The genesis of Ingrid Croce's candid and engrossing new book about her late husband, I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story, goes back to 1988. That was 15 years after the Philadelphia native and singer of such hits as "Bad Bad Leroy Brown," "Operator" - and "I Got a Name" - died in a plane crash.
"I didn't want to do this book unless I could do it right," the 65-year-old restaurateur, herself a native Philadelphian, says from her home in San Diego. "I thought about it over the many years I was in litigation" over the crash and record royalties, "and then when I got out of litigation and when I opened Croce's Restaurant as a tribute to Jim."
Croce and her coauthor, Jimmy Rock - then her fiance, now her husband - began doing extensive research for the book. They interviewed family and friends and even traveled to Natchitoches, La., where Jim Croce died at age 30 along with his brilliant and undersung guitarist, Maury Muehleisen.
In 1991 they submitted the book to the publisher. "They said, "We want more sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll," Ingrid Croce recalls. "We said, 'Here's your advance [back]. We didn't do this for that. We're telling the story the way it is,' and we put the book away."
Not that she stopped doing things to keep her husband's memory alive. She wrote a book of recipes, Thyme in a Bottle, playing off the title of another one of Jim Croce's hits, and also released The Jim Croce Anthology: The Stories Behind the Songs. She and their son, Adrian James, known as A.J., an excellent musician in his own right, supervised a series of Jim Croce CD reissues, and next year will release a set of previously unreleased recordings made in the last years of his life.
Ingrid Croce and Rock revisited their original book about a year and a half ago, and took a suggestion from a writer friend of A.J.'s.
"He suggested that maybe it should be more in my voice, more of a memoir," Ingrid Croce says. "And once we talked about that . . . it made a lot more sense. I was ready to tell my story."
In truth, I Got a Name (Da Capo, 296 pp., $25) is more a memoir than a biography. As Ingrid puts it, "It's the story of a relationship." It's not until more than three-quarters of the way through the 296-page book that Jim Croce releases his first major-label album, in 1971, and becomes a chart-topping success.
Ingrid Jacobson met Jim Croce when she was 16, living with her father and stepmother in Springfield (Delaware County), and he was almost 20, living with his Old World-oriented Italian parents in Drexel Hill and attending Villanova University. She was an aspiring singer and songwriter herself - the couple performed and wrote together for several years and even made an album before Jim's solo career took off.
He turned out to be quite an engaging star. Jim Croce was sensitive enough to fit in with the folk-rock-oriented singer-songwriter movement of the early '70s. But he was also a guy's guy with a sense of humor and a blue-collar ethos born of his struggles to make it in the music business, when he had to work as a teacher, truck driver, and in other jobs to make ends meet.
"He had such charisma," Ingrid says. "People loved Jim, and he loved playing music. He'd play long into the night.
"Everybody who met him felt like they were his best friend. He would listen, ask questions, find out what was important to you. You can find yourself in his songs, because it came from the heart and soul."
With its novelistic style, heavy on re-created dialogue, Ingrid Croce presents a warts-and-all portrait of the talented man she loved through good times and bad. And there were some bad.
The couple's relationship was tested when, as a Moore College of Art student studying in Mexico, Ingrid was raped. Jim's response was less than enlightened - he blamed her for the assault and grew distant.
Today, Ingrid says she harbors no bitterness over that response, and has no regrets about sharing such a harrowing personal experience.
"I didn't realize what rape had done to me, didn't realize what it had done to Jim," she says. "In the last 10, 15 years, I have been very involved with the Center for Community Solutions and the Rape Crisis Center, and I understand a lot more about what rape does to people. . . . I feel [my story] gives more people the opportunity to understand it's not your fault, and you can continue to live your life out in a way that you can be proud of."
If the rape didn't cause the couple to split, Jim's stardom almost did. He toured constantly, and with an onerous contract that barely paid him a living wage despite all the hits, he didn't have much choice.
It was quite a strain - "he was down to about 120 pounds," Ingrid recalls. But that didn't keep him from succumbing to the temptations of the road, while Ingrid was home taking care of the infant A.J. When she lost their second son at birth, she was ready to leave.
By this time, the couple, who had lived together in Media and Coatesville, had relocated from Lyndell, Pa., to San Diego, where Ingrid eventually opened her restaurant, and Jim seemed to make a sincere effort to save the relationship. Among the many letters she quotes is the last one he wrote to her, from Natchitoches, just before he died.
I know I haven't been very nice to you for some time. . . . So this is a birth note, Baby. And when I get back everything will be different. We're gonna have a life together, Ing, I promise. I'm gonna concentrate on my health. I'm gonna become a public hermit. I'm gonna get my Masters Degree. I'm gonna write short stories and movie scripts. Who knows, I might even get a tan.
Give a kiss to my little man and tell him Daddy loves him.
Remember, it's the first sixty years that count and I've got thirty to go.
I love you, Jim.
It sounds like a movie waiting to happen, and the Croces would like that, but nothing is in the works just yet.
Ironically, the book is named after the only hit of Jim Croce's career that he didn't write. (Credit goes to Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel.) But "I Got a Name" holds a special place for his widow.
For one thing, it is the only song on which Jim Croce did not play guitar himself, and that gives it a certain vulnerability to Ingrid. "It made me cry."
For another, the "I got a dream" lyrics also sum up Jim's "hero's journey," his fulfillment of his desire to make a living doing what he loved.
"That song says it all for me . . . I think it tells Jim's story best."