Chester County has made surprising contributions to rock ’n’ roll history. Enduring memories come courtesy of singer/songwriter Jim Croce.
At 76 years old, Hy Mayerson is the unofficial rock historian of Birchrunville.
A 40-year resident of the incorporated crossroads hamlet, the practicing attorney possesses a shock of wispy white hair, a mischievous smile and crystal-clear blue eyes. “Those were the best times—the music, the parties, the whole scene,” says Mayerson. “Sure, drugs were a part of it. But what we really cared about were the friendships. I met so many special people back then, including the Croces.”
Thanks to iconic R&B producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Philadelphia had an undeniable sway over listening audiences in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Not as many are aware of Chester County’s rock history and connection to celebrated singer/songwriter Jim Croce and other key players in popular music at the time. In Birchrunville, a bucolic village in West Vincent Township, the living was mellow, if not downright communal, back then. In many ways, it still is.
Born in South Philadelphia, Croce attended Villanova University, where he majored in psychology and minored in German, graduating in 1965. A member of the Villanova Singers and the Villanova Spires, he was also a student disc jockey at WKVU.
Croce got his start in the music business playing frat parties and coffeehouses in the area. In 1971, after a disillusioning three years in New York City, he and his wife, Ingrid, moved to Lyndell, 11 miles west of Mayerson’s home in Birchrunville. Their son, A.J., was also born that year.
To make ends meet, Croce worked odd jobs as he struggled to gain traction in the regional music scene. Like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel a few years later, he became a popular draw at the small but influential Main Point coffeehouse in Bryn Mawr. Undoubtedly inspired by his bucolic surroundings, Croce wrote some of his best-known songs, including “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “I’ve Got a Name,” at his Lyndell home.
Meanwhile, Mayerson’s Birchrunville property became a regular gathering spot for Croce and other musicians, often until the wee hours of the morning. “I used to have a wood-framed dome on my land, and it became the hub where we’d all meet and have parties,” Mayerson says.
Among Croce’s best friends was guitarist Maury Muehleisen. “They’d play on the road together,” remembers Mayerson. “Ingrid was a dear friend with Maury’s girlfriend, Judy Coffin, who lived just down the road from me. It was all such a hippie climate.”
“The four of us were inseparable,” recalls Ingrid Croce, who co-authored 2012’s I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story, a well-received rock history biography of her husband. “Music was always in the air. And while Jim was driving a truck and working construction, I was planting gardens, painting, making pottery and cooking for the multitudes that constantly visited. I can tell you that some of my fondest memories come back to me from the Lyndell and Birchrunville connection we had.”
A Trenton, N.J., native, Muehleisen met Croce in the late 1960s, and the two found an immediate rapport. Muehleisen soon became his backup guitarist, and the two made three albums together, touring extensively and appearing on The Tonight Show and American Bandstand.
The Croces often performed at the Main Point as a duo. “When Jim and I played there, it seemed that everyone we met came back to our house to make music and enjoy whatever I found in the garden,” says Ingrid. “James Taylor, the Manhattan Transfer and my buddy, Arlo Guthrie, all hung out until it was time for Jim to go to work at 4 a.m.”
(From top) A ‘70s publicity photo; walking the local back roads on the cover of Home Recordings; Jim Croce’s grave site in Frazer
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Sadly, a little more than 40 years ago, Croce’s life ended just as stardom arrived. On Sept. 20, 1973, not long after the Croces moved to San Diego, Calif., he and Muehleisen would perish when their chartered plane crashed on its way to a concert in Texas. Croce was buried in Haym Salomon Memorial Park in Frazer. His wife remained in San Diego, where she raised A.J., who grew up to be a successful a singer/songwriter in his own right. She continues to operate Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar, which opened in 1985.
A year after his passing, Croce was memorialized in rock history in the Righteous Brothers hit, “Rock and Roll Heaven.” He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1990. Locally, on the 40th anniversary of his death this past September, family members and friends assembled at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center to celebrate his life and music, all while raising funds for a scholarship in his name. Among those in attendance were Croce’s co-producers, Terry Cashman and Tommy West, and Muehleisen’s sister, Mary.
“I’d sit at Jim’s feet and listen to him play until the sun came up,” says Mayerson, recalling the many nights spent in the dome. “Sometimes, I was the only one left.”
Birchrunville’s low-key status also suited Kalman Cohen quite well. Like Croce, Cohen was born in South Philadelphia. Before he embarked on his own prodigious career in the entertainment industry, Cohen traded his birth name for Kal Mann.
Starting as a comedy writer for Danny Thomas and Red Buttons, Mann established Cameo-Parkway records in 1956 with co-producers Bernie Lowe and Dave Appell. His first taste of success came a year later, when he co-wrote the Charlie Gracie hit “Butterfly.” Mann also helped author “Teddy Bear” for Elvis Presley, Bobby Rydell’s “Wild One” and the Dovells’ “The Bristol Stomp.”
Cameo-Parkway reached its apex in the early ’60s, when Mann discovered Ernest Evans, who was working at a poultry shop in South Philly’s Italian Market. “Chubby” Evans quickly became Chubby Checker, a tongue-in-cheek take on Fats Domino’s moniker. In 1960, Checker recorded a cover of the 1959 Hank Ballard tune, “The Twist,” at Cameo-Parkway. The song shot to number one and spawned a legendary dance craze, reemerging as a chart-topping hit in 1962. Mann also co-wrote 1963’s “South Street” by the Orlons. It’s opening query, “Where do all the hippies meet?” would help make “hippie” a household term a few years later.
With American Bandstand’s move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in 1964 and the success of the Beatles, the hits evaporated for Cameo-Parkway. By early 1964, Mann had sold his interests in the company and relocated to Birchrunville, where he remained for 25 years.
Hy Mayerson spent the better part of two decades living just down the hill from Mann and his wife of 64 years, Esther. “He used to have a real ball with many of his musician friends,” says Mayerson. “Chubby Checker, Charlie Gracie, Dee Dee Sharp … Dee Dee lived in Norristown and would come to enjoy the country life.”
Mayerson recalls seeing Mann and Checker sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch of the old general store that is now the renowned Birchrunville Store Café. Mann, he says, used to counsel the kids who’d come to the local post office, offering advice on how to break into the music industry.
Eventually, Mann departed Birchrunville for Pompano Beach, Fla. He died in 2001 at the age of 84. Checker, meanwhile, never left Chester County. “He initially moved to Malvern—I assume, to be close to Kal,” says Mayerson. “And he ended up staying there.”
Rumor has it Jim Femino wrote the well-known Pure Prairie League ballad, “Amie.” But he’d like to clear that up once and for all. “I just happened to sound like Craig Fuller, who wrote and sang the song,” he confides. “When I tried out for the band in the early ’80s, somehow the story around here became that I wrote it.”
Over the years, Femino has filled in as a singer/guitarist for the band. He’s also played with such rock luminaries as Stephen Stills, ZZ Top and members of Boston. “I love the energy of Chester County and feel a part of it,” says Femino, who resides part time in Royersford.
Femino also has a home in Nashville, where he co-wrote James Otto’s Grammy-nominated 2008 hit, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You.” The story goes that Femino was grocery shopping when he got a call from Otto. Femino suggested bringing along fellow singer/songwriter D. Vincent Williams. They played a demo of their tune for producer John Rich, who chose it as the first single from Otto’s Sunset Man album. It went on to become Billboard’s Most Played Country Song of the Year.
Nashville success aside, Femino’s local influence in rock history is undeniable. Born and raised in Salem, Mass., he chose Chester County as a home back in 1982. “I was touring and had three apartments in Salem, Houston and Los Angeles—and I was never in any of ’em,” he says. “My girlfriend got a job where she could open an office wherever she wanted east of the Mississippi, so she asked me where I’d like to live. I told her the Delaware Valley, because I’d played here many times and loved the area.”
The pair found a house in Bridgeport. Two years later, a newly single Femino moved into a farmhouse in Collegeville, where he stayed until 1990, when he relocated to Royersford.
The self-described “Godfather of Acoustic Soul,” Femino has been playing here for the better part of four decades, whether it’s been residencies at the old Binni & Flynn’s in Devon and other area nightspots, or as a host and performer at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. In the mid-’80s, he helped establish Fezstock, a music festival that ran for years in the Phoenixville area. “Even though I also own homes in Nashville and Los Angeles, I will never leave the area,” Femino says. “I love the people here too much.”
More Chester County Rock History Trivia
Top Left: Hollywood mainstay Kevin Bacon and his older brother, Michael, an award-winning film and TV composer, have strong ties to the region. Born and raised in Center City, they’re the sons of influential architect and city planner Edmund Bacon. They continue to perform internationally as a folk-rock duo, making stops at Phoenixville’s Colonial Theatre and other area venues, adding to the region’s rock history. “They were both nice kids,” recalls Birchrunville’s Hy Mayerson. “I remember them spending summers near Chester Springs. Kevin was about 17, and he was a gaffer for his brother, Michael, who was in his mid-20s at the time. They were filming musicians performing at the Main Point. They’ve done well, those two.”
Top Right: Before he landed the role as the smooth-talking middle brother in the ’70s sit-com The Partridge Family, a young Danny Bonaduce called Birchrunville home—specifically, a converted schoolhouse in the center of the village. Dogged by controversy, arrests and questionable business decisions for most of his adult life, Bonaduce returned to the area as a radio DJ, losing his job at 94 WYSP in 2011 when it changed over to sports. He’s currently an on-air radio personality in Seattle.
Bottom Row: Owen J. Roberts High School alum Daryl Hall first met New York native John Oates while the two were studying at Temple University. The duo’s critically acclaimed sophomore release, 1973’s Abandoned Luncheonette, contained the hit “She’s Gone.” Perhaps more interesting to local fans are the shots of the derelict Rosedale Diner that grace its front and back covers.
In the 1960s, the structure had been unceremoniously uprooted and moved from Pottstown to an untended lot along Route 724 in North Coventry Township. The eyesore would remain a forlorn fixture there for years, and it apparently made an impact on Hall during his rambles through the countryside.
Over the years of rock history, fans and souvenir hunters stripped the structure. By 1983 it was a mere husk of its former self. Shortly thereafter, what remained was removed completely. “I saw those two boys at one of my parties,” Mayerson says. “They said they’d heard of Jim [Croce] and wanted to meet him. I’m not sure if the three ever connected.”