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Don't Mess Around with A.J.

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SOON, THE JOINT’LL BE JUMPING. BUT AT 4:30 ON A WEDNESDAY afternoon, Croce’s, the hottest club in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, is customer-free, and a handful of waiters, bartenders and cooks are getting down by the piano, where a nattily dressed 20-year-old with a taste for the sounds, and the threads, of the 1940s, is wowing ’em with a rousing, boogie-woogie rendition of Louis Jordan’s hit “Knock Me a Kiss.”

In his pinstripe suit, with a Bogart fedora pulled low over his slicked-back black hair, A.J. Croce certainly doesn’t dress like the cigar-chomping, jeans-and-flannel folksinger whose heavy-lidded likeness adorns a wall-size mural at Croce’s. But the young man’s big brown eyes, dark hair and catchy grin give him away. “Sometimes when I look at him smile.” says the club’s owner, Ingrid Croce, 45, of her son, A.J., “I think of Jim.”

And so does most everyone who spends an evening at Croce’s. Ingrid has turned the club into a virtual shrine to her late husband, Jim Croce, the ’70s folk balladeer whose career was cresting in 1973 when he died, at 30, in a plane crash. “I used to have a hard time with all this,” says A.J. as he sits at his piano surrounded by posters, guitars and other memorabilia. “I don’t remember my father. I was only a baby when he died. But I’m proud of him and I’m proud of the name.”

Already a fixture on the San Diego club scene, A.J. is trying to expand his audience with a summer tour of the West. There has been plenty of sign-here talk from record companies, he says, but “if they just want to make a fast buck because I’m Jim Croce’s son, forget it. I want to be my own person and play my own music.”

Adrian James Croce was born near Philadelphia, his parents’ hometown, in 1971—just before his father’s career began to take off. He is the only child of Jim and Ingrid. who had performed as a folk duo in the late 60s alter meeting during Jim’s student years at Villanova University. A.J. has lived in San Diego since his parents moved there in July 1973, just two months before Jim was killed.

While A.J. has no recollection of his father’s death, his mother has memories she cannot forget. Jim, who scored his first hits in 1972 with “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and “Operator,” and another, in 1973, with “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” had completed his third album, I Got a Name, on Sept. 12. Eight days later—after performing at Northwestern Louisiana University in Natchitoches, La.—he boarded a charter flight for his next concert, 70 miles away. Failing to gain sufficient altitude during takeoff, the plane crashed into a tree, killing Jim and five others. Jim’s death, Ingrid says, “devastated me. He had so many plans. He was just starting out, really.

The bad luck seemed to continue when, in 1975, 4-year-old A.J. contracted a rare brain disease that affected his optic nerve and left him blind. But a year later, to even his doctors surprise, the swelling that damaged the nerve subsided, and he regained sight in one eye. “Losing my sight made me go more inward,” says A.J., still blind in his right eye. “It made me a more quiet person, more cautious and shy.”

It also seemed to heighten his love of music. At 6, he began playing the piano. At 15, he enrolled at San Diego’s School of Creative and Performing Arts. Dropping out in his senior year to pursue a career in music, A.J. began playing at clubs around town, including Croce’s, which Ingrid had opened in 1984, partly with royalty money from Jim’s recordings. (Remarried in 1988 to lawyer Jim Rock, she recently completed an as-yet-unpublished Croce biography.)

A.J., however, has opted to put some distance between himself and Jim’s spectral presence. Two years ago he moved out of his mother’s Bankers Hill house and into a nearby home he shares with Marlo Gordon, 23, a Croce’s hostess (who is the mother of a 2-year-old daughter from a previous relationship). And, while crediting his father’s collection of old blues records with shaping his own out-of-time musical tastes—”I’ve never cared much for rock,” he says—he politely turns down requests to perform any of Jim’s old songs. “I don’t want to ride on my father’s coattails,” says A.J., who then concedes, “I guess I am following in his footsteps. But you have to be able to walk on your own, even to follow in someone’s footsteps.”

STEVE DOUGHERTY

JAMIE RENO in San Diego