A.J. Croce is no stranger to tragedy.
His father, the famed singer-songwriter Jim Croce, died in a plane crash just eight days before Adrian James Croce’s second birthday. Two years later, Croce would lose his eyesight, and although he would eventually regain some limited vision in one eye, he took to the piano in the meantime and said his early influences became Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.
Still, with all he’s been through, Croce says 2018 was the worst year of his life. In the midst of a serious health issue of his own, Croce lost his wife of nearly three decades, Marlo Croce, to a sudden, rare virus.
“Her passing was literally overnight,” Croce told the Standard-Examiner in a phone interview from his Nashville, Tenn., home. “She left Nashville, left healthy, and passed away the next day from a virus. I was, as far as my career went, fine. But as far as my personal life, I was devastated.”
So how does Croce deal with the heartache? He says he tries to remain upbeat and recalls the time they had together.
“I don’t think of her as ‘passed away,’” he said. “That was not what defined her, it was just the final chapter. But I am grateful to have been able to share 28 years with her. ... I remember the amazing things we had, and then I don’t worry about it.”
Croce says he’s taken the last year to examine his life and how he wants it to play out. He realizes things will be “vastly different” going forward, but he also sees it as an opportunity.
“I try to look at the positive side of things,” he said. “My life is going to be vastly different, so how do I want my life to look?”
Part of that life looks like “Croce Plays Croce,” the concert concept the musician is bringing to Layton this weekend for a show in the Kenley Amphitheater.
“The idea, in a nutshell, is that I play my father’s music, my music, and the music that influenced both of us,” Croce said. “It’s a pretty exciting and energetic show, plus it’s very emotional.”
Jim Croce died just 18 months into a promising career that offered up everyman hits like “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” “Time in a Bottle,” and “I’ve Got a Name.”
While he says he “of course” loved his father’s music, Croce insists he needed to make his own way in the industry. As a result, he says he didn’t take the opportunities he could have early in his career to trade on his father’s musical name.
The younger Croce built his career as a piano player, working with the likes of Floyd Dixon, Allen Toussaint, BB King, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Etta James and more.
“It was sort of through that rootsy R&B/blues/early rock ’n’ roll that I cut my teeth,” Croce says.
Croce’s nine studio albums over his career have run the gamut genre-wise, including blues, jazz, Americana and Top 40. He’s had 17 Top 20 singles on various music charts.
Having lost his father at such a young age, Croce says he was more influenced by his father’s record collection than his original music. And Croce admits that doing a show of his father’s music “wasn’t interesting to me.”
But then, about 18 years ago, Croce was doing some digital transfers of old reel-to-reel tapes that his father had recorded. As Croce listened to all of these covers by his father — obscure songs by Fats Waller and Bessie Smith and Pink Anderson — he realized that his father had gravitated to the same songs he had.
“Of course, we led different lives,” Croce said. “But we were picking the same obscure songs — song after song after song. I got chills, and felt like we had such similar tastes.”
Once Croce started playing the guitar and became competent on the instrument — a “necessity” to play his father’s songs — he thought it would be fun to add one here or there in shows.
“And when I saw how happy it made people, how much joy they got out of it, at that point it got me to thinking,” Croce says.
The turning point came when Croce did a show on what would have been his father’s 70th birthday.
“It was so much fun,” he said. “I didn’t want a cover band of my father’s stuff, I wanted to tell the stories behind my stuff, his stuff, and what connects us.”
Thus, “Croce Plays Croce” was born.
Croce says these shows are emotional, with a lot of people crying in the audience, but he insists it’s actually a “really up-tempo show.”
“People who come are struck by the musicianship and the song choices,” he said. “There’s a certain nostalgia, but it also has a very new feel to it.”
These days, Croce does a lot of piano-player studio work in Nashville. He says he’s planning a collaboration with friend and singer-songwriter Nicki Bluhm, and in August will record a cover album of all the songs he plays around the house at his friends’ request.
“It could be Jelly Roll Morton, or it could be The Velvet Underground,” he says.
And he’s been working on a larger project about origin stories — in religion, science, folklore, mythology and history in general.
As for a legacy, the musician with the famous musician for a father says he wants to be remembered for just one thing.
“Kindness,” he says.
In the meantime, Croce will continue to embrace a life that has brought more than its share of tragedy.
“Life throws a lot of stuff at you,” he said. “For me, I’ve just got to laugh. I really want to have a fun life, I want to be free, to be able to travel, to be creative every day. I just try to look at the positive thing.”