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Music may be in A.J. Croce's genes, but his heartfelt playing comes straight from his soul. 

Piano Man

A.J. Croce and The Sideshow
Swingin' on the Tracks
Science Museum of Virginia
2500 W. Broad St.
6:30-9:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 30
$8 in advance, $10 at the gate
367-2543
21 or older

The piano entered A.J. Croce's life when he was 6 years old, more as the result of a grave physical condition than from any push to carry on the name of his father, the late Jim Croce. Blinded suddenly by a brain tumor at age 4, the youngster found that the piano offered a needed outlet.

"It was a sudden thing," Croce, 27, says of losing his sight. He claims youth buffered the trauma, but he was still cut off from some of the usual childhood fun. "[The piano] was very fulfilling in the way sports couldn't be for obvious reasons," he says.

Croce started writing songs and spent six to seven hours a day at the piano even after he regained sight in his left eye at age 12. He studied playing styles of pianists past and present, and learned his lessons well.

Whether it was Billy Preston backing the Beatles, Ray Charles hitting a rhythm-and-blues groove, or Nicky Hopkins careening through his psychedelic barroom rock, Croce listened hard. He also discovered the pounding left hand of the stride style, and he joined a band that played local gigs in San Diego six nights a week while he was still in high school.

Of course, talent, when paired with a famous name, can open some doors. Croce remembers playing a Song Writers Hall of Fame benefit in New York at age 18 where B.B. King heard him play. A few days later, he got a call from the legendary bluesman asking him to join his band for a tour. Croce quit school, hit the road with King, and has never looked back. The gig led to more shows in Europe and the States with artists such as Ray Charles, Bela Fleck, Aretha Franklin, Santana and Willie Nelson. He recorded his first CD in 1993 and a second in 1995.

His third and latest CD, "Fit to Serve," features Croce's rock, New Orleans, '60s R&B and soul-music roots. His original songs bear the clear evidence of influences ranging from Stevie Wonder and the Beatles to Fats Domino and the Faces. His upcoming CD, due out early next year, takes a slightly different tack, leaning toward a British '60s mod-rock sound.

Croce says he plays between 150 and 200 gigs a year and labels shows such as the one Sept. 30 at the Science Museum of Virginia's "Swingin' on the Tracks" as "high energy." He sings his stories of missed chances and Bourbon Street strippers in an urgent, husky voice, and he hammers the piano keys with conviction.

Music is a huge part of Croce's life, and he tries for a fresh take every night as he brings his songs to as many listeners as he can. "I take chances with it every night," he says of his music. "I'm trying to make human
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