Photographs and Memories

Forty years after her brother was lost in a plane crash with singer Jim Croce, Mary Muehleisen ’70 is determined to preserve his musical legacy.
Sean Ramsden
Mary Muehleisen '70 surrounded by gold records certified by the Recording Association of America

Mary Muehleisen '70 surrounded by gold records certified by the Recording Association of America

Relaxing alongside a Florida swimming pool, it occurred to Mary Muehleisen ’70 that her brother was actually a star. There was no ignoring the evidence sounding from the radio at the Sun-N-Fun Campground and Resort – those familiar guitar licks she had heard so many times before in her parents’ Trenton home, now filling the thick Sarasota air. It was the spring of 1973.

“Oh, my gosh, that’s Maury!” the thrilled Muehleisen exclaimed to her husband, Ray Nowak ’72, nearly breathless at hearing her brother’s music some 1,100 miles from home. She knew Maury and his friend, Jim, were doing well; Jim had a three-record deal and the pair had even played The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But they still often found time to stop by the Muehleisen family’s modest home between shows.

“They were still just Maury and Jim when they were there,” Mary said of her brother, Maury Muehleisen, just 14 months her senior, and his thickly mustachioed friend, Jim Croce. 
It was undeniable, though. Their musical careers were in full ascent. The rollicking Bad, Bad Leroy Brown – the song Mary heard that humid May day in Florida – would reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot100 just weeks later. 

So if that entire summer felt just a bit ethereal for Mary Muehleisen, the autumn was simply inconceivable, freezing the music – and the memories – of Maury Muehleisen and Jim Croce in time. 
Morning rose on September 21, 1973, with the grim news that Croce, Maury Muehleisen and four others were killed the night before when their chartered plane, en route to Texas, crashed during takeoff at Natchitoches Regional Airport in Louisiana. Croce, the voice behind still-beloved standards like Time in a Bottle, Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels) and Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues, was 30. Muehleisen, who rendered such tender accompaniment to Croce’s words on his Martin guitar, was just 24. 

“He was young, quiet and sweet,” Mary recalled of her brother. “All he ever wanted was to make people smile with his music.” 

* * *

Maury Muehleisen’s personality is evident on his 1970 solo debut on Capitol Records, Gingerbreadd. With its gentle acoustic melodies that fall somewhere between Bread and Simon & Garfunkel, the record established Muehleisen as an emerging talent in a fluid musical landscape. Meanwhile, Croce’s own folk-music career was flagging by the end of the 1960s. He had walked out on his songwriting contract before Muehleisen’s manager, Joe Salviuolo, suggested the two musicians meet. 

“Joe introduced Jim to Maury,” recalled Mary, adding that Salviuolo had an idea: Perhaps Croce could play back-up to Muehleisen as he toured in support of Gingerbreadd

The pair began playing a series of clubs and coffeehouses, with Muehleisen playing lead guitar on his original music. Croce provided the rhythm, but was also writing relentlessly in his spare moments. Before long, he had plenty of songs on paper. 

“Jim showed Maury the things he’d been working on,” Mary recalled. “There was a song about saving time in a bottle, and another about a guy named Jim.” The two, who had forged a fast friendship, recorded five songs on a cassette, and sent it to Tommy West, who had produced both artists’ work. The struggling Croce was desperate simply to get someone to sing his songs. 

“Jim asked Tommy, ‘Can you do anything with these?’ Can you help me out?’ ” Mary explained. In fact, West and co-producer Terry Cashman immediately recognized an exciting new sound, and quickly hustled Croce and Muehleisen up to New York to begin recording. The result, in April 1972, was You Don’t Mess Around with Jim, which spent an incredible 93 weeks in the Billboard 200, and was followed by Life and Times in January 1973. Croce and Muehleisen finished recording their third album, I Got a Name, that September 14. 

Less than a week later, it was over. The brief story of Maury Muehleisen had reached its coda.   
The world will never know you, Maury, went the lyrics to Cashman & West’s tribute song, Maury. “At the time, I thought, that’s not fair,” Mary said. But in the intervening years, the melodies Maury coaxed from his guitar have indeed spanned continents and generations. Even now, forty years after playing his last note, he continues to make new fans every day – with a hand from his younger sister. 

Mary stokes his memory though, a website she developed more than a decade ago through which visitors can become acquainted with his music and catch an intimate glimpse into Maury’s life through stories from family members and friends. Fans can also purchase CD copies of Gingerbreadd, which Mary obtained a license to reissue, as well as a compilation of early home and studio recordings produced by her and Tommy West. 

The site also features an active guestbook that attracts visitors from all corners of the globe. They leave messages detailing the ways in which Maury’s music touched their lives. Some recall the sense of loss they felt after the crash, while others delight in having only recently discovered his work through media like YouTube. 

Mary, who also worked with C.F. Martin & Co. to issue a D-35 Maury Muehleisen Commemorative Custom Edition guitar, says her online memorial site stemmed from her realization that Maury’s legacy was far more public and enduring than she had imagined. A pivotal moment came in 1998 when she and Ray attended an event in Philadelphia marking the 25th anniversary of Croce’s death. Met with a wave of affection, enthusiasm and interest after divulging her relation to Maury, Mary carefully took all the names and e-mail addresses from this group of devout Croce fans, who traversed North America and the Atlantic Ocean for the tour.

“I didn’t even really know what e-mail was yet!” she said. “But, my world blossomed after that. I said, this is my chance. The world is going to know Maury.”