And Memories

A story of love,

music and conversion.

By Elizabeth Applebaum

Steve Angelucci,

interviewed here is Jim Croceís cousin and the author of the upcoming "Time In A Bottle, The Jim Croce Story." The two were close friends all their lives, with Croce calling Angelucci his "biographer." A writer and actor who has appeared in The Long Kiss Goodnight and Fallen, among others, Angelucci also is nationally certified in therapeutic massage and bodywork and has worked extensively in the holistic health field in New Jersey.

Jim Croce was your cousin -- on whose side?

Jim was my first cousin on his fatherís side. My motherís maiden name was "Croce" and she and Jimís father were sister and brother. However, we were also related on his momís side. Jimís grandmothers were cousins, which meant that his parents were second cousins. So, we were also third cousins on his motherís side. Yes, we were related!

Were you two close as children? How far apart did you live from one another? What can you tell us about Jim Croce as a boy?

We were very close as children and lived about a block from each other in the same neighborhood (Bywood) in Upper Darby, Pa. Jim was like a big brother and used to walk me to elementary school. It was his job to get me there when I didnít want to go. We were born in South Philadelphia and moved to Upper Darby (an urban suburb bordering Philadelphia) as children. Jim was about 4 years old and I was about 6 months. Our families vacationed together each year at the Jersey Shore. Several Croce relatives lived in the same neighborhood.

Jim was a bright and inquisitive child, always questioning things, much to his parentís dismay. He was dubbed, "the instigator" by the adults. We got along great. He took accordion lessons and would play at family gatherings. Yet, Jim was no prodigy. "Iíd shake that thing and smile," heíd say. "But I was sort of a late bloomer." His personality would win over the crowd. In addition to "Lady of Spain," he always had an Italian song to sing to his grandparents.

What about his family? What were his parents, and siblings, like? Were they a traditional Italian-Catholic family?

The family was traditional Italian-Catholic--about as traditional or orthodox as one could be. We all studied for, and received, our sacraments and attended church. Jimís grandmother, Carmela Croce, had an altar set up in her home, at which she would pray each day. Likewise, Jimís father (big Jimmy) would say the rosary daily. Like other Italians-Catholics of that time, the Croces felt somewhat alienated by the Irish dominated church power structure--even though this was the Roman Catholic Church with an Italian Pope.

Although Jim went to public school (since it was less than a block away), he attended religious instructions at the local parish church.

It almost seems as though Jim's success came overnight; though of course it didn't. When he was young, did he want to become a singer? Did you ever watch him write his music, and if so, was there a certain process to this? Did he wait for inspiration, or did he really sit down to work? (Perhaps you can tell us specifically about one song...)

Big Jimmy exposed his son to a wide variety of music, from ethnic to jazz to ragtime. Yet, the predominate sound on the Croce hi-fi was that of the big band influenced crooners of the fifties like Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, and, of course, Frank Sinatra. Big Jim even played music by Russ Columbo, the South Philadelphia singer who died tragically at a young age. But, as Jim approached adolescence, he was drawn to a new form of music: rock and roll. That changed everything.

While in elementary school, Jimís father brought him to an amateur hour type of audition. He was rejected and that was the one of the few times his dad encouraged him to perform. Big Jimmy and Flora (Jimís mom) believed that being a professional musician was equivalent to being a "bum." Toward the end of his high school years, Jim began fooling around with the guitar. Music became a passion in college. His fatherís dream was to send Jim to a Catholic University to get an education as a step toward the American dream.

Jim needed to raise his grades to be accepted into Villanova University, so he attended Malvern Preparatory school for a year. His guitar playing also improved and by the time he entered Villanova and he was semi-proficient on the 12-string guitar. This was in the early sixties. While rock and roll hit a lull, the folk music revival raged. At Villanova, Jim got a musical education through hanging out and jamming with fellow students like Tim Hauser (later the founder of the Grammy Award winning group, The Manhattan Transfer) and Tom Picardo (who as "Tommy West" would become Jimís producer). At times, Jim cut class to jam in Don McLeanís dorm room. Jim admired McLainís courage in quitting school to pursue the life of a professional musician. Years later, Jim had his first big hit, "You Donít Mess Around With Jim" the same year (1972) as McLeanís chart topper, "American Pie." Other students and friends like Joe Salviuolo (writer of "Thursday" on Jimís I Got A Name album and Mike DiBenedetto (Jimís musical partner) were also important influences. With DiBenedetto, Jim hosted a campus radio show and interviewed folk and blues musicians. Jim also performed as part of The Spires, a folk music offshoot of the Villanova Glee Club.

In college, Jim wrote little. He had to find his voice as a musician and writer. He gained confidence after winning a National Student Association sponsored tour of Africa and the Middle East in the summer of 1964. He was one of four students from around the country to be chosen. The others were Susan Levin of Champlain, Ill; Eugene Uphoff of Minneapolis, Minn; and Bob Knott of Memphis, Tenn. They called themselves "The Philadelphia Choir." Two years later Jim recorded a limited edition album, Facets, which contained a few originals. He admired songwriters like Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot and began to slowly compile his own material. Often he would sit at the kitchen table and fiddle around with various melodies, molding and shaping them. Jim was a keen observer of the human condition. He had a little notebook filled with lines and observations that he would incorporate into his songs. So, in this way, he worked at writing. Yet, during the down times when his career was going nowhere, he would wait for inspiration. Actually, he was depressed and put away his guitar for a time.

I traveled with Jim and his brilliant lead guitarist, Maury Muehleisen, to Salem College in West Virginia (Maury was later killed in the plane crash that took Jimís life). Jim didnít have a car and couldnít afford transportation, so I was pressed into service as an impromptu road manager. While staying on campus, Jim noticed a student who had a classic 1957 Chevy parked on the unpaved road in front of the dorm. He kept commenting about the car. Soon afterward, he wrote "Rapid Roy," a song on his first hit album, You Donít Mess Around With Jim. It mentions "a dirt track demon in his Ď57 Chevrolet."

As you watched your cousin become famous, did you say, "I always knew it would happen" or were you surprised?

Jimís talent captivated me and I believed he would make it. However, like Jim, I would occasionally get depressed over the lack of commercial progress and the failure of his first album (Croce, Capitol Records) recorded with his wife Ingrid. Yet, I believed in him and his production team of Cashman and West. I wrote a number of articles about Jim in various Philadelphia area newspapers, trying to spread the word about this great local talent. I tried to get him jobs whenever I could. At his first big press party, he called me over and introduced me to a record executive. Jim took the spotlight off himself and introduced me "as the man who kept my name alive for years in Philadelphia." He was an unselfish man.

Can you tell us a little about how he met his wife, Ingrid Jacobson? Was it love at first sight? What kind of person is she? Why do you think Jim was so attracted to her?

Jim discovered more than folk music in college. He was a shy youth and did not date in high school. While in college he met his first love, Ingrid Jacobson. On December 23, 1963, Jim and Tom Picardo sang on a folk music radio program. Jim was also a judge in a folk music contest that evening. It was a snowy night, but that did not stop them from promoting their upcoming performance at the Philadelphia Convention Hall. The winners would perform in the show called the "Giant Hootenanny." Ingrid was part of the competition as a member of the Rumrunners, a group from Pennsylvania Military College that sang show tunes. They sang three songs and passed the audition. Ingrid, though only 16 and a fledgling performer, impressed Jim, who was almost 21 and a Villanova junior. There was an instant attraction.

Jim and Ingrid saw each other again on January 25, 1964 at the show. They felt a strong infatuation, which led to a sexual relationship that Ingrid, in her cookbook, called "our Ďlustí."

How did Jim's family feel about the fact that she was Jewish?

While the Croces never expressed negative feelings toward any ethnic or religious group, they were ethnocentric and devout. They wanted Jim to marry an Italian-Catholic woman. During a time in which he and Ingrid were broken up, Jim dated a Quaker woman. His parents were quite upset. When Jim and Ingrid reunited, there were no celebrations on the home front. While the Croces liked Ingrid and her family, their religion presented problems. Likewise, the Jacobsons did not relish the idea of their daughter marrying a non-Jew.

In a way, Jim paved the way for me, as a few years later I married a woman from a Jewish background. Jimís special name for her was "Celestial Jan" (her name, at that time, was Jan Schindler). She became a singer-songwriter and uses the name of Janey Dean. She always wanted to sing with Jim, but he was on the road so much that it didnít work out. Yet our marriage was less of a cultural shock to the family as that of Jim and Ingridís, for they were married in a traditional Jewish ceremony.

Why did Jim eventually decide to convert to Judaism?

Jim realized the problems inherent in the mixed religious relationship and the opposition of the families. He studied Judaism under Rabbi Kaplan, converted, and married in a traditional Jewish ceremony. His parents were devastated and did not attend the ceremony. Other than his brother Rich, Jim invited no family or close friends to the ceremony.

After his conversion, did he practice Judaism at all? What were his feelings about the Christianity he left behind?

Jim rarely spoke about his conversion, even to his closest friends. He was an enigma: a non-practicing convert who was generally anti-organized religion. He fell in love with a Jewish woman, converted, married, and became non-practicing. He rarely spoke of his religion, except for the choice words he had for the Mohel and his part in the conversion ritual (Jimís sense of humor was sardonic). He seemed to bridge both worlds. He attended the Jacobsonís Seders, yet argued on the home front to put up Christmas decorations. He respected the intellectual tradition of Judaism, yet sent a personalized Christmas card to a friend with an original poem about Christ and an illustration of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem.

If you can, tell us about how you learned about Jim's death.

Although Jim toured for about 18 months, I was fortunate to have seen him twice within the last month of his life. But, seeing him backstage was different than spending time with him at home. He said he would soon be off the road and I yearned for that quality time with him, away from the crowds clamoring for his attention. I thought of Jim one September day as I walked along the boardwalk in Ocean City, NJ. with my fiancée, Jan Schindler (a.k.a. Janey Dean). I thought about our childhood together and how we spent time on the beach as children. The next morning I got a call from my mom, who was crying. She heard the news on the radio, as did much of the family. I didnít want to believe it and kept hoping it was a mistake.

What do you miss most about your cousin?

Jim always made those around him feel like he was their best friend. You wanted him as your best friend, because he was such a good and special person, who made you feel special. I miss his sense of humor and creativity and lament the words and music unrecorded. I lost a man I considered to be a brother and friend.

I miss Jim and I miss his friend and guitarist Maury Muehleisen, who was also my friend. I miss the good times we had together.

Copyright 1998, Detroit Jewish News. Reprinted with permission.

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