Classic Tracks: Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle"

Nov 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Gary Eskow


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Jim Croce's

It was a life cut tragically short and a song that eerily captured the meteoric rise and brevity of its author's career. “Time in a Bottle” reached the top slot on the pop charts in December 1973, but this posthumously released single was not Jim Croce's only Number One record, as his producers Tommy West and Terry Cashman vividly recall.

West was a senior at Philadelphia's Villanova University in 1962 and in charge of the university's Glee Club auditions when he first met Croce. “I interviewed Jim, and after the audition he invited me to his house for dinner. We became close friends. He graduated in 1965 and our paths crossed a few years later in New York City. Jim's stuff was okay, but not that good, to tell you the truth, until he hooked up with Maury Muehleisen a few years later.”

A classically trained guitarist and singer who was a student at Glassboro College at the time, Muehleisen, according to West, played a huge role in Croce's success. “Maury was a genius, the best guitar player I ever heard. Terry and I produced a record of his on the Capitol label, but it didn't go anywhere. He had a high, clear voice, like a male Joni Mitchell, and his ability to develop guitar parts that fleshed out Jim's songs was extraordinary.

“The sound of their two guitars was extremely important. Jim played a Gibson Dove guitar that he'd actually given to me in the '60s. It was a terrible-sounding instrument! I brought it to a guy named Phil Petillo who had a shop in New Jersey, and he shaved the bracings to make it sound brighter. Maury played two Martins: a D-35 and a D-18. The sound of the Dove and the Martins was gorgeous. I still get e-mails from around the world asking me how we got the sound of those guitars.”

Engineer Bruce Tergersen also played a critical role. “We recorded all of Jim's stuff at the Hit Factory [starting with the 1972 album, You Don't Mess Around With Jim], which Jerry Ragovy owned at the time,” West continues. “Jerry assigned Bruce to our original sessions, but at first it seemed an odd marriage. Bruce had worked under Tom Dowd, but he'd never done an acoustic record. He was a rock and R&B guy, and he seemed a bit odd to me. He didn't talk much, but whenever we needed a sound, he'd play around with the patchbay and come up with something fantastic. I remember asking him at one point if he could make-believe the acoustic guitars were electric and process them in some special way. I don't recall exactly what he did, but the color was gorgeous. I don't think there have been any acoustic records that sound better than Jim's.”

Cashman also remembers Tergerson quite well. “Ours was a match made in heaven — or hell — I never figured out which! Tommy and I weren't into the hippie kind of thing. We loved folk music, and Bruce was just the opposite. On our first session, in walks this guy with flowing red hair who was clearly into the electric group sound. Bruce brought something different to acoustic music. He had a wonderful way of miking guitars, and he insisted on keeping a tuner in the studio to make sure the players were always in perfect tune.”

The rollicking title track off of the 1972 album You Don't Mess Around With Jim established Croce as an artist with broad appeal, but West feels that the tender “Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels),” off of the same album, was the best record they made. “That track established Jim as an artist, which was important to developing a serious, long-term career at that time. It wasn't just a clever piece of writing, which Jim was obviously good at; it was thoughtful and heartfelt.” Less noticed on the album at the time of its release was another beautiful ballad, “Time in a Bottle.”

No one in the production team ever thought that song was going to be a hit. “No way,” says Cashman. “It was a waltz! We wanted to keep it simple, with Jim singing and Maury playing — that's it. But we stumbled over a harpsichord that was sitting in the Hit Factory, and Tommy was intrigued about the possibility of adding it to the record.”

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