Thicker Than Water
by Brian Hickey
Latching onto a celebrity's legacy is nothing new, but what makes this particular tale so unusual is the person who is said to be doing it: Pat Croce, Mr. Philadelphia himself. And while Pat Croce may not be the baddest man in the whole damn town, the Sixers president's claim that he's Jim Croce's second cousin has some of the late singer's family members upset.
"I'm not saying he's lying about it--he's just mistaken," says Steve Angelucci, a Jim Croce first cousin. "We lived through the whole Jim Croce experience, from childhood to his death, through all the successes and struggles. We were there when Jim died. Pat Croce and his family were nowhere to be found. If it were true, he'd have been there, too. He wasn't."
For his part, Pat Croce tells PW that his father told him his grandfather and Jim Croce's father were cousins.
The Croce kin controversy has been simmering for some time, going back to the early '70s, just after Jim strummed his guitar from his native Philadelphia into the national spotlight with hits like "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and "You Don't Mess Around with Jim."
It's said to have started one day inside a Drexel Hill barber shop when Pat Croce's same-named father apparently claimed to be Jim's uncle--words that rankled another customer.
"It amazed me," recalls John Croce, a 48-year-old blood relative of Jim's who now works as a SEPTA mechanic. "I asked him if he was trying to jump on the bandwagon just because Jim was getting famous. I said 'Look, I don't know you from Adam. You're not related to Jim.'"
Less than a year after Pat's father strolled out of that barbershop, the musician's life ended in a Louisiana plane crash.
Members of Jim Croce's family don't think the über-positive Pat Croce is lying. They just concluded, after checking the family tree with relatives back in Italy, that he simply believes something that isn't true.
While most wouldn't mind having the wildly popular Sixers' miracle maker 'round their family yule log, the Jim Croce faction of this whole controversy just want Pat to stop making the claim as a matter of principle.
Jim Croce's fame--he was raised in Upper Darby and hit it big after attending Villanova--dwindled in the years after his death, as did the controversy about who was related to him and how.
But the debate resurfaced in March 1999, when the Daily News ran a photograph with the cutline, "Jim's widow Ingrid visits with his cousin, 76ers prez Pat." Gossip columnist Stu Bykofsky went on to explain, "In case you're wondering the answer is, 'Yes,' they're related."
(Pat has, indeed, stayed in touch with Ingrid, a San Diego restaurateur, in recent years, and has helped her try to organize a tribute concert for her late husband here in Philly. "It's unfortunate that there have even been questions," she says. "Whatever the relation is, I consider him family.")
When Jim Croce's family called the Daily News to complain, Bykofsky blew them off. They then went to Pat Croce, who confirmed his father's claim in a letter that ended, "If you want to threaten me, then we obviously have no common blood! Have a dynamite day!"
A couple months later, the yes-I-am-no-you're-not debacle seemingly cooled again when Bykofsky reported that Pat Croce had brought 25 seats at the Five Spot for Jim's son A.J.'s jazz performance. "It doesn't matter whether Pat Croce and A.J. are actually related," opined Bykofsky. "What's important is the families treat each other like kin."
This past week, though, the squabble resurfaced after A.J. performed at an Atlantic City casino. There, Pat apparently affirmed his relation to Jim Croce on television--a claim the family says came after Pat had already received word about their concerns.
"I know Pat Croce and I know everyone in Philly loves him," says Bob Rovner, an attorney Jim Croce's cousin Steve Angelucci commissioned to approach Pat about the subject. "He's been great for the city. I just told him Steve doesn't want you to claim you're a relative. Pat couldn't have been more of a gentleman in this as he is in every situation. He's never going to claim he's a relative again."
But this latest ancestral claim has left the Jim Croce family confused.
"What troubles me is a man with as much fame as Pat Croce, why does he need to seek more by relating himself to someone who's not related to him?" asks John Croce. "This is a name we have a lot of respect for. It means a lot to us. Here's a man--a rich, famous man--willing to relate himself to us. But we don't want it. We don't want to lay our claim to his fame."
Angelucci, an Ocean City writer who has completed a yet-to-be-published biography of Jim Croce, sees the controversy on a larger level.
"We just feel that Pat's had enough success in his life and doesn't need to play off someone else's," he says. "He's kind of rewriting our family history, and on a broader scale, rewriting musical history."
Brian Hickey last wrote about bouncers for PW's club issue.