NATCHITOCHES – Jim Croce, the singer-songwriter whose life was cut short in a plane crash following a concert at Northwestern State University’s Prather Coliseum, will be recognized on the 40th anniversary of his death. A commemoration will take place in Natchitoches with performances of Croce’s music and the unveiling of a new plaque that memorializes Croce, his bandmate Maury Muehleisen and four others who died Sept. 20, 1973.
The Croce tribute coincides with the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival, set for Sept. 20-21 on the downtown riverbank. Sept. 20 will be “Jim Croce Day” in Natchitoches as he and Muehleisen will be recognized by the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Bands booked to entertain during the Festival will perform Croce songs, including Natchitoches musician Billy O’Con who portrayed Croce in a biopic about the late artist’s life.
The plaque memorializing Croce and his entourage will be installed in Prather Coliseum. Bryan Gallager of Alexandria, Ala., a devoted fan of Croce and Muehleisen, donated the plaque that replaces one that once hung in the Sylvan Friedman Student Union, with input from Mary Muehleisen, Maury Muehleisen’s sister.
“I have been a fan of Jim Croce and his musical partner Maury Muehleisen since I was about 10 years old and prior to their deaths in 1973,” Gallager said. “The more of Jim’s music I heard through the years the more I realized how every aspect of it was special and could never be duplicated.”
Mary Muehleisen has kept her brother’s memory alive through a website, maurymuehleisen.com, and said a memorial is also planned at the Upper Darby, Penn., High School’s Performing Arts Center on Sept. 21 in memory of Croce, one of the school’s most famous graduates. More information on that program, “Time in a Bottle: A Tribute to Jim Croce,” is available at udpac.org. That event will raise money for a Jim Croce scholarship.
“Jim and Maury were two wonderful, young, gifted musicians and great friends,” Mary Muehleisen said. Muehleisen was 24 when he died. “I hope that many students, faculty and visitors will remember those who died that night in Natchitoches after their last concert.”
Croce’s folksy, everyman style and sensitive lyrics remained popular in the decades following his death at age 30. A prolific songwriter, between 1966 and 1973 Croce released five studio albums and 11 singles that topped the charts, including “Operator” and “Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” His singles "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and "Time in a Bottle" were both number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
Gallager believes Croce’s music was enriched by his friendship with Muehlseisen, a classically trained pianist and self-taught guitarist. Croce and Muehleisen were introduced by a musical friend and their collaboration created the albums “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” “Life and Times” and “I Got A Name” in 1972 and 1973. Their last album together was finished one week before the tragic plane crash.
“They made three albums together and were appearing on shows like ‘The Midnight Special’ and ‘The Helen Reddy Show,’” Gallager said. “Jim was going to be the summer host of ‘The Tonight Show’ but his death came before. On the brink of national fame and fortune, Jim had signed to do a show at Northwestern State before he became well-known but due to illness he cancelled. He later decided to make it up at the same price even though demand for him had surged.”
Gallager visited Natchitoches in 2011 and discovered the original plaque had been removed from the Student Union. He contacted Mary Muehleisen and the two designed the new plaque that will be placed in Prather Coliseum.
“I consider it an honor to restore the plaque in memory of all who perished,” Gallager said. “I asked Mary to pick out the wording of the plaque. I thought it would mean more to have her, as family, to have the appropriate wording to honor all who died that night. I hope the plaque will be placed at Prather Coliseum in their memories and honor. As a fan I feel pleased to do something in honor of these men. It’s been 40 years since their passing but we still remember.”
On Thursday, Sept. 20, 1973, Croce performed at Northwestern State as part of his Life and Times Tour, the day before his single “I Got A Name” was released. About an hour after the concert ended, Croce, Muehleisen, pilot Robert Elliott, comedian George Stevens who had opened the show, manager Kenneth Cortose and road manager Dennis Rast died when the aircraft in which they were travelling crashed during takeoff from Natchitoches Regional Airport.
Croce’s album I Got a Name was released posthumously on Dec. 1, 1973, and included three hits, “Workin' at the Car Wash Blues", "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song" and the title song, which had been used as the theme to the film The Last American Hero which was released two months prior to his death. The album reached No. 2 and "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song" reached No. 9 on the singles chart.
News of Croce’s death sparked a renewed interest in his previous albums. Three months later, "Time in a Bottle," originally released on Croce's first album, hit number one on Dec. 29, 1973, the third posthumous chart-topping song of the rock era following Otis Redding's “(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay” and Janis Joplin's recording of “Me and Bobby McGee.”
A greatest hits package entitled Photographs & Memories was released in 1974. Later posthumous releases have included Home Recordings: Americana, Facets, Jim Croce: Classic Hits, Down the Highway, and DVD and CD releases of Croce's television performances, Have You Heard: Jim Croce Live. In 1990, Croce was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
An excerpt from an article that appeared in Northwestern State’s student newspaper, The Current Sauce, on Oct. 9, 1973, records the university’s response to the tragedy:
"I believe in growing, growing all the time," was how Jim Croce described his life. The quote is now inscribed on a plaque in the Student Union in memory of his last performance given to 2,000 Northwestern students before his troupe of six were killed in a plane crash here.
The plaque was presented by Doug Nichols, Union Board entertainment chairman, to Union director Robert Wilson during a memorial service last Thursday.
Dr. C.B. Ellis, assistant to the NSU president, talked briefly on the folk-rock singer, his beliefs and his life which was reflected in his songs. Wilson commented that the purpose of the memorial service, attended by about 150 students, was to honor the entertainers and as an expression of the student's feelings. The families of the six men will also be notified that the memorial has been established. The service ended with taps. The plaque reads: "in memory of the Jim Croce show. Jim Croce and the members of his show were killed in a plane crash following his last performance at Northwestern State University on Sept. 20, 1973." The quote from Croce follows and the names of the six men killed: Croce, Maurice Muehleissen, George Stevens, Dominick Cortese, Robert Newton and Dennis Rast.
For more information on the Croce tribute at the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival, visit natchitoches.net/events-and-festivals/natchitoches-meat-pie-festival or Facebook.com/NatchitochesMeatPieFestival.