Tracy Chapman’s angry and touching debut album quickly climbed to No. 1 on the pop music charts in 1988, catapulting the 24-year-old folkie to international fame and celebrity—which she found disconcerting and uncomfortable. Chapman’s powerful narratives, sparsely arranged music, and smoky contralto were a revelation—both a throwback to the protest music of the civil rights era and unlike anything else on the radio at the time. “She may be shy and private and uneasy with some of the trappings of fame,” Stephen Pond wrote in Rolling Stone, “but this young black woman from work-ing-class Cleveland is THE new artist of the year, may be the new artist of several years. “Playboy described Chapman’s voice as “laced with equal parts bitterness and dignity.” Time said she was a “a cultural icon. Her short, spiky dreadlocks signaled a move away from pop glitter. Her music, pared down, almost willfully naive, was an antidote to the synthesized sound of the 1980s.”
In songs like the hit “Fast Car,” Chapman sang about poverty’s human toll, racial violence, domestic abuse, police indifference, and obsessive love. “Chapman
Born in Cleveland, OH, in 1964. Education: Attend ed Wooster School in Connecticut and Tufts University in Boston.
Released self-titled debut album, 1988; performed at Nelson Mandela’s Birthday Tribute at England’s Wembley Stadium, participated in Amnesty International’s 15-Nation Human Rights Now! tour, 1988; released New Beginning, 1995.
Awards: Self-titled debut album won three Grammys in 1989.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10019, and 345 North Maple Drive #123, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210.
hits emotional chords the way the best folk singers always have,” Pond wrote, “but whereas female folkies have traditionally been painted as vulnerable, fragile creatures singing about their love and fears, Chapman trashes that stereotype. While there’s a vulnerability in her best songs, there’s no fragility, just forthright dignity.”
Tracy Chapman sold millions of copies, spawned a ubiquitous video for “Fast Car,” and won three Grammy Awards. Chapman gained international fame in June of 1988, when she played for a crowd at England’s Wembley Stadium—and a television audience of millions—at Nelson Mandela’s Birthday Tribute. Subsequently, she opened concerts for Neil Young and Bob Dylan. In the fall of 1988, she shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Peter Gabriel during Amnesty International’s 15-nation Human Rights Now! tour.
Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio; her parents divorced when she was four years old. She and her older sister, Aneta, lived with their mother, who refused alimony and relied on low-paying jobs and welfare to raise her daughters. “There wasn’t much to work with,” Chapman told Pond. “We always had food to eat and a place to stay, but it was fairly bare-bones kind of things.” It also was a home filled with music. Chapman played ukelele, organ and clarinet as a kid. At age eight, she received a guitar and began writing songs. On the radio, she heard Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin. “My parents listened to R&B, soul and gospel,” Chapman once said. “I didn’t hear contemporary folk singers until I was in high school. As far as singing’s concerned, my earliest influence was my mother. She’s not professionally trained, but there was always music around the house.”
Chapman earned a scholarship to Wooster School, an Episcopalian prep school in Danbury, Connecticut. There, she played basketball, softball and soccer, performed her songs in the campus “coffeehouse,” and heard the folk rock of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young for the first time. In the fall of 1982, she enrolled at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, near Boston. Chapman studied anthropology, continued writing songs, and played her music on the street in Harvard Square and in local folk clubs. Before graduation, she caught the attention of Elektra Records, which hired music industry veteran David Kershenbaum to produce her first record. “People really wanted what she had, and they weren’t getting it,” said Kershenbaum, who previously had worked with Joe Jackson, Joan Baez, and Cat Stevens, among other artists. “She got there at the right moment with stuff that was good.”
Unfortunately, the furor surrounding that first record faded. Chapman’s next two releases—Crossroads in 1989 and Matters of the Heart in 1992—shared themes and tone with the first album, but lacked its compelling characters and narratives. Sales slipped and critics chided Chapman’s lyrical lapse and legendary reticence—with one reviewer even taking exception to the fact that she “posed unsmiling with eyes facing away from the camera” on her album covers. “Chapman’s… voice, with its small but expressive dips and curves, enriches any material it touches, but her material has become a problem,” Gene Santoro wrote in The Nation. “[Her songs] are reduced to … political soundbites or cliches about love and need.” Howard Cohen, writing for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, suggested some of the trouble resulted from her subject matter. “Pop music by still was a pop record with something on its mind. The expiration date for political pop is never far off, however; the themes can prove stifling and dated.”
In 1995, eight years after her spectacular debut, Chapman was back on top on the strength of her fourth record, the aptly titled New Beginning, and its infectious single, “Give Me One Reason.” Ironically, Chapman had written the song a decade earlier, while still a senior at Tufts. In any event, her concerts were sold out, the album sold 100,000 albums a week, and she even smiled in the photos on the CD jacket. Time attributed Chapman’s resurgence to, well, being nice. “She’s always preferred to keep her distance from real-life record-buying people,” the magazine reported. “In concerts, even the most ardent acclaim left her stonefaced and unmoved. Much of her time was spent holed up in her San Francisco mansion. Fans eventually repaid the favor: Chapman’s last two albums sank with nary a trace. Well, the reality check has finally arrived: Chapman now reads fan mail aloud in concerts.”
Tracy Chapman, Elektra Records, 1988.
Crossroads, Elektra, 1989.
Matters of the Heart, Elektra, 1992.
New Beginning, Elektra, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, May 1, 1992, p. 52; December 1, 1995. p. 74; April 26, 1996, p. 58.
Knight-Ridder News Service, August, 23, 1996.
MOJO, January 1996.
The Nation, July 6, 1992, p. 30.
Newsweek, July 1, 1996, p. 62.
People, October 16, 1989, p. 19; April 20, 1992, p. 27.
Playboy, February 1990, p. 16.
Rolling Stone, September 22, 1988.
Time, March 12, 1990, p. 70; May 13, 1996, p. 101.
"Chapman, Tracy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chapman-tracy-0
"Chapman, Tracy." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved June 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chapman-tracy-0
Genre: Folk, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: New Beginning (1995)
Hit songs since 1990: "Give Me One Reason," "Telling Stories"
Tracy Chapman burst into the pop music scene in the late 1980s as a uniquely styled singer/songwriter whose straightforward songs chronicled diverse social problems. Chapman's rhythmic folk music features poetic lyrics framed in catchy, simple melodies while expressively sung in her rich alto. As her popularity dipped following her initial mega-success, Chapman's song topics became less about social crusades and more about love and personal issues. Chapman is a participating advocate in a variety of human rights causes.
Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in lower-middle-class means by her mother. Her older sister, Aneta, gave her a guitar when she was eight and Chapman began writing songs soon after. Later, she won a scholarship to a private high school in Danbury, Connecticut, and went on to study anthropology and African culture at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. Struggling financially at Tufts, Chapman was persuaded into playing her guitar and singing songs on the streets and later in coffeehouses around Boston. She earned a strong local following and recorded some demo tapes. After a series of rejections, she signed with Elektra Records and released the debut album, Tracy Chapman (1988), whose raw, acoustic sound contrasted greatly with the general radio fare of the 1980s.
Tracy Chapman was one of the most remarkable album debuts in music history. On the strength of her hit "Fast Car," the album sold more than 10 million copies, and Chapman immediately became a superstar and gained prominence as a voice for the voiceless. Her songs, tales about the hopelessness of growing up poor, racism, corporate greed, male dominance, and a plethora of other socially charged topics, struck a resonant chord with the burgeoning, upwardly mobile "yuppie" generation. Months after the release of her debut album, Chapman was in the forefront of social relevancy as she performed in a satellite-linked concert at London's Wembley Stadium in celebration of Nelson Mandela's seventieth birthday. Soon after, she headlined the Human Rights Now Tour with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Peter Gabriel. It was a long way from the coffeehouses of Boston.
Chapman's image as a social crusader was further enhanced with her following efforts, Crossroads (1990) and Matters of the Heart (1991). The songs on these two recordings continue in the honest, issue-conscious vein of the debut album. However, Chapman became a victim of her own success as critics, expecting her to build on her extraordinary first effort, were harsh over the sameness of Crossroads and Matters of the Heart. Sales fell dramatically as fans grew weary of the melancholy material. Exhausted and disenchanted with stardom, Chapman, reticent by nature, entered a reclusive period. Yet she continued performing for causes such as AIDS Awareness, Farm Aid, Nelson Mandela's Freedomfest, Neil Young's Bridge School concerts, civil liberties, minority rights, environmental causes, gender equity, sexual freedom, and many others. She also performed in 1992 at New York's Madison Square Garden with a lineup of stars in the thirtieth anniversary tribute concert for Bob Dylan. She performed his "The Times They Are a Changin'."
In late 1995 Chapman released her fourth album, New Beginning. As in her debut album, New Beginning was helped by a hit single. "Give Me One Reason," a chunky, twelve-bar pop-blues showcasing Chapman's honeyed belt, became her largest hit and won a Grammy Award. Unlike earlier albums, her attention to social issues was blunted in favor of songs focused more on personal issues and relationship intimacies. With more than 4 million in sales, New Beginning is her best commercial effort since the debut recording. Backed by a new band, the usually solo-performing Chapman promoted the album in a series of tours that took her all over the world. She also recorded a duet with blues legend B.B. King on his album Deuces Wild (1997). The album has King performing duets with a number of stars and Chapman sings his signature "The Thrill Is Gone."
Chapman waited almost five years to release her next album, Telling Stories (2000). The title song was released as a single, and its lyric, "there is fiction in the space between you and me," speaks to an uncommitted lover or possibly to a larger entity such as the media. Only one song on Telling Stories, an ode to the unimportance of materialism called "Paper and Ink," resembles the socially relevant songs of her earlier albums.
Folk music has never been regarded as a particularly commercial genre; nevertheless, Chapman raised the bar considerably. Although many fans feel that critics unfairly held her to the standards of her spectacular debut, Chapman is an uncompromising artist who resists trends and sets her own standards.
Tracy Chapman (Elektra, 1988); Crossroads (Elektra, 1989); Matters of the Heart (Elektra, 1992); New Beginning (Elektra, 1995); Telling Stories (Elektra, 2000); Let It Rain (Elektra, 2002).
"Chapman, Tracy." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/chapman-tracy
"Chapman, Tracy." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved June 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/chapman-tracy
Chapman, Tracy 1964–
Tracy Chapman 1964–
With a unique style that combined folk music with an African American sensibility, singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman took the pop-music world by storm in 1988. That year, her debut album was released. It sold upwards of ten million copies, and its lead single “Fast Car” became almost universally known among music fans. One of the few late twentieth-century musicians in any genre outside of hip-hop to succeed in delivering a political message to a wide audience, Chapman also helped pave the way for the resurgence of strong, independent female voices in the popular music of the late 1990s.
Chapman was born on March 30, 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents divorced when she was four, and her mother found it extremely difficult to raise Chapman and her older sister Aneta. “Sometimes there was no electricity, or the gas would be shut off,” Chapman told Time. “I remember standing with my mother in the line to get food stamps. “Her mother was a music lover with a large record collection and a determination to nurture her daughter’s musical talents. Chapman played the ukulele in elementary school, and later studied clarinet and organ.
It might seem easy to assume that Chapman’s bent toward political folk music came about after she entered the elite educational institutions to which she later gained admission. In fact, both her interest in politics and her attraction to the guitar began while she was still in Cleveland. “As a child, I always had a sense of social conditions and political situations,” she told Rolling Stone. “I think it had to do with the fact that my mother was always discussing things with my sister and me—also because I read a lot.” Another influence, surprisingly enough, came from country music. “One of the things that made me want to learn how to play guitar was watching Buck Owens and Roy Clark and Minnie Pearl on Hee Haw when I was 8 years old,” she told Time. “The guitars they played were beautiful.”
Chapman won an ABC (A Better Chance) scholarship to the prestigious Wooster School, a prep school in Danbury, Connecticut. She honed her songwriting skills in the school’s coffeehouse, starred on its basketball and soccer teams, and was heavily recruited by several top colleges as she approached her graduation in 1982. Enrolling at Tufts University outside Boston,
At a Glance…
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 30, 1964; Education: Graduated from Tufts University.
Career: Singer-songwriter; released debut album, Tracy Chapman, 1988; participated in 1-Nation Amnesty International tour, 1988; released Crossroads, 1989; released Matters of the Heart, 1992; released New Beginning, 1995; performed on Lilith Fair tour, 1996; released Telling Stories, 2000.
Awards: Three Grammy awards, including Best New Artist, for Tracy Chapman, 1988.
Addresses: Recording company— Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
Chapman began studying veterinary medicine, but later switched to anthropology and ethnomusicology—the study of music from outside Western traditions. She continued singing and, on one occasion, played for loose change in the busy public spaces of Harvard Square. Chapman gained a strong following in the numerous folk coffeehouses and clubs of Boston and nearby Cambridge. She numbered among her admirers a fellow Tufts student, Brian Koppelman, whose father Charles Koppelman was an executive at the large SBK music publishing firm. Chapman’s contact with the elder Koppelman, who was bowled over by her songs, led to others. She teamed with veteran manager Elliot Roberts, who had worked with folk-rock stars Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, and was signed to the Elektra record label.
Chapman began her career almost reluctantly, showing little interest in financial gain and, at one point, turning down an offer from an independent label so as not to interrupt her studies. Promising though her first steps might have seemed, neither Chapman nor anyone at Elektra could have been prepared for the success of her debut album Traci Chapman, which was released in 1988. The album reached the Number One position on Billboard magazine’s pop charts, a rare accomplishment for an unknown newcomer. “Fast Car,” a vivid, densely packed narrative of a young woman who dreams of a better future but is dragged down by a series of troubles, became one of the most widely heard songs of the late 1980s.
The album owed its success to a variety of virtues. Often compared with folk/jazz vocalist Joan Armatrading, Chapman also resembled 1960s folk icon Richie Havens in her ability to bring a distinctively African American sensibility to the predominantly white oriented genre of folk music. However musically distant her style might seem from those of the rap artists who were beginning to flourish in the late 1980s, Chapman shared with the rappers an ambitious way with words and a desire to tell the stories of the American underclass. Some of her songs had a vaguely Caribbean sound, and she drew on the heavily verbal qualities of genres from that part of the world. That aspect of Chapman’s music was reinforced visually by her trademark short dreadlocks.
Such songs as “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” espoused an uncompromising political message that was light-years away from the shiny dance pop that was the norm during the late 1980s. Chapman became the subject of intense publicity for some months after the release of her debut album. She won Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy awards, and several other major awards. Expectations ran high for Chapman’s sophomore release, Crossroads, which was released in 1989.
Crossroads sold four million copies, a smash hit by any standards except for those of an artist whose debut album had sold ten million. Sales slipped further with the release of Chapman’s third album, Matters of the Heart, in 1992. Some critics speculated that the public had grown tired of Chapman’s political themes. However, like many other folk-oriented artists, Chapman had been writing songs for many years before making her first recording. She had gradually exhausted her storehouse of material and, as she recorded subsequent albums, was unable to write new material under the glare of publicity and celebrity. Indeed, when Chapman’s New Beginning album put her back near the top of the charts in 1995, it was due to the success of a song, “Give Me One Reason,” that she had written a decade earlier while still in college. Fans still flocked to Chapman’s concerts, and public admiration of her music’s distinctiveness remained strong. She became a star attraction on the all-female Lilith Fair tour in 1996. After the release of the New Beginning album, Chapman took a leave of absence from the recording process. “I felt like my life was on this cycle that was beyond my control,” she told Time. “Making records and touring, making records and touring, and in that process not being at home and not being settled. They weren’t particularly happy times.”
Chapman re-emerged in 2000 with her fifth album, Telling Stories. Reviews were mixed, with Interview praising the album’s “intimate and personal” quality and noting approvingly that Chapman “doesn’t make an album until she’s got something to say.” Entertainment Weekly was less enthusiastic, remarking that “Chapman remains an enigma: an intelligent, levelheaded craftsperson unable to convey any emotion beyond resignation.” Whatever the future direction of her career, Chapman had already fulfilled the ambition of the woman she depicted in the song “Fast Car”: to “be someone, be someone.”
Tracy Chapman, Elektra, 1988.
Crossroads, Elektra, 1989.
Matters of the Heart, Elektra, 1992.
New Beginning, Elektra, 1995.
Telling Stories, Elektra/Asylum, 2000.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 4, Gale, 1991; volume 20, Gale, 1997.
Graff, Gary, ed., MusicHound Rock: The Essential Guide, Visible Ink, 1996.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book II, Gale, 1996.
Billboard, February 12, 2000, p. 11.
Entertainment Weekly, February 18, 2000, p. 86.
Interview, March 2000, p. 88.
Life, August 1988, p. 60.
The Nation, July 6, 1992, p. 30.
Playboy, July 1988, p. 26.
Rolling Stone, September 22, 1998, p. 54.
Time, March 12, 1990, p. 70; February 28, 2000, p. 92.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from http://www.allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim
"Chapman, Tracy 1964–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chapman-tracy-1964
"Chapman, Tracy 1964–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved June 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chapman-tracy-1964