Singer-songwriter Harry Chapin is best remembered musically for his famous folk-story songs, especially “Taxi” and “Cat’s in the Cradle,” the latter of which garnered him a Grammy nomination. During his career, however, he also became deeply involved in helping charitable organizations, particularly those concerned with hunger issues. In addition to lobbying Congress and then President Jimmy Carter to take stands to defeat U.S. and worldwide malnutrition, Chapin himself donated large sums from the proceeds of his live concerts to a wide variety of charities. When he was killed in a car crash in 1981, the world was not only deprived of his artistic talents but of one of its most valiant fighters on behalf of the poor.
Chapin was born December 7, 1944, in Greenwich Village, New York, to a musical family. His father was big-band drummer James Chapin, who had played with the bands of Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman. As a child Harry Chapin sang in the Brooklyn Heights Boys Choir. Later he learned to play first the trumpet and then the guitar and banjo. His brothers were musical also, and when he was fifteen, they formed their own folk band. Calling themselves the Chapin Brothers, they played off and on at local clubs on the Greenwich Village folk scene while Harry pursued his education, first at the Air Force Academy and then at Cornell University.
By the time he dropped out of Cornell in 1964, Chapin had become more interested in film than music. He began working in filmmaking, working his way up to editor and eventually writing and making the boxing documentary The Legendary Champions with his associate Jim Jacobs in 1969. Chapin’s screen effort took first prizes at film festivals in New York and Atlanta, Georgia, and even received an Academy Award nomination. But he continued to work at his music as well, and when his songs were used in yet another documentary, Blue Water, White Death, Chapin returned his concentration to composition. In 1970 his brothers Steve and Tom reformed their group, and Harry provided them with songs, but did not sing and play with them.
The following year, however, Chapin was ready to go back to the music business in full force. He rented the Village Gate in New York for the summer, and, backed by his brothers, began attracting local fans in large numbers. By the end of the year, Chapin had been signed to a recording contract by Elektra Records. His debut album, Heads and Tales, released in 1972, contained the single “Taxi”—a story song about a taxi driver meeting up with his old flame who is now
For the Record…
Born Harry Forster Chapin, December 7, 1942, in New York, NY; died in an automobile accident, July 16, 1981, on Long Island, NY; son of James Forbes (a musician) and Elspeth (Burke) Chapin; married Sandra Campbell Gaston (a poet); children: Jaime, Jonothon, Jason, Jennifer, Josh. Education: Attended Air Force Academy and Cornell University, early 1960s.
Singer, songwriter, instrumentalist. Member of the group the Chapin Brothers, early 1960s. Worked in film during the late 1960s. wrote documentary film The Legendary Champions, 1969. Solo concert performer and recording artist, 1971-81. Composed music and lyrics for the Broadway show The Night That Made America Famous, first performed February 26, 1975. Founding trustee of World Hunger Year, 1974-81; member of the President’s Committee on International, Domestic, and World Hunger, 1978-81.
Awards: Grammy Award nominations for best new artist, for “Taxi,” 1972, and for best male vocal performance, for “Cat’s in the Cradle,” 1975; two Tony Award nominations, 1975, for The Night That Made America Famous; Academy Award nomination and first prize in film festivals in New York City and Atlanta, GA, 1969, for Legendary Champions.
married to a wealthy man; they both have regrets. “Taxi” was well received by fans, and the hit was responsible for Chapin’s first Grammy nomination for best new artist of 1972.
Chapin followed “Taxi” with albums such as Sniper and Other Love Songs, Short Stories, and Verities and Balderdash, and singles such as “W*O*L*D,” about a disc jockey talking to his ex-wife on the phone, and the smash “Cat’s in the Cradle,” about a father too busy with business to watch his son grow up. The latter song netted Chapin a Grammy nomination for best male vocal performance of 1975. But while fans responded well to the singer-songwriter’s music, many critics did not, complaining of the didactic moral tone of many of his efforts. Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone explained further that reviewers felt that Chapin was “preachy… a simplistic and woeful singer, a careless craftsman in the studio, [and] emotionally overwrought onstage.” But Marsh added: “If the ungainly accents and sputtering diction of some of Chapin’s songs can’t kill their power, that is because more important things than simple aesthetics are at work in those tunes, and because Chapin wasn’t working in a pop context of craftsmanship and cool but from the folk-music traditions of the American left.” Despite Chapin’s critical reputation, “The Night That Made America Famous,” the Broadway musical for which he composed and wrote lyrics, garnered two Tony Awards in 1975.
While Chapin worked steadily on his musical career, he also became involved with many charitable causes, especially those set up to aid famine victims. With his friend Bill Ayres he founded World Hunger Year in 1974, “an educational organization devoted to eradicating starvation,” in the words of Giola Diliberto in People. Also concerned with the artistic enrichment of his fellow man, Chapin gave some of his efforts to charities involving music and dance companies. All in all, he gave almost half of his concert proceeds—roughly five million dollars—to causes he felt were worthy. Not only did Chapin contribute personally, but he interested others, like singers Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver, and Kenny Rogers, in doing benefits for hunger. He also continually lobbied in Washington, D.C., for hunger causes, and was instrumental in President Jimmy Carter’s 1978 decision to set up the President’s Committee on International, Domestic, and World Hunger.
Though Chapin did not have much in the way of hits during the late 1970s, as Marsh reported, he “toured a great deal and his concerts were always well attended.” In addition to his standard story-songs, Chapin added numbers such as “Circle” and “Remember When the Music,” which Marsh praised as “simple folk songs appropriate to any gathering of the faithful, whether sung around a campfire or at a mass rally.” Chapin also encouraged audience participation in his songs during concerts, and, especially when playing a benefit, was often willing to talk with his fans and sign autographs after a performance. His brothers Steve and Tom continued to be regular features of his backup band, and occasionally his father would open for them with a Dixieland jazz group that the senior Chapin had formed.
In 1980, Chapin released another hit, “Sequel.” As the title implies, it revisits the characters of one of his previous story songs, “Taxi.” This time, the former taxi driver has become a successful musician and the woman has divorced her wealthy husband. “Sequel” remained on the charts until 1981. Tragically, later that year, Chapin, who had several tickets for speeding and moving violations, and had his driver’s license revoked, was driving illegally and was involved in a fatal crash on Long Island. His oldest brother, James, told Diliberto in People: “Ironically, I don’t think this accident was Harry’s fault.” Chapin’s death was mourned not only by his fans, but by the U.S. politicians he had badgered into acting on hunger legislation. As Marsh reported, “No other singer—not Bing Crosby, nor Elvis Presley, nor John Lennon—has ever been so widely honored by the nation’s legislators. Nine senators and thirty congressmen paid tribute to Harry Chapin on the floor.” The Harry Chapin Memorial Fund was founded by his family to help continue his charitable works.
Heads and Tales (includes “Taxi”), Elektra, 1972.
Sniper and Other Love Songs, Elektra, 1972.
Short Stories (includes “W*O*L*D”), Elektra, 1973.
Verities and Balderdash (includes “Cat’s in the Cradle”), Elektra, 1974.
Portrait Gallery, Elektra, 1975.
On the Road to Kingdom Come, Elektra, 1976.
Greatest Stories Live (includes “Circle” and “30,000 Pounds of Bananas”), Elektra, 1976.
Dance Band on the Titanic, Elektra, 1977.
Living Room Suite, Elektra, 1978.
Legends of the Lost and Found, Elektra, 1980.
Sequel (includes “Sequel”), Boardwalk, 1980.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 105, Gale, 1982.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1984.
People, March 15, 1982.
Rolling Stone, April 6, 1978; September 3, 1981.
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