Ingrid Croce, who was married to Jim from 1966 until his death in 1973, told us: "'Operator' is one of my favorite songs. I think it's a pretty interesting song in the way in which it was composed. It's probably like a lot of songs of Jim's, but it's one that I think a lot of people relate to in a whole bunch of different ways. Jim and I had gotten married in 1966, and we had been waiting for him to go in the service. He was a National Guard, which he had joined with the hope that he would not be sent over, and he would be able to continue his education and his music career. So he signed up for the National Guard, and just as soon as we decided to get married - in August of 1966, the week before our little wedding - he got a letter that said that he would be leaving within 2 weeks for his National Guard down in South or North Carolina, so he was leaving with a very heavy heart. My dad had been very ill and shortly after that passed away. And we had just waited... wanted to get married and have some time to be together after all those years of waiting. And all of the sudden here he is National Guard, where Jim is not very good with authority. And he's in the south, and they were not very good with making pasta. He was missing good food, he was missing me, he was missing life in general. He's one of the few guys I think who went through basic training twice... he really couldn't follow the system. He'd always find things that were funny, like a handbook that he put together in dealing with the service with a whole bunch of quotes of how to deal with people in the Army. But anyway, he was standing there in the rain at a payphone. And he was listening to these stories of all these guys, the 'Dear John' stories, that were standing in line waiting their turn in the rain with these green rain jackets over their heads - I can just picture it, all of them in line waiting for their 3-minute phone call. Most of them were getting on the phone and they were okay, but some of them were getting these 'Dear John' letters, or phone calls. I think that was the most important aspect of the song, because it was just so desperate. You know, 'I only have a dime' and 'You can keep the dime' because money was very scarce and very precious, and I think if you look at the words to the song there are so many aspects of our generation that are in it.
'Operator, could you help me place this call?' I'm picturing Jim out in the rain and this long line of guys where they're really trying to reach somebody. It was hard to get through, so you always had the operator do it for you."
Jim Croce had a way of relating to a diversity of people, which was reflected in his songs. Ingrid explains how some of his life experience came into play on this song: "We used to work at this place called The Riddle Paddock which was a bar out in Lima, Pennsylvania, and it was absolutely the wildest most unusual bar in that it had everything... the kind of people that would come there would be, like, sheepherders from the towns nearby that were from Australia, and then they'd have people that were from the mushroom paoli which was, I think, the center of mushrooms in the United States. And then they'd have your normal city folks that would come out to The Riddle Paddock. All these people would hang there, and it was a real bar atmosphere, and people would come in every single night to hear Jim play, and most of the time he wouldn't repeat a song - he had a repertoire of over 3,000 songs. Many of them got to know Jim and me pretty well, and they'd come and tell stories, or you'd know stories about who wasn't with someone that night, and so Jim would always sing a special song for them. And I think that part of that story is kind of engaged in 'Operator,' where people would kind of break the relationship up. We never knew who would go into the Paddock that night, because if Jim was playing they wouldn't want to see each other. That's one of those sad kind of stories, and I think that anybody can relate - everybody has to have their heart broken at least once or twice before they have a real relationship."
Ingrid Croce opened a restaurant and bar of her own in 1985 that serves to honor Jim's memory. See a photo and read about it in Song Images
In 2000, the Martin guitar company produced 73 guitars in honor of Jim Croce. In each of these guitars, an uncirculated 1973 dime was inserted in the third fret fingerboard in honor of this song and the final line, "You can keep the dime."
Having the last name Croce made things interesting for Ingrid when she needed the services of an operator. She told us: "You can imagine how many operators over the years have said to me, 'Are you any relation?' You don't get in touch with operators very much any more, but in the olden days when you'd call up and you'd say, 'Can you help me?' 'Oh, what's the name?' I said, 'Well, my name is Croce.' 'Like in Jim? Oh, we just love that 'Operator.' Hey Sadie, this is Ingrid Croce - you know, Jim Croce's widow. And oh, we just love that song so much. He wrote it for us, we know he did..." I mean, from every aspect the song is truly Americana. And I think it really hits all generations, but certainly that one." (Read more in our interview with Ingrid Croce
, and at Croces.com
This was the second single from Croce's breakthrough album, You Don't Mess Around with Jim. Croce was broke and working construction when he wrote the songs that would appear on the album, and he even asked his manager to shop them to other artists hoping for any kind of payday.
A third single, "Time In a Bottle," was released in late 1973 after Croce died in a plane crash.