Jim Croce and Maury Muehleisen
The mellow, acoustic singer-songwriter genre was very big in the 1970s. A list of people/groups from that period would include James Taylor, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Loggins and Messina, Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelberg, Townes van Zandt, Nick Drake, Seals and Crofts, Harry Chapin, and many more. Many of these people, especially the duos seemed to descend directly from Simon and Garfunkel, who certainly had a ton of success in the 1960s. I’m sure Simon and Garfunkel would say they were channeling the Everly Brothers, but that’s another story. This is a sometimes very-reviled genre, especially among people who LIKE TO ROCK OUT! mainly because none of this stuff rocks very much. However, the heavy dudes who were Led Zeppelin were completely captivated by Joni Mitchel, Townes Van Zandt and Nick Drake were extremely influential songwriters, and some of the instrumentation on records from this genre was incredibly complex.
When I was a kid I was a fan of Jim Croce and maybe it’s a regional thing because he was born and grew up in Philadelphia and I grew up not far from there. Jim wasn’t your typical sensitive singer with a guitar dude, even for the 70s. His persona screamed 70s blue-collar with a great sense of humor. More often than not he was always wearing that faded denim jacket with the “CAT” bulldozer patch on it and he had tattoos when they were a completely un-hip thing to have. Can you picture Seals and Crofts or James Taylor with a tattoo? Then there was the sausage and peppers-mustache and 50¢ cigar in his hand on a regular basis. The guy exuded character even before he started singing and to this day there haven’t really been many like him, Leon Redbone gets close I guess. A pretty boy he was not, but he was a guy who wrote and sang very beautiful ballads and storyteller songs.
Jim tried and failed at showbiz until he met and teamed up with one Maury Muehleisen, a guy many people, even fans of Jim Croce, know little about. Maury has been called by people who were associated with him as a “certified genius” and he was a classically trained musical powerhouse who gave Jim what a lot of those other singer-songwriters didn’t have — guitar and vocal chops galore, a classical-sense of composition, and beautiful live accompaniment. The three albums they released as a duo were very successful, and it looked as if they were both headed for bona-fide superstardom when they died tragically in a plane crash, immediately after a gig in 1973. I still remember when that happened, believe it or not (same with Lynyrd Skynryd’s crash in 1977). I was just a kid then and hadn’t even discovered FM radio, but had heard Jim on the AM radio at home or in the family car. Considering how so many of the songs these guys did together can still move people, it was pretty tragic they met their end this way and at such a young age, Maury especially, since he was only 24.
The guitar interplay on songs like Operator, Time in a Bottle or I’ll Have to Say I Love You… sounds very orchestral, not just quick picking and fun strumming — there was some very smart arranging and genius playing at work. Not that the picking is anything to sneeze at. Both Jim and Maury had their finger-picking down cold to the point they could play complex counterpoint lines to each other while harmonizing vocals simultaneously. On other songs like Working at Car Wash Blues and One Less Set of Footsteps Maury has a very Nashville-inspired sound and approach. Producer Tommy West, who can be seen singing along and playing piano on some YouTube videos that show them in their prime, said this about Maury;
When I went to Nashville in 1977, the musicians all wanted to know who that “picker” was. Maury composed and played some of the most recognizable signature “licks” in pop music. http://www.maurymuehleisen.com/friends.html
Then there were the funky street sounds of You Don’t Mess Around with Jim and Bad Bad Leroy Brown, which got very close to rock and roll. They covered a fair amount of ground with their little 2- or sometimes 3-man band and even just a casual glance at their most popular songs illustrates that they were comfortable doing a wide range of material. Jim and Maury favored Martin guitars during their brief career; the D-18 and D-35 especially, and they were one of the first teams to use ubiquitous 1970s staple, the Ovation. In 2010 Martin Guitars released the D-35 Maury Muehleisen Commemorative Custom Edition. Now that’s staying power!
The instrumentation was there to compliment the vocals, which were very also very well-arranged and performed when they were in front of an audience. Those closest to the duo believe that Maury brought out the real songwriter in Jim and his lyrics and persona blossomed into the person and legend that he became. They complimented each other in many ways and this type of chemistry is SO IMPORTANT in any musical venture. Jim had given up on the music business before he met Maury and might have never been a household name had the two of them not started working together. Even though, in some ways they and the rest of the people in this genre were very much of their time (the groovy 70s), their music, the playing and singing and sentiments expressed in the lyrics continue to move people and serves as a reminder that there was a time, not so long ago, when a couple of unassuming, modest people performing without image, pomp and spectacle were capable of thoroughly entertaining an audience. A song like I Got a Name could have only come from the 1970s and anyone who was there then, knows what I’m talking about, but there was something special about these guys, those times and those sounds. Kids today make comments on YouTube videos saying in effect “I’m only 14, but I love this song and I wish there was music like this now,” and I can definitely understand that, since I was that kid back when it was going on. People, especially young people, can recognize substance and talent no matter the genre and that never fades, even 40 years later.