“Since I was very young, I remember hearing the music of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. As a kid, I would listen to my Dad’s record collection, which was amazingly diverse. Sonny and Brownie, like Ray Charles or Otis Redding, were comforting. When I started to play guitar, the first song I learned was ‘Better Day’. I’ve played it ever since.” A.J. CROCE
Over the course of three decades, A.J. Croce has established a reputation as a piano player and serious vocal stylist who pulls from a host of musical traditions and anti-heroes – part New Orleans, part juke joint, part soul. Having been paired with soul legend Dan Penn and an all-star cast of players for his previous album, his new record was born of memories – of favourite artists and shows, but mainly of late-night musical gatherings with groups of friends, with Croce at the piano taking requests. He revisits these evenings on ‘By Request’, twelve personally curated covers that traverse decades and genres, propelled by the spirited, loose-and-easy mastery of his piano and emotive voice. It is a tribute to Croce the music fan as well as musician that, with the addition of a full band and horns, both the variety and execution is inspired.
‘By Request’ is the first album by Croce to feature his full touring band. From sharing an obscure song by Motown artist Shorty Long, ‘Ain’t No Justice’, to his funky, dead-on version of Billy Preston’s ‘Nothing from Nothing’, Croce and co keep the virtual party hopping. Although delivering faithful recreations of nuggets such as The Five Stairsteps’ ‘Ooh Child’ and Allen Toussaint’s ‘Brickyard Blues’, he puts his own spin on piano-driven arrangements of songs by Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, The Faces and more. Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ is reinterpreted as a gospel song, and ‘Sail On Sailor’ by The Beach Boys becomes a trippy, rollicking ride. “I reimagined the arrangement, wondering how Willie Dixon would have recorded it if he were on psychedelics,” he explains.
Guitar legend (and Croce’s Nashville neighbour) Robben Ford guests on a version of folk/blues greats Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry’s ‘Better Day’, with stellar results. “I’ve loved Sonny and Brownie since I first heard them and this song was the first tune I learned on guitar. I added quite a few chords in my arrangement, but what’s new,” he quips. This song is being released as a single ahead of the album.
Although he lost his famous father, music legend Jim Croce, when he was just two years old, he pays tribute by covering Randy Newman’s ‘Have You Seen My Baby’, since the first show he attended was a bill featuring his dad and Newman. “I love so much of his music, and while this is by no means my favourite of his, it’s been a request at soirées. I sort of treated it as if Little Richard sat in with The Flaming Groovies and played it like I was 15 years old, with reckless abandon.”
Summarising this collection, Croce concludes that “it is my way of inviting you over for a private gathering at my place. We listen to great music, laugh, make great food and after a few drinks and maybe a few more we end up in my music room and I start taking requests of any genre and era. The music is always fun and completely diverse. We’ll play and sing all kinds of music. Some of my friends are professional musicians, some do it for fun and many are just serious music fans, so you’ll fit right in. There’s no way that I could record all the songs I’ve performed at home over the years, but every selection on this album has been requested by close friends who have hung out at my place many times. Welcome to my home, by request. You’re hereby invited to join the party.”
1 Nothing From Nothing (Billy Preston)
2 Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Neil Young)
3 Have You Seen My Baby (Randy Newman)
4 Nothing Can Change This Love (Sam Cooke)
5 Better Day (Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry)
6 Ooh Child (The Five Stairsteps)
7 Stay With Me (The Faces)
8 Brickyard Blues (Allen Toussaint)
9 San Diego Serenade (Tom Waits)
10 Sail On Sailor (The Beach Boys)
11 Can’t Nobody Love You (James Mitchell)
12 Ain’t No Justice (Shorty Long)
A.J. Croce – piano, vocals
Garrett Stoner – guitar
David Barard – bass
Gary Mallaber – drums
ABOUT A.J. CROCE
“In such a crowded music universe it is a pleasure to witness triple uniqueness; pianist, songwriter, singer and at such a level. And who does he sound like?….The answer is – himself” Allen Toussaint
“A.J. Croce has wisdom beyond his years. With his music, he represents his generation with a profound sense of honesty in his lyrics and quality in his delivery. The future of entertainment is safe in his hands!” Willie Nelson
With ten studio albums to his name, it is clear that A.J. Croce has an abiding love for all types of music: Blues, Soul, Pop, Jazz, Country and Rock n’ Roll. A virtuoso piano player, he toured with B.B. King and Ray Charles when barely out of his teens and has performed with a wide range of musicians – from Willie Nelson to the Neville Brothers, Béla Fleck to Ry Cooder. A.J. has also co-written songs with formidable tunesmiths such as Leon Russell, Dan Penn, Robert Earl Keen and Gary Nicholson, while his albums and singles have appeared on an impressive array of US charts.
A.J.’s last two albums epitomise the qualities noted by his peers: 2014’s ‘Twelve Tales’ found him working with six celebrated producers – ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement (Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley), Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Crowded House), Tony Berg (Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan), Kevin Killen (Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel), Greg Cohen (Tom Waits, John Zorn) and Allen Toussaint (Dr. John, Lee Dorsey) – who each chose two songs (effectively an A and B side). The resulting collection was recorded in five cities with six different bands.
In 2017, A.J. enlisted legendary Muscle Shoals producer/songwriter Dan Penn and an all-star backing crew that included Steve Cropper, Vince Gill, David Hood, Colin Linden, Bryan Owings, The Muscle Shoals Horns and The McCrary Sisters for ‘Just Like Medicine’, which ABC News praised as sounding “like it was crafted with the influence of greats like Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello in mind.”
A.J.’s deep love for music is understandable given that his mother was a singer-songwriter, as was his father, the late Jim Croce. He never knew his father, who died in a plane crash just before his second birthday. Playing piano from a young age, A.J. purposely avoided his father’s music in order to establish his own identity as a musician, although this attitude changed in the late 00’s when he began digitising his father’s old tapes. One cassette contained a live performance of Jim Croce playing blues tunes that had influenced him, including deep-cuts by Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake and Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry. A.J. was amazed to discover that these were songs he had himself been playing since he was twelve years old.
However, A.J.’s family musical legacy is only part of his unique life story. Born near Philadelphia, he moved to San Diego when he was two. Around the age of four, he went blind due to horrific physical abuse from his mother’s then-boyfriend. Hospitalised for six months, he was totally blind in both eyes for six years. It was during this time that he began playing the piano, inspired by blind musicians like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Regaining sight in his left eye at ten, he went on to spend his early teens performing, including at his mother’s establishment, Croce’s Jazz Bar. In 2018 he lost his wife to a rare heart virus.
“Croce’s vocals blend the right measure of grittiness and honey; he delivers an aching ballad as easily as he shouts a jazz stomp, and his voice is the instrument that guides the melodies and other instruments on these tunes”
“Regardless of the genre, Croce slides into his songs with an easy charm”
A.J. CROCE photography by Joshua Black Wilkins