By Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta
If you were around in the early 1970s, you couldn’t miss hearing Jim Croce’s hit songs on the radio: “I Got a Name,” “Time in a Bottle,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” and “Operator.” Accompanied by lead acoustic guitarist and harmonizer, Maury Muehleisen, ‘Jim Croce’ became a household name.
Their commercial success launched an 18-month tour for the pair, in both the U.S. and abroad. They appeared on national television shows like, “American Bandstand,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Dick Cavett Show,” and “The Helen Reddy Show.” And “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” became number one on the charts.
Tragically, their future was cut short. On Sept. 20, 1973, after performing a show in Natchitoches, Louisiana, the plane Croce and Muehleisen were traveling in crashed as it was taking off. Everyone on board was killed instantly.
Mary Muehleisen, Maury’s younger sister, got choked up as she recalled the mournful moment. She was married and six months pregnant at the time. It was the day after the incident. The phone rang and her husband picked up.
“It was your mom and dad,” he said. “Don’t listen to the radio.” He looked like he had seen a ghost.
“What do you mean?” asked Mary. “Tell me what they said.”
In denial, upon hearing the news, Mary replied, “That’s ridiculous. Maury probably missed the plane.” But by that afternoon, Maury’s body had been positively identified. It was on the “Five o’Clock News.” This was a big deal. Everybody in town knew Maury.
“It was surreal,” said Mary. “Very surreal. It was devastating to all of us. Our hearts still break.”
Mary, now a resident of Hamilton, grew up in Trenton in the 1950s. She lived on South Hermitage Avenue, with her parents and seven siblings. They were just a block from the Delaware River. “It was wonderful to grow up in Trenton,” she said. “It was such a blessing. It was so beautiful along the Delaware.”
Continuing, she added, “We had a really nice neighborhood. My mother had grown up there. Her mother had grown up there. It was a real feeling of being connected to the earth. Wonderful families. Everyone had between three to eight children. Everybody knew everybody. Our mom and dad were friendly with all the neighbors. We could play anywhere with all kinds of kids. I wish that for any kid today. It was an ideal childhood setting, how everybody got along. We’d jump rope, play hide-and-seek, and play school.”
Mary’s mother and father were in a choir at St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Trenton. At home, they either had the radio on, or they sang standards from the 1930s and 1940s. “They would get together with their friends,” Mary recalled. “We always had a piano in the home.”
That piano was how it all began for Maury. At the age of 9, in 1960, he started taking lessons. And at 17, he taught himself guitar. With the money earned from his Trenton paper route, he walked to Sears and bought a Silvertone guitar.
Though Maury was the talent of the family, he never let it go to his head. “He was sweet and kind—always,” said Mary, adding, “He had a little bounce to his step.” She fondly remembers watching TV shows together and shared that Maury loved playing games like Monopoly. As teenagers, Mary and Maury worked together in a men’s clothing store, where their father was a manager. Along with two other sisters, they held various positions and waited on customers.
“Trenton, New Jersey was the capital city of our state, but it really had a small-town feel to it,” Mary expressed. “Because my dad worked downtown, he knew everybody.”
After Maury graduated high school, he got accepted at Glassboro State College. He majored in music and quickly became known around campus. When he sang songs and played guitar, people started to notice him. Joe Salviuolo, a professor of communications, told Maury, “I play guitar too. Why don’t we put on a folk show?”
At the folk show, Maury performed his songs, all words and music written by him. Salviuolo asked Maury to record some of those songs on a reel-to-reel tape so he could take it to his friend Tommy West, who was a record producer in New York City. West played the songs for producer Terry Cashman and they easily obtained a contract with Capitol Records. Maury was 21-years-old when his album “Gingerbreadd” was released in November 1970. When Maury promoted his album, Jim Croce was asked to help out as his back-up guitarist.
What happened was, Jim and his wife Ingrid had an album entitled “Croce” – and it wasn’t selling. It was more of an early folk sound. Mary said, “Music was changing. Folk could never go out of style, but things people wanted to hear on college campuses—it was different.”
Jim Croce and Ingrid were living in an apartment in New York when they recorded the album, but due to the low sales of their efforts, they walked away from the music business and went back to Pennsylvania. Croce took a day job and played guitar and sang at a local restaurant in the evenings.
Although Maury opened for Jimmy Webb at the Main Point in Philadelphia; and for Janis Ian at The Bitter End in New York City, he barely got off the ground in his musical career. However, once Maury and Jim got together, there was magic. Maury was extremely gifted because of his piano background. And Jim had a great mind for remembering lyrics of at least 1000 songs. He wasn’t as good a guitar player as Maury; telling Mary he only knew about three chords. But they both loved singing for people and making them smile.
During Maury’s 18-months of promoting “Gingerbreadd,” he spent a lot of time with Jim, while Jim learned to play rhythm to Maury’s songs.
Mary said, “Maury asked Jim, ‘What songs do you do?’ Jim had some unfinished songs. Jim had a song about saving time that wasn’t done, and a song about a guy named Jim that wasn’t done.” [Note: These songs later became the hits “Time in a Bottle,” and “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.”]
But to Mary, Jim Croce was more like another brother, not a big star. He was simply “Jim, Maury’s friend.” Mary explained that they didn’t realize how big they were until the end. Jim Croce had a three-record contract with ABC Records. The first two were “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and “Life and Times.” The third, “I Got a Name” was released in December 1973, about two months after the plane tragedy.
In conclusion, Mary said, “Some would say it [the success] was because he died, and you get that kind of fame. But those songs have stood the test of time.” Jim Croce is buried at Haym Salomon Memorial Park in Frazer, Pennsylvania. Maury Muehleisen is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey.
Mary is devoted to keeping Maury’s legacy alive via her website. It’s the only place where CDs of Maury’s music are available. The website has a guestbook page, which is signed by people from all over the world.
“Many have known about Maury for years,” said Mary, “and many are just learning about him because of the internet; learning that he is a huge part of the sound of Jim Croce. Many have said they have taken up the guitar because of hearing the music that Jim Croce and Maury Muehleisen recorded together.”
Mary is also the driving force behind the creation of a guitar in Maury’s honor. The C.F. Martin & amp; Co. D-35 Maury Muehleisen Commemorative Custom Edition pays tribute to his favorite line of guitars.
For more information, visit: https://maurymuehleisen.com/