Set in the hardscrabble section of Chicago, this song tells the story of Leroy Brown, the "baddest man in the whole damn town." He's big and dangerous, loved by the ladies and feared by the men. But one day he picks a battle he can't win, making a move on the wife of a guy who leaves him looking like a jigsaw puzzle with a some missing pieces.
The story is based on truth, but embellished. Jim's wife, Ingrid Croce, told Songfacts the story.
Jim Croce joined the US National Guard in 1966, hoping it would keep him from getting sent to Vietnam. He married Ingrid that year, and hoped to continue his education and launch his music career. Unfortunately, Jim was sent for training less then two weeks after their wedding. As Ingrid explained, Jim had no interest in being a soldier and had the distinction of having to repeat basic training. But he did meet a guy who inspired one of his most famous songs. "Leroy Brown is a guy that he actually met," said Ingrid. "When he was in the service - The National Guard - this guy had gone AWOL. He was a guy that Jim kind of related to, he liked to sing with him. This guy had gone AWOL but he came back to get his paycheck, and he got caught. Jim just thought he was such a funny guy that he thought he'd include his name in the song, and it just worked. There really was a Leroy Brown, and sometimes having a name helps you to build a song around it."
When Jim Croce would introduce this song, he said there were two people he encountered in the military who inspired this song: a sergeant at Fort Jackson and a private at Fort Dix. The actual Leroy was the sergeant, but it was the private who went AWOL and returned for his paycheck.
Croce had his breakthrough in 1972 with the album You Don't Mess Around with Jim, which had hit singles in the title track and "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)." "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" appeared on his next album, Life And Times, and gave him his first #1 hit, topping the Hot 100 on July 21, 1973. On September 30, Croce died in a plane crash at age 30. After his death, "Time In A Bottle," a track from You Don't Mess Around with Jim, was released as a single and also went to #1.
The piano riff at the beginning was based on Bobby Darin's "Queen of the Hop."
Ingrid runs Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar in San Diego, where she keeps Jim's legacy alive and hears from many patrons who were touched by Jim's songs. Says Ingrid: "I have a lot of staff members that come up to me and say, 'You know what, there's a guy named Leroy Brown, he kind of looks like the part, and he's sitting at our bar right now.' I say, 'Well, I'll be glad to come over and say hi.' There's so many Leroy Browns who have come up to me and said, 'I'm sure I'm the one he was talking about.'"