Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Friday Request Line: You Don’t Mess Around With Jim vs. Bad, Bad Leroy Brown

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 13, 2010

For this week’s edition of the Friday Request Line, reader and friend of the blog Kyle writes:

“I’m still waiting for my request of several years ago to see the “vs” column on Jim Croce.”

Indeed you are, Kyle. And not without reason–it is a tantalizing question of relative significance. For those of you not particularly familiar with this dilemma, in the 1970s, singer/songwriter Jim Croce had two huge hits with songs on the subject of folk-villain-type badasses: “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Not only is the subject matter of the two songs basically the same, but the structures are identical, both have the same kind of 30s-retro feel, and the legacy of each ended up being almost the exact same. Unsurprisingly, the difference in quality between the two is marginal at best–but it is there, and as such, it must be determined. Now truth told, neither are by any means my favorite Jim Croce song–those honors would belong to “I Got a Name,” a slightly more understated number whose breakdown is responsible (directly or indirectly) for providing the hook to Stone Temple Pilots’ 90s alt-rock classic “Interstate Love Song.” But this is not one of the songs in question, and thus is immaterial to the debate. So let’s get down to business.

Better Lyrical Introduction: Both Jim and Mr. Brown get fantastic opening stanzas with which to burst on the scene. I didn’t remember Jim’s quite as well, but it’s fairly impossible to argue with: “Uptown got its hustlers / Bowery got its bums / And 42nd street got big Jim Walker / He’s a pool-shootin’ son-of-a-gun.” Not bad, but it just can’t compete with the classic intro the BBLB receives “Well the South Side of Chicago / Is the baddest part of town / And if you go down there / You just better beware / Of a man named Leroy Brown.” The “South Side of Chicago” setting for Leroy sounds far more badass than Times Square-area Jim, and I never understood why “pool-shooting” is supposed to sound intimidating anyway. I only know one personal who could be described as a “pool-shooting son-of-a-gun,” and that’s my friend’s aunt who I occasionally do bookkeeping for. Hip lady, but not someone I’d necessarily be scared to mess around with.

Winner: Bad, Bad Leroy Brown

More Intimidating Resume: About even here, as both have their strengths and faults. Jim is described as “strong as a county hoss” (which I have to assume is respectably strong), but also as “dumb as a man can come,” which can be scary in the right situation, but has to be considered a flaw at large. Meanwhile, Leroy packs a “32 gun in his pocket for fun” and a “razor in his shoe,” but he also cares a little too much about “his fancy clothes” and “his diamond rings” to be a true-blue killer. The deciding fact here is have to be in the respect they respectively draw with the townspeople–the Chicago South-Siders are said to call Leroy “sir,” while the Manhattan Midtowners refer to Jim as “Boss.” I know which one Rick Ross would rather be called, and what’s good enough for Rick Ross is good enough for me.

Winner: You Don’t Mess Around With Jim

Better Use of Chorus Cultural References to Illustrate Menace: Both choruses are completely unforgettable, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” claiming its subject “Baddest man in the whole damn town / Badder than old King Kong / Meaner than the junkyard dog” and “Jim” stating simply that “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape / You don’t spit into the wind / You don’t pull the mask on the old Lone Ranger / And you don’t mess around with Jim.” I give this one to “Jim,” mostly because I always liked the matter-of-factness of its chorus, simply stating triusms we all know to be the case, and because I never thought that King Kong was really all that bad per se–more just misunderstood and understandably flustered.

Winner: You Don’t Mess Around With Jim

More Respectable Title Character Demise: Both characters meet the same fate at the end of their respective songs, being taken out by one of the townsfolk that are supposed to so fear them, Jim “cut in ’bout a hundred place / and [shot] in a couple more” and Leroy looking “like a jigsaw puzzle / with a couple of pieces gone.” Neither exactly get the exits that a character of their largesse appears to deserve, but Leroy’s demise strikes me as particularly ignominious, merely dispatched by a “jealous man”–just anyone, really–who dislikes the way that Leroy leers at his female. At least Jim gets taken out by someone who appears to be something of a worthy adversary, a similarly billiard-hawking mystero named Willie “Slim” McCoy who appears to inspire similar awe in the townspeople, even getting injected into the folk lineage himself with the final chorus’s lyrical adjustment to warn listeners that you also “don’t mess around with Slim.” Fair enough.

Winner: You Don’t Mess Around With Jim

What My Roommate Victor Has to Say: No one under the age of 40 is a bigger fan of story songs from the 70s than friend of the blog Victor Lee, a rare breed of man who could actually explain the plot twist at the end of Vicki Sue Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” (Or try, at least). So I figured it was only right that Victor should get to weigh in on the question at hand. His (roughly paraphrased) answer:

“Uh, I guess Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. It’s a little bit jumpier…it’s got the piano…You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, eh, it’s a little more stripped down…plus, Bad Bad Leroy Brown was my first love. They’re basically the exact same song, though.”

Winner: Bad, Bad Leroy Brown

I’m sure Leroy appreciates Victor’s support, but as it stands, it’s not quite enough.


Please continue to submit your article requests in the comments section below, or at If I don’t get to it the week of the request, I will soon enough thereafter.

3 Responses to “Friday Request Line: You Don’t Mess Around With Jim vs. Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”

  1. worrywort said

    I’m going with “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”, only because it allowed me the cheap thrill of singing a swear word in front of mom and dad whenever it came on the radio.

  2. Kyle said

    Thank You.
    I’ve always preferred Jim for the spoken-word breakdown at 2:00. Don’t hustle people strange to you. That’s some knowledge right there.

  3. Leslie said

    “A Long Time Ago.” Now, then, always. Those other two are just pretenders to the Jim Croce throne.

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