I’ve always felt that the remarkable thing about the late Jim Croce was the fact that he was equally at home with sensitive singer-songwriter stuff and tall tales of urban badasses; not even Lloyd Price made that kind of jump on a regular basis, but Croce did it practically from track to track. Still, my favorite item in the Croce songbook is one of the sensitive songs, “Operator,” which came up Saturday on the box and inspired me to sing along. As always, I lost it on the second “But that’s not the way it feels.”
By coincidence, Dr. Funk was talking about this very song on Sunday, and here’s what he had to say:
[M]y 11-year old daughter asked me about something she didn’t quite understand. She asked why somebody was talking to an operator when he could’ve just dialed 411. And then she asked about what the line “you can keep the dime” meant. There are few things that make somebody feel older than trying to explain something to somebody who doesn’t have the same frame of reference … like the UHF/VHF dials on a TV set, or a TV that didn’t come with a remote control, or the spindle adapter that allowed a 45 RPM record to play on an LP player, or even a rotary dial on a telephone. At least she understood that he was at a pay phone.
The thing I love about this song is the story it tells. A man is hoping to contact his former lover after she left him for a friend of his and moved to L.A. Despite asserting he’s overcome his pain and moved on with his life, it’s obvious he still hasn’t come to grips with what happened. At the end of the song, he hangs up the phone without having the courage to make the call. It’s a bit of reality that didn’t always find its way into Top 40 radio in 1972 (even if it did appear around the same time as Dr. Hook’s “Sylvia’s Mother,” another song that played out over a telephone conversation).
Farther back in time, there’s Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” an even jauntier song with what seems to be an even sadder story. Perhaps to claim his right to this kind of tale, in “Operator” Croce comes up with an almost-Berryesque description of that other guy: “my best old ex-friend Ray.”
And there’s this:
Considering that “Operator” has been a radio fixture for much longer than Croce’s own lifespan, it might surprise fans to know the song wasn’t a Top 10 hit. His second chart single, it only reached #17.
Also somewhat Berryesque: “Memphis” was actually a B-side (of “Back in the U.S.A.,” on Chess 1729).