A.J. Croce is a spontaneous kind of guy. The 35-year-old singer-songwriter from San Diego puts that spontaneity on display every time he performs to packed houses on his tours.
“I play what I’m feeling at the moment. The rest I leave up to the audience,” Croce said from his southern California home in a recent phone interview. “I don’t have a set list.”
That freewheeling attitude doesn’t completely dictate Croce’s performance. He has a strategy ready just in case the audience doesn’t shout out requests or if he, God forbid, draws a blank.
“Sometimes I need my prepared short list of songs in those situations. It also comes in handy if I’ve had too much wine before the show,” he joked. “But, the performance is better when I’m playing what I’m feeling. That’s what makes every show different.”
If the last name Croce sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Adrian James Croce is the son of the late Jim Croce, who scored a string of hits in the early ’70s, including “Time in a Bottle.” The elder Croce died in a plane crash when A.J. was a toddler.
Only a few years after that tragedy another one befell the young Croce: He was blinded by a brain tumor at the age of 4. Croce would spend the next six years in darkness. During that time, he discovered the beauty of music, and he mastered the piano by listening to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.
A few years after he regained his eyesight, Croce played his first gig at the age of 12: a bat mitzvah. That event led to scores of dates at
San Diego nightclubs throughout his teenage years. While most kids were in arcades playing “Pac-Man,” Croce was pursuing his musical
career, which resulted in his first record deal at 19.
The debut, the self-titled “A.J. Croce,” was released to critical and popular acceptance in the jazz community. The album was produced by legendary recording gurus T-Bone Burnett and John Simon.
His next two albums, “That’s Me in the Bar” and “Fit To Serve,” are strong and deep albums with soul and blues influences. Croce took a sharp turn from “Fit To Serve” with the 2000 release of”Transit.” He chose to produce a record that shows his love of bands from the 1980s like Squeeze and Elvis Costello.
That record became a new beginning for Croce, because it was the first one he produced. It was released on his own label, Seedling Records.
Like fine wine, A.J. Croce gets better with age. That is evident on “Adrian James Croce,” a rollicking tour de force
that contains the single “Don’t Let Me Down.” It cracked the Top 40 in 2004.
Asked if he has a favorite song in his catalog, Croce said that is tough call.
“My favorite song is always the one that I just finished,” he said. “Once they are born, they develop over the years and you think about them differently. The one that’s new is the most exciting, terrifying and best I’ve written.”
Croce switched gears once more with last year’s organic-sounding CD “Cantos.”
“I recorded it in the studio and compared it to the demo versions. I liked the demos better,” Croce said. “So I stripped the studio cuts down to make them sound like I recorded them in my living room.”
It features Croce’s signature cover of Paul McCartney’s classic “Maybe I’m Amazed.” He had covered the song in concert for years and decided to finally include it on “Cantos.”
“Fans would always ask, ‘What CD is it on?'” he said. “So I gave them what they wanted.”
Giving the audience what they want is what makes an A.J. Croce show fun and memorable. “The audiences are very kind,” he said. “Michael Bizar, who plays guitar, performs with me and we just love the freedom of getting up there and doing what we do best.”