A singer-songwriter whose life was cut short in a plane crash will be recognized in Natchitoches -- on the 40th anniversary of his death. Jim Croce died in a plane crash following a concert at Northwestern State University's Prather Coliseum on September 20th, 1973. A commemoration will take place in Natchitoches with performances of Croce's music and the unveiling of a new plaque that memorializes him, his bandmate Maury Muehleisen and four others who died in the crash.

The Croce tribute coincides with the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival, set for September 20th and 21st on the downtown riverbank. The 20th will be "Jim Croce Day" in Natchitoches as he and Muehleisen are recognized by the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Bands booked to entertain during the festival -- like Natchitoches musician Billy O'Con, who portrayed Croce in a biopic about the late artist's life -- will perform Croce songs.

With input from Muehleisen's sister Mary, Bryan Gallager of Alexandria, Alabama -- a devoted fan of Croce and Muehleisen -- donated the plaque that replaces one that once hung in the Sylvan Friedman Student Union.

"I have been a fan of Jim Croce and his musical partner Maury Muehleisen since I was about 10 years old and prior to their deaths in 1973," Gallager said. "The more of Jim’s music I heard through the years the more I realized how every aspect of it was special and could never be duplicated."

"Jim and Maury were two wonderful, young, gifted musicians and great friends," Mary Muehleisen said. Muehleisen was 24 when he died. "I hope that many students, faculty and visitors will remember those who died that night in Natchitoches after their last concert."

Croce’s folksy, everyman style and sensitive lyrics remained popular in the decades following his death at age 30. Gallager believes Croce’s music was enriched by his friendship with Muehlseisen, a classically trained pianist and self-taught guitarist. Croce and Muehleisen were introduced by a musical friend and their collaboration created the albums "You Don’t Mess Around with Jim," "Life and Times" and "I Got A Name" in 1972 and 1973. Their last album together was finished one week before the tragic plane crash.

"They made three albums together and were appearing on shows like ‘The Midnight Special’ and ‘The Helen Reddy Show,’" Gallager said. "Jim was going to be the summer host of ‘The Tonight Show’ but his death came before. On the brink of national fame and fortune, Jim had signed to do a show at Northwestern State before he became well-known, but due to illness he cancelled. He later decided to make it up at the same price, even though demand for him had surged."

On Thursday, Sept. 20, 1973, Croce performed at Northwestern State as part of his Life and Times Tour, the day before his single "I Got A Name" was released. About an hour after the concert ended, Croce, Muehleisen, pilot Robert Elliott, comedian George Stevens who had opened the show, manager Kenneth Cortose and road manager Dennis Rast died when the aircraft in which they were travelling crashed during takeoff from Natchitoches Regional Airport.

An excerpt from an article that appeared in Northwestern State’s student newspaper, The Current Sauce, on Oct. 9, 1973, records the university’s response to the tragedy:

"I believe in growing, growing all the time," was how Jim Croce described his life. The quote is now inscribed on a plaque in the Student Union in memory of his last performance given to 2,000 Northwestern students before his troupe of six were killed in a plane crash here.

The plaque was presented by Doug Nichols, Union Board entertainment chairman, to Union director Robert Wilson during a memorial service last Thursday.

Dr. C.B. Ellis, assistant to the NSU president, talked briefly on the folk-rock singer, his beliefs and his life which was reflected in his songs. Wilson commented that the purpose of the memorial service, attended by about 150 students, was to honor the entertainers and as an expression of the student's feelings. The families of the six men will also be notified that the memorial has been established. The service ended with taps. The plaque reads: "in memory of the Jim Croce show. Jim Croce and the members of his show were killed in a plane crash following his last performance at Northwestern State University on Sept. 20, 1973." The quote from Croce follows and the names of the six men killed: Croce, Maurice Muehleissen, George Stevens, Dominick Cortese, Robert Newton and Dennis Rast.

CLICK HERE for more information on the Croce tribute at the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival.

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