Friday, December 28, 2018

Chart Song Cinema: The Last American Hero (1973)

Songwriters Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, at the early stages of prolific careers, had no idea they were writing the epilogue for singer-songwriter Jim Croce, a man who generally manufactured his own music and lyrics. But his performance of their "I Got a Name" on record sounded like something he'd have come up with eventually, and it ended up being the last song he'd perform on this earth, at a concert in Natchitoches (NACK-itosh), Louisiana, after which his charter plane would crash during takeoff on September 20, 1973.

"I Got a Name" was scheduled for release as a single one week after that sad day and had already been assigned as the opening and closing title theme for a movie called The Last American Hero. In spite of its big title, this was a fairly easy-going film starring Jeff Bridges as a charismatic and resilient Junior Johnson-style moonshiner-turned-stock car racer, the type Croce sang about on his 1972 You Don't Mess Around with Jim album ("Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy)").

Although its down-home footage of dirt track racing will give gearheads from any era a nice cinematic buzz, nothing in the film packs enough of a dramatic wallop to call for the emotional gravitas in "I Got a Name," a recording that dresses up its rural lyrical and musical components in orchestral lace. Both the film title and theme song could have worked better in some other film with a more heart-wrenching premise. (But here's a line worth remembering, spoken by the Bridges character's repentant bootlegger dad: "The damn foolishness of one person is the breath of life to another.")

"I Got a Name" would be Croce's fifth charting single, with six more posthumous ones to come between 1973 and 1976, including the career/genre/era-apotheosis piece "Time in a Bottle." Quentin Tarrantino grabbed "I Got a Name" for one of his crazy-quilt soundtracks in 2012 (Django Unchained). Side B merged lyrics evoking the blue collar south to etude-like music that seemed suited for harpsichord.

"I Got a Name" (1973) - Jim Croce

Written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox * Produced by Terry Cashman and Tommy West * 45: "I Got a Name" / "Alabama Rain" * LP: I Got a Name * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#10), Easy Listening (#4) * Entered: 1973-10-06

Side A: "I Got a Name"

Side B: "Alabama Rain"

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