You are the owner of this article.
top story

Inspiration for some of Jim Croce's biggest musical hits came from his time at Fort Jackson

Exchange-Musician-Plane Crash

Singer Jim Croce performs in Natchitoches, La., on Sept. 21, 1973.  After this appearance, he and five others were killed when their plane crashed near Natchitoches airport. Some of the folk rock artist's biggest hits were inspired by his time in Columbia during Army basic training at Fort Jackson in the fall of 1966. File/AP

Jim Croce wasn't meant to be a soldier. He was destined to be a singer. 

But some of the folk-rock artist's biggest hits were inspired by his time in Columbia during Army basic training at Fort Jackson in the fall of 1966. 

"We were told that his experience at Fort Jackson during basic training inspired the songs 'Operator' and 'Bad Bad Leroy Brown,'" Leslie Ann Sully, a spokeswoman for the Army post, told The Post and Courier. "But nobody knew who he was back then."

The Pennsylvania-born musician was a late bloomer in his music career and didn't start honing his skills until he was a student at Villanova University. The same year he married his wife Ingrid, he enlisted in the Army National Guard as a way to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. 


Ingrid Croce, widow of singer Jim Croce, looks over a CD containing songs by her late husband at Croce's Restaurant, March 29, 2004, in San Diego. File/AP

But the aspiring singer had some growing pains in the military. 

"And all of the sudden here he is National Guard, and Jim is not very good with authority," Ingrid Croce said in a 2007 interview with Songfacts. "And he's in the South, and they were not very good with making pasta. He was missing good food, he was missing me, he was missing life in general. And he's one of the few guys I think who went through basic training twice."

There wasn't too much Jim Croce said publicly about his time at Fort Jackson. But in 1972, on his album "You Don't Mess Around with Jim," he gave some insight into what it was like to be a soldier. 

On the song "Operator" he mimics a one-sided telephone call. He's trying to get in touch with a former lover, a woman who has run off to Los Angeles with his old pal Ray. Slowly, the character realizes that what he's doing is desperate and begins to cry over the experience.

Operator, well let's forget about this call

There's no one there I really wanted to talk to

Thank you for your time

Ah, you've been so much more than kind

You can keep the dime

According to Ingrid Croce, it was her husband's time at Fort Jackson and overhearing about heartbreak that brought those lyrics to life. 

"He was listening to these stories of all these guys, the 'Dear John' stories, that were standing in line waiting their turn in the rain, these green rain jackets over their heads," she recalled to Songfacts. "I can just picture it — all of them in line waiting for their three-minute phone call."

The song reached the 17th spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1972, spending 12 weeks on the chart.

One year later, another Fort Jackson reference made it into his song lyrics and also landed as the number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100. "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" was the eighth track on his 1973 album "Life and Times." 

In the catchy ode to a man who was "badder than old King Kong" and "meaner than a junkyard dog," Jim Croce later told audiences that Brown was based off of a noncommissioned officer at Fort Jackson. 

Now Leroy more than trouble

You see he stand 'bout six foot four

All the downtown ladies call him 'Treetop Lover'

All the men just call him 'Sir'

Sgt. Leroy Brown "had a shrewd sense of humor," according to the autobiography of the singer "I Got A Name, The Jim Croce Story." He said it was a mixture of people he had met, including his platoon sergeant in Columbia as well as a troublesome private he met at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

"Croce told the audience the private later went AWOL (absent without leave) for a month before deciding to return to the base to collect his paycheck, which landed him in an unexpected meet-up with the post’s military police," a 2012 article from the Columbia Star detailed. 

He was nominated for two Grammy awards in 1973 for the song. It would be his last No. 1 hit before he would die in a plane crash on Sept. 20, that same year. 

In preparation for Fort Jackson's 100-year anniversary in 2017, the U.S. Army Basic Combat Training Museum contracted some researchers to identify famous Fort Jackson alumni. They confirmed Jim Croce and Leroy Brown's service through documents but did not have any photographs, Sully said.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly reports on crime, growth and development as well as military issues in Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Previously, he was a reporter at the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News