Singer-songwriter and onetime welder Jim Croce’s song about “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” his only No. 1 charting single before Croce died in a plane crash in Louisiana, was a philosophical curiosity. While the song’s protagonist, Mr. Brown — based on a couple of real characters Croce served with in the National Guard — is lauded in the song title and for a goodly portion of the song, by its end he’s been dethroned. The song’s real hero — the one who beat Leroy’s ass — serves anonymously forever. All we know about him is that he loved his wife. So what’s behind this catchy tune that survived the test of decades? Let’s go deep into what Croce was up to.
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the song: does it remain the same?
1. This Origin Story Is About 90 Percent Right
Stereogum breaks the song down from top to bottom, going where many had dared not, including its racist elements. But still? They got bits of it wrong. Like the fact that there were two actual Leroy Browns. Croce joined the National Guard in the hopes it would save him from Vietnam, and it was in the service where he met both of them. One presumably had a great sense of humor and the other went AWOL but returned for his paycheck … and was ultimately arrested for going AWOL.
2. Mrs. Croce Speaks
“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was fundamentally a love song. Brown, by song’s end, gets his ass handed to him for messing with “the wife of another man.” So it was fitting that the songwriter’s wife, Ingrid, who was the mother of their only son, should write a love story by way of biography: I Got a Name. Which clears up the record (sort of). One of the things she chose to reveal: Croce himself was not the most faithful man in the world after finding fame.
3. Croce the Man
Jim Croce wasn’t the first to trod the singer-songwriter ground, but unlike the other working-class guitar heroes, from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, Croce did something shocking. He actually worked. Springsteen started playing music so early he never had another job — never drove a truck, dug ditches or welded. Croce did all three. He had to. His grind to the “top” was something he largely missed, and at the time of his death at age 30, he was planning to quit music so he could spend more time with his family and, presumably, go back to day jobs.
4. A Theme Emerges
“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” came after “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” another tough-guy song from Croce that seems anomalous for a songbook usually filed under folk music. Blogger Ben Black pegs the songs as essentially the same. Yeah: hits. But tough-guy folk has traditionally been a thing (see: our list below). Not for Pete Seeger or Peter, Paul and Mary, but still.
5. The Superhuman Black Protagonist Meme
Though Tennessee Ernie Ford — with his “one fist of iron, the other of steel” — had his swing at tough-guy country as a white guy, what’s endured has been the long-standing depiction of Black men of superhuman proportions. From High John the Conqueror to John Henry and Stagger Lee, these characters concealed the essential truth that being a Black man was dangerous. And then the unspoken part: largely because of depictions of the Black man as dangerous.
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The folk tradition that gave birth to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” also contains tropes that, when bent to less-than-noble enterprises, reveal the racist undertones of the song. Consider when peace officers in Los Angeles somehow thought that being captured on video singing the song but substituting Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, for Leroy Brown made sense: “Dead, dead Michael Brown, deadest man in the whole damn town.” Because it was funny, you know?
2. Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, Meet Stagger Lee
Now while the real Leroy Browns were nothing like their musical counterpart, that wasn’t categorically true for everyone in the tough-guy folk canon. Stagger Lee, aka Lee Shelton, actually spawned a greater number of songs — Lloyd Price, Nick Cave, the Grateful Dead, among others — and was the real deal. If shooting a man in the stomach over a Stetson and an insult counts on the real deal scale. A pimp and a gambler from Texas, he went to prison in Missouri for the shooting. Lee was paroled, but, courtesy of a robbery and assault beef, went right back to prison, where he died of tuberculosis.
An iconic portion of Croce’s descriptive lyrics, outside of the fact that Bad, Bad Leroy Brown was 6-foot-4, liked to gamble and carried a gun? His car, a replica of which had been on sale for almost $19,000. If you didn’t spend any time on the streets in the ’70s, you have no idea how ostentatiously crazy these cars were. If it didn’t have a horn that played some musical theme when you showed up somewhere? You might as well have stayed home.
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Any connection between Jim Croce and professional wrestling seems confusing and confused. At first. Unless you remember professional wrestlers whose names were inspired by Croce: the Junkyard Dog and, of course, Bad Leroy Brown. They appeared during what many old heads believe, hands down, was the heyday of professional wrestling in the 1970s and ’80s. It also underscores the song’s weird power in that it went from fictional folk legend to song to fictional fighting legends.
2. Like Father, Like Son
Right before taking the fatal plane ride in 1973, Croce told his wife he wanted to quit the business to spend more time with her and their nearly 2-year-old son, A.J. Now that son is playing the songs of the father he never knew. But be clear on this: Croce the elder’s music has sold rights into TV and film so often that A.J. probably doesn’t have to work for a living. The fact that he chooses to anyway speaks volumes.
3. A Sound Built for Film
Eighty-two times. That’s how often Croce’s music has been used in a movie or TV show, a number that includes 29 times for “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” That’s significant, especially when you consider that every time a Croce song gets played, a Croce gets paid.
The original Leroy Brown apparently had a good sense of humor, according to both Jim and Ingrid Croce, but ballroom dancing on Dancing With the Stars to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”? That feat was performed by none other than Laila Ali, daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali and an accomplished fighter in her own right. Extra points for originality go with all of that cheese and those sequins, but it’s clearly something a working-class cat from Pennsylvania like Croce never imagined.
songs with equally badass protagonists
1. A Boy Named Sue: Beat Up His Father
Shel Silverstein put it on paper. Johnny Cash put it on the map with a largely improvised performance at San Quentin Prison, where he can be heard chuckling at the lyrics he was reading off a sheet, describing a father-son saloon brawl. Sue does triumph, though he loses part of his ear.
2. Big Bad John: Killed a Man, Saved 20
Jimmy Dean sang about the 6-foot-6, 245-pound John. Yeah, he saved 20 miners, but he was also fleeing repercussions for having murdered a man. With a single punch. Over a woman.
3. John Henry: Battled a Steam Drill, Died
The real-life John Henry was a railroad worker from New Jersey and is said to have died from the lung disease silicosis. That’s the bad news. The good news is everyone sang about him, from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen to Harry Belafonte.
4. Johnny 99: Shot a Night Clerk
Speaking of Springsteen … back before the whole DUI imbroglio, he wrote a song on his welcomingly bleak record Nebraska about a guy facing “debts no honest man could pay.” Hence: the clerk shooting.
5. Rico: Shot Tony, the Copacabana Bartender
The Barry Manilow song “Copacabana (At the Copa)” features the Tony Montana-esque Rico who, in getting fresh with the showgirl Lola, earns the ire of Tony, her bartender boyfriend who gets shot to death for his troubles. No Bad, Bad Leroy Brown ending here.
6. Stagger Lee: Killed Man Over a Stetson
Lee, real name Lee Shelton (see above), is buried in Hillsdale, Missouri, at the Greenwood Cemetery. The Killer Blues Headstone Project raised enough money to put a gravestone on his previously unmarked grave.
7. Tommy the Coward of the County: Defeated All the Gatlin Boys
Kenny Rogers sang this one about a guy who promised his dad, who was on death row, that he’d not live the life the father had. So he never fought and earned the nickname Coward of the County, which is the name of the Rogers song. That is, until the gang rape of his lover by the Gatlin boys forced him to take a stand.
8. Johnny the Fiddle Player: Beat the Devil Down in Georgia
If you beat one of the sons of God, an angelic presence and the lord of hell, just by playing your fiddle? It doesn’t really get much tougher than that and that’s just what Johnny did, at least according to Charlie Daniels and his Band.