Chapin in 1975
|Harry Forster Chapin|
December 7, 1942|
Brooklyn, New York City, United States
July 16, 1981 (aged 38)|
Jericho, New York, United States
|Musician, Composer, Arranger, Author, Humanitarian, Activist, Playwright, Philanthropist|
Harry Forster Chapin (December 7, 1942 - July 16, 1981) was an American singer-songwriter, humanitarian, and producer best known for his folk rock and pop rock songs, who achieved worldwide success in the 1970s and became one of the most popular artists and highest paid performers. He is also one of the best charting musical artists in the United States. Chapin, a Grammy Award winning artist and Grammy Hall of Fame inductee, has sold over 16 million records worldwide and has been described as one of the most beloved performers in music history.
Chapin recorded a total of 11 albums from 1972 until his death in 1981. All 14 singles that he released became hit singles on at least one national music chart.
As a dedicated humanitarian, he fought to end world hunger; he was a key participant in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1977. He is credited with being the most politically and socially active American performer of the 1970s. In 1987, Chapin was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian work.
Chapin was born in New York City, the second of four children, who also included future musicians Tom and Steve. His parents were Jeanne Elspeth (née Burke) and Jim Chapin, a legendary percussionist. He had English ancestry. The earliest Chapin to come to America was Samuel Chapin, who was the first deacon of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1636. His other great-grandparents on his mothers side had immigrated in the late 19th century. His parents divorced in 1950, with his mother retaining custody of their four sons, as Jim spent much of his time on the road as a drummer for Big Band-era acts such as Woody Herman. Chapin's mother married Films in Review magazine editor Henry Hart a few years later. His maternal grandfather was literary critic Kenneth Burke.
Chapin's first formal introduction to music were trumpet lessons at The Greenwich House Music School under Mr. Karrasic (sic). Harry's younger brothers Tom and Steve were choirboys at Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights, and through them Chapin met "Big" John Wallace, a baritone with a five-octave range, who later became his bassist, backing vocalist, and straight man onstage. Chapin began performing with his brothers while a teenager, with their father occasionally joining them on drums. Chapin graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1960 and was among the five inductees in the school's Alumni Hall Of Fame for the year 2000. He briefly attended the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado and was then an intermittent student at Cornell University in New York State, but did not complete a degree.
He originally intended to be a documentary film-maker and directed Legendary Champions in 1968, which was nominated for a documentary Academy Award. In 1971, he began focusing on music. With John Wallace, Tim Scott, and Ron Palmer, Chapin started playing in various nightclubs in New York City.
In 1972, there was a bidding war between music business heavyweights Clive Davis at Columbia and Jac Holzman at Elektra over Chapin. He signed a multi-million dollar recording contract with Elektra Records. The contract was one of the biggest of its time. It granted him free recording time, along with many other perks.
The same year, he released his debut album, Heads & Tales. The album was an international success, selling over 1 million units. Its success was due to the top 25 Billboard Hot 100 hit single, "Taxi". The song also became a top 5 hit in Canada. The success of the song in America is credited to American radio personality Jim Connors, who helped promote the song on the radio despite its length, and helped it to stay on the charts for 16 weeks. It became the number one requested song for 10 weeks in a row. The song was performed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which received so many calls that Chapin returned the next night. It was the first time in the show's history that a performer had been called back the next night. It was also one of the first performances on The Midnight Special, with John Denver hosting.
When asked if the song was true, Chapin said "It's emotionally true, if not literally true. I've been in the film business on and off for a lot of years, and wasn't doing well at one point. So I went out and got a hack license for bread, and during the month that I was waiting for it to come through, I heard an old girlfriend of mine had gotten married and instead of becoming an actress she married a rich guy. I envisioned some night I'd be driving a cab in the big city streets and this lady would get in the back, and I'd turn and look at her and she'd look at me and know we both sold out our dreams." Billboard ranked "Taxi" as the 85th song of the year. "Taxi" also earned Chapin a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist of the Year.
The follow up album, Sniper and Other Love Songs, was also released in 1972. The album's title song, "Sniper", is a semi-fictional account of the University of Texas tower shooting. The single release from the album, "Sunday Morning Sunshine", charted on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a top 40 on Billboard Adult Contemporary. The album was less successful than the last, selling 350,000 units. The album also contained the Chapin anthem, "Circle". In 2004, the double album Sniper and Other Love Songs and Heads & Tales was released. It contained previously unreleased tracks from both albums.
In 1973, Chapin released his third album, Short Stories. The album produced another international hit, "WOLD". It sold over 1 million units. The song is about an aging disc jockey who has given up his entire life and family for the job. The song is sung from the point of view of the disc jockey to his ex-wife. It was inspired by American radio personality Jim Connors. Chapin wrote the song when he listened to Connors calling his ex-wife in the WMEX studio. The song became a top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, a top 10 in Canada, and top 10 and 20 in various other countries. Other notable songs from the album, but not released as singles, are "Mr. Tanner", "Mail Order Annie", and "They Call Her Easy".
In 1974, he released his most successful album, Verities and Balderdash. The album sold 2.5 million units. Its success was due to the number 1 hit, "Cat's in the Cradle". The song is about a father who didn't find time for his son during his childhood, and quickly turns into the son growing up just like him and not having time for him. The song earned him another Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and Chapin was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The album peaked at number 4 on the Billboard 200. The album's follow-up single, "I Wanna Learn a Love Song", charted at number 7 on Billboard Adult Contemporary. The song is a true story about how he met his wife, Sandra Chapin. "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" is a song that was including on the album but not released as a single. The song also became the number one requested song for a few weeks. It is a semi-fictional account of a truck crash that occurred in Scranton, Pennsylvania, transporting bananas. Other notable songs from the album include "Shooting Star", "Halfway to Heaven", and "Six String Orchestra".
In 1975, he released his fifth album, Portrait Gallery. The album produced a top 40 Billboard Adult Contemporary hit, "Dreams Go By". However, the album was less successful than the last. It sold 350,000 units. In addition, he wrote and performed a Broadway play, The Night That Made America Famous. The play earned two Tony Award nominations and two Drama Desk Award nominations.
By 1976, Chapin was established as one of the most popular singers of the decade. He released his first live album, Greatest Stories Live. The album sold 2.1 million units. However, Elektra Records underwent a management change and gave almost no promotion for his later albums with Elektra, but they all sold at least 250,000 units each and charted successfully.
By the end of the decade, Chapin focused more on touring than producing hit singles, but still released one album a year. He earned an estimated $2,000,000 per year (approximately $11,748,515 in 2017) until his death in 1981, making him one of the highest paid artists in the world. In 1980, his recording contract with Elektra expired. He signed a one-album contract with Boardwalk Records, and released his ninth studio album, Sequel. The album has been described as his fastest breaking album. Three singles were released, with all of them becoming hits. The first single, Sequel, became a top 25 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. The song is a followup to Taxi. The second single, Remember When The Music, became a top 50 on the Adult Contemporary Chart. The last single, Story of a Life, became a hit on the Bubbling Under chart. The album sold 500,000 units.
Chapin met Sandy Cashmore (née Gaston), a New York socialite nine years his senior, in 1966, after she called him asking for music lessons. They married two years later. The story of their meeting and romance is told in his song, "I Wanna Learn a Love Song". Chapin wrote several additional songs about her, including "Shooting Star" about their relationship, and "Sandy". He had two children with her, Jennifer and Joshua, and was stepfather to her three children from a previous marriage, Jaime, Jason, and Jonathan.
Chapin resolved to leave his imprint on Long Island. He envisioned a Long Island where the arts flourished, universities expanded, and humane discourse was the norm. "He thought Long Island represented a remarkable opportunity", said Chapin's widow, Sandy.
In the mid-1970s, Chapin focused on social activism, including raising money to combat hunger in the United States. His daughter Jen said: "He saw hunger and poverty as an insult to America." He co-founded the organization World Hunger Year with radio personality Bill Ayres, before returning to music with On the Road to Kingdom Come. He also released a book of poetry, Looking...Seeing, in 1975. More than half of Chapin's concerts were benefit performances (for example, a concert to help save the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse, New York, as well as hunger causes such as food banks), and proceeds from his concert merchandise were used to support World Hunger Year. Chapin's social causes at times caused friction among his band members. Chapin donated an estimated third of his paid concerts to charitable causes, often performing alone with his guitar to reduce costs. Mike Rendine accompanied him on bass throughout 1979.
One report quotes his widow saying soon after his death -- "only with slight exaggeration" -- that "Harry was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, seven foundations, and 82 charities. Harry wasn't interested in saving money. He always said, 'Money is for people,' so he gave it away." Despite his success as a musician, he left little money and it was difficult to maintain the causes for which he raised more than $3 million in the last six years of his life. The Harry Chapin Foundation was the result.
On July 16, 1981, Chapin was driving in the left lane on the Long Island Expressway at about 65 mph (105 km/h) on the way to perform at a free concert scheduled for later that evening at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, New York. Near exit 40 in Jericho, he put on his emergency flashers, presumably because of either a mechanical or medical problem. He then slowed to about 15 miles (24 km) per hour and veered into the center lane, nearly colliding with another car. He swerved left, then to the right again, ending up directly in the path of a tractor-trailer truck. The truck could not brake in time and rammed the rear of Chapin's blue 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit, rupturing the fuel tank as it climbed up and over the back of the car, which burst into flames. Dr. Minoru Araki, Nassau County's deputy chief medical examiner, said Chapin's aorta was lacerated by the tremendous impact and he died of massive hemorrhaging into his chest cavity. Araki said a report that Chapin may have suffered a heart attack at the wheel was erroneous. "He suffered a cardiac arrest as the result of his severe injuries, but the autopsy showed that his heart was in very good condition," Araki said.
The driver of the truck and a passerby were able to get Chapin out of the burning car through a window after cutting the seat belts before the car was engulfed in flames. Chapin was taken by police helicopter to a hospital, where 10 doctors tried for 30 minutes to revive him. . In a 2004 interview, many years after his death, Chapin's daughter Jennifer said, "My dad didn't really sleep, and he ate badly and had a totally insane schedule."
Although Chapin was driving without a license - his driver's license having previously been revoked for a long string of traffic violations - his widow Sandy won a $12 million decision in a negligence lawsuit against Supermarkets General, the owners of the truck, based on what Chapin would have earned over the next 20 years. An earlier phase of the trial had found Chapin 40% negligent in the accident and Supermarkets General 60% negligent, so the award of $12 million for the financial loss to the family was automatically reduced to $7.2 million.
Chapin's remains were interred in the Huntington Rural Cemetery in Huntington, New York. His epitaph is taken from his song "I Wonder What Would Happen to this World":
Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man's life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world
On December 7, 1987, on what would have been his 45th birthday, Chapin was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his campaigning on social issues, particularly his highlighting of hunger around the world and in the United States. His work on hunger included being widely recognized as a key player in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger (under 39th President Jimmy Carter) in 1977 (he was the only member who attended every meeting). He was also the inspiration for the antihunger projects USA for Africa and Hands Across America, which were organized by Ken Kragen, who had been Chapin's manager at the end of Chapin's career, after Fred Kewley. Kragen, explaining his work on these benefit events, said, "I felt like Harry had crawled into my body and was making me do it."
From around 1975 until the owners changed the format of the station in the late 1990s, WNEW-FM, 102.7, a NYC radio station with the motto, "Where Rock Lives" held an annual "Hungerthon" every Thanksgiving, to benefit Harry Chapin's World Hunger League. During the 24-hour period of the event, little to no music was played, with the exception of the iconic "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie played at noon and 6 pm. For the remainder of the day, during every DJ's four-hour show, guests such as Harry himself, other music stars, and experts on hunger brought to the listeners information about the severity of hunger in America, in New York City, and in the tri-state area, sometimes in graphic detail. After Harry's death, the "Hungerthon" continued, and at the "U.S. Live Aid" concert in Philadelphia at JFK Stadium in 1985, Kenny Loggins was presented with the first "Harry Chapin Award" for his work for the World Hunger League in fighting hunger in America. Since WNEW-FM changed formats, other New York stations have continued to do fundraisers for the charity.
Chapin had co-operated before his death with the writer of the biography entitled Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story, by Peter M. Coan, released posthumously, from which the family withdrew their support. Some concern existed about the accuracy of the details included in the book. In 2001, Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" was ranked number 186 of 365 on the Recording Industry Association of America list of Songs of the Century. Chapin was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame on October 15, 2006.
The Lakeside Theatre at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, New York, was renamed Harry Chapin Lakeside Theatre during a memorial concert held one month after his death, as a tribute to his efforts to combat world hunger. Other Long Island landmarks named in honor of Chapin include a graduate-student apartment complex at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, a theater in Heckscher Park in Huntington, New York, and a playground at the intersection of Columbia Heights and Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights.
Singer and songwriter Guthrie Thomas has long publicly stated that Chapin's song "Cat's in the Cradle" is one of the most difficult songs to perform, due to Chapin's master guitar playing and his brilliant syncopation of the lyrics, meaning each word must fit perfectly and in time with the playing. Also, despite seeming social and political differences with Chapin, Dr. James Dobson often quotes the entirety of "Cat's In The Cradle" to illustrate dynamics of contemporary American families.
A children's picture book was created using the lyrics of "Mr. Tanner" and the illustrations of Bryan Langdo; it was published by Ripple Grove Press in May 2017.
Harry's widow Sandy is now chair of the Harry Chapin Foundation, where she continues to pursue Harry's legacy. His son Josh is involved with the foundation, along with family members.
Chapin often remarked that he came from an artistic family. His father Jim, brothers Tom and Steve, and daughter Jen Chapin are musicians. His nieces Abigail and Lily Chapin perform under the name the Chapin Sisters. His paternal grandfather, James Ormsbee Chapin, was an artist who illustrated Robert Frost's first two books of poetry; his maternal grandfather was the philosopher and rhetorician Kenneth Burke.
Harry Chapin's brothers sometimes performed with Harry at various times throughout his career, particularly during live performances. They played with him before his solo career took off, and were credited on the albums Chapin Music!, Greatest Stories Live, and Legends of the Lost and Found. Tom and Steve continued to perform together (often with Harry's former bandmates) from time to time after his death.
|1972||Taxi||Best New Artist of the Year||Nominated|
|1975||Cats in the Cradle||Best Pop Male Vocal Performance||Nominated|
|1986||Harry Chapin||President's Merit Award||Won|
|2011||Harry Chapin||Hall of Fame Award||Won|