform at a bat mitzvah.
“I was inspired as a very young person to write about social issues,” Croce says. “I was part of that last generation of people who went through the Cold War and experienced a fear that we might not make it and my early writing had to do with those fears.”
By 19, Croce’s talents attracted the renowned T-Bone Burnett to produce his self-titled debut (David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Ry Cooder produced later works), which also featured a laundry list of killer musicians, including jazz bassist Ron Carter.
The sultry number “How’d We Get So Good At Saying Good-bye?,” jives with a soulful Booker T. blues organ strut and Croce’s voice flairs with James Brown strains. He says he has lost his voice three times trying to sound like Brown, another legend with whom he played.
“All that R&B and soul was hugely influential on my playing,” he says. “I also really became a fan of the history of it all.”
These days, with eight albums and hundreds of songs under his belt, Croce—who recently returned to San Diego after spending three years in Nashville, where he lives part time—says his songwriting continues to evolve.
“The songs I wrote most recently in Nashville, were more inspired by conversational topics about life in general,” Croce says. “I write mostly in a metaphorical style.”
Croce’s 2009 release, the folky Cage of Muses, moves in a completely different direction than his first LP and proves he continues to grow as a musician. The enchanting “Coraline” uses traces of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band through piano and dominating drums that intermittently break through the song’s tender musical moments with heartfelt prose.
The singer-songwriter has incorporated just about every musical style into his catalog and to this day, has no idea what genre he would fit into.
“It’s easiest to say that I’m a singer-songwriter with American roots influences,” he says. “I was influenced by soul music, blues, country, jazz and folk. These truly American styles have inspired me since I was a kid.”
Though Croce doesn’t have any definitive plans to release a new studio LP in the near future, the songs keep pouring out of him. He’s also readying to release Further On, a collection of his last three Americana-flavored albums, Early On: The American Recordings 1993-1998, Cantos and Cage of Muses.
“I spend most of my time writing to keep my sanity,” Croce says.
With a career that now spans nearly 20 years, Croce has pretty much remained anonymous to the mainstream, aside from the occasional sparks ignited by his famous last name.
“Celebrity was not something I ever pursued, but in this line of work it’s necessary to have a certain amount of renown,” he says.
The musician has received high praise over the years from everyone from Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder to Taj Mahal and Dave Mathews. Though Croce has collaborated with a number of all-star musicians over the years, banjo master Béla Fleck stands out.
“I really admire artists who make music in different genres,” he told Cincy Groove Magazine. “I remember I opened for Fleck and he then called me up on stage to jam with the band. It was really one of those terrifying moments because I had no idea what the song was, where it was starting or ending.”
One thing to admire about Croce is his ability to create meaningful music without selling out.
“Doing things that are artistically satisfying and finding a way to make a living is a balancing act,” he says.
The vision Croce lost as a child slowly came back, at least in his left eye, when the damaged optic nerve healed itself. He never regained the vision in his right eye.
“It was sheer luck,” Croce says.
Even after more than three decades since his father’s death, the conversation with Croce returns to dad. If the 39-year-old had the opportunity to say one thing to his father, he says he would tell him “thank you.”
A.J. Croce plays 8pm Saturday, July 23, at the Alternative Cafe, 1230 Fremont Blvd., Seaside. $25. 583-0913.