It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since the lives of Jim Croce, Maury Muehleisen and four others were cut short when the twin-engine plane in which they were traveling crashed shortly after takeoff on September 20, 1973.
In the years since the accident, Muehleisen’s sister Mary has been keeping her brother’s memory alive. In 2006, she re-released Maury’s only album, Gingerbreadd, on CD. She also released early recordings made by her brother, whose guitar arrangements are synonymous with the classic Jim Croce sound.
On September 21, Mary Muehleisen will be in attendance for Time in a Bottle: A Tribute to Jim Croce, an event taking place at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, to remember the lives and music of Croce and her brother.
Because Croce graduated from Upper Darby, proceeds will go to the Upper Darby Arts and Education Foundation for a scholarship fund in Croce’s name. In addition to Croce song performances, the evening will feature the music of Maury Muehleisen as well as stories from the people who knew them best.
I spoke with Mary about the 40th anniversary tribute as well as her brother’s music and his legacy.
GUITAR WORLD: Tell me a little about the "Tribute to Jim Croce" show.
The event will feature the music of Maggie’s Guitar, the preeminent Jim Croce tribute band. Also appearing will be the Villanova Spires, an a capella singing group that was originally started by Tommy West, Croce and Muehleisen’s producer. The Spires will open the show, performing some of Jim's songs. Then there’s Mike DiBenedetto, who worked with Jim on a radio show when they attended Villanova. Mike tells great Jim Croce stories. Terry Cashman and Tommy West will also make an appearance. Maury and Jim can’t be replaced, but I'm honored the audience will enjoy a live performance of their songs by friends.
Looking back now after all this time, what thoughts comes to mind about Maury?
My memories are bittersweet. I still miss him very much.
Tell me how Maury and Jim first connected.
Maury had a record deal with Capitol when his producers, Tommy West and Terry Cashman, put him together with Jim. They told Maury that Jim had recently walked away from his songwriting contract but really needed to stay involved with music [At the time, Croce was driving a gravel truck in the Northeast]. While Maury was out promoting his Gingerbreadd album, they suggested it might be a good idea for him to have someone else on stage with him and thought Jim would be a perfect fit. So the two of them met and hit it off instantly. Before long, Jim started joining Maury on his gigs and playing the rhythm parts.
Early on, Maury asked Jim to show him some of what he had been working on. Jim told him he had a few original songs he was developing. One was about saving time in a bottle and another about a guy named Jim. The two of them would stay up until early in the morning at the farmhouse Jim rented, working out the songs together, and Maury would create these wonderful acoustic guitar arrangements.
What did they do after they had finished the songs?
After they had developed them, Jim sent them to Tommy, along with a letter asking if there was anything he could do with them, even if it meant having to get someone else to sing them. Tommy and Terry listened to the songs and knew right away they had something magical. Jim and Maury together had created this whole new sound, and it wasn’t long before the two of them went to New York to start recording. From there, they started going around to colleges and coffeehouses and getting booked on TV. It was actually ironic how everything worked out.
For the first 18 months of their relationship, Jim was the rhythm guitarist for Maury, and for the next 18 months Maury was the lead guitarist for Jim.
Can you tell me the origin of Maury's song, "Salon and Saloon"?
Maury went to Cathedral High School and met a girl there named Mary. She was in his homeroom and was a gifted ballet dancer. The two of them spent a lot of time together and became great friends. After high school, they both wound up going their separate ways only to coincidentally reunite three years later at the train station in Trenton [New Jersey]. By that point, Maury had started growing his hair long, while Mary was going to a college in New York and modeling. He recalled how she always looked like she had just come out of a salon, while he may have looked like he just came out of a saloon. The song itself was his memory of a wonderful chance meeting with an old friend and catching up on what they had been doing with their lives.
How did the song wind up on Jim’s album, I Got a Name?
Jim really loved the song and wanted to record it as a gift to Maury. Jim sang and Tommy West played the piano. There are no guitars on the recording. It was the last song Jim ever recorded.
Do you remember your last days with Maury?
Jim and Maury had just finished recording his third ABC album on a Friday, soon to be away from the East Coast for the next five weeks. That Sunday, our family got together for a picnic. I was six and a half months pregnant at the time and Maury was so excited because it was going to be the first time in 12 years that a new baby would be in the family. Later that evening, while everyone was hugging and saying goodbye to each other, I remember him quietly telling me that he didn’t want to go for the first week because he had just gotten a new piano and wanted to work out some new songs.
With Jim's third album recorded, the producers were going to start work on a new solo album for Maury. I assured him that the time would fly. With a hug, a kiss and an "I love you," our last conversation is forever frozen in my mind. He left that Tuesday, and by Thursday night Maury and Jim were gone forever.
What have you been doing to keep Maury’s legacy alive?
Martin Guitars was kind enough to let me design a custom Maury Muehleisen model, with Jon Garon of My Favorite Guitars in Naples, Florida, as the authorized dealer. I was able to obtain a license to reissue Maury's Gingerbreadd album on CD, and Tommy West helped me put together some of Maury's home recordings of those same songs from the original reel-to-reel tapes. It's pure Maury. When I listen to it, I feel like I can still hear him breathing in his bedroom, singing and recording. We also put “Salon and Saloon” on there so Croce fans could hear Maury's original version.
What's the one thing you’d like people to remember most about Maury?
Maury was a humble young man and a great writer who loved music. I remember he always used to say, "I have so much music in my head, I wonder if I'll ever be able to get it all out." It's a shame he wasn’t able to share more with everyone.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.