Harry Chapin was born on 7 December, 1942 in Greenwich Village, New York City, and died on 16 July, 1981. In those 38 years of life, Harry managed to be a student, a filmmaker, a musician and a songwriter. Towards the latter part of his life, Harry tried to use his popularity to help improve the lot of his fellow man. In 1975, he and Bill Ayres founded WHY (World Hunger Year) and, through charity concerts and relentless lobbying, worked to reduce the impact of world hunger.
Harry began his professional music career in 1965 and has 18 albums to his credit. Although his total album sales never reached record-breaking levels, 'Cat's in the Cradle', 'Taxi' and 'Circle' are all widely-recognised songs.
Harry never got the radio airplay many thought he deserved, largely because his songs were long and the subject matter heavy. However, most agree that his music was best appreciated live, where Harry could provide some insight into the story behind the song. Through his live performances, he built up a devoted audience who appreciated and related to his 'story-songs' and many of whom shared his views, if not his commitment to helping the world.
Listening to a Harry Chapin song for the first time is often like hearing a good story or watching a good movie: you identify with the main character and share in their triumph or despair, and resist skipping to the end to find out what is going to happen. Then, as with any really good story or song, you listen to it again and again, gaining something each time. While some songs are humorous, many more are serious, but the story is always well told and worth listening to.
The majority of quotes on the Internet attributed to Harry are lines from his songs, so while these are indeed his words, they don't say much about the man himself. One way to get an idea not only of his music but also of his philosophy would be to listen to his greatest hits album, The Gold Medal Collection. This includes not only 25 of his most popular songs, but also excerpts from interviews.
The News of Toronto, Ontario ran an article called 'Harry Chapin - Freedom of Choice', by JM Holt in 1978, which included a few quotes from Chapin:
We live in a participatory democracy and we've forgotten how to participate. In the sixties I used to shoot my big mouth off about successful people not taking a more active role in the problems of society, so when I became successful I had to put up or shut up...
Our lives are to be used and thus to be lived as fully as possible, and truly it seems that we are never so alive as when we concern ourselves with other people.
Although the London Times picked Dance Band on the Titanic as the best album of the year, Harry was often poorly received by the critics, perhaps because his songs were long, the subject matter serious and/or the presentation too sentimental. Robert Christgau, a writer for Rolling Stones, reviewed some of his records:
Heads and Tails (Elektra, 1972)
This young man takes his lost loves very seriously. Breaking up is hard to do - Neil Sedaka said that - but he didn't make a career out of it. Stash that bill in your shirt while the stashing's good, Harry C.
And in 1973 he wrote:
Short Stories (Elektra, 1973)
Harry had a problem. He wanted to write a song about a DJ, kind of a follow-up to 'Taxi', just to prove it wasn't a fluke. Harry doesn't meet many real people, so cabbies and DJs provide that touch of social realism. He wanted to set the song in Boise, Idaho, not because he had anything to say about Boise, but because 'Idaho' rhymed with 'late night talk show.' Unfortunately, call letters that far west start with K rather than W, which messed up his rhythm. Akron, Ohio? Wrong rhythm again. Denver, Colorado? Nope. So he called it 'WOLD' and hoped no one would notice. Note: this analysis is nowhere near as longwinded as Harry's stories. D+
Of course, not everyone was as critical, like this review from the New York Times:
HARRY CHAPIN ...[is] still believable as the Singing Cab Driver chronicler and friend of the working man, and not just because he still tends to sing flat.
His songs continue to tell true-to-life stories in greeting-card verse, and his stage presence is still amiably folksy...His songs lack harmonic ingenuity, their melodies tend to be predictably sing-song, their characterisations are one-dimensional and their morals are trite. And his band arrangements wring every last drop of sentiment out of them.
However, thankfully, the reviewer didn't stop there:
...if his songs don't plumb the depths of the soul or dazzle the listener with their imagery, neither do they wallow in pretentious self-analysis or flowery verbal obscurantism. Like stories overhead in bars, they're garrulous, ephemeral and diverting, and one suspects that's just what Mr Chapin intended them to be.
Congressional Gold Medal
Harry was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously on 20 May, 1986, for his work to reduce world hunger (past recipients include George Washington, the Wright Brothers, Winston Churchill and Robert F Kennedy).
A concert to commemorative this award, and to celebrate what would have been Harry's 45th birthday, was held on 7 December, 1987 at Carnegie Hall. This was recorded as the Harry Chapin Tribute album and includes contributions from Graham Nash, Judie Collins, Richie Havens, Dolores Hall, Bruce Springsteen and Pat Benatar.
One of Harry's biggest hits, 'Cat's in the Cradle' was covered by Ugly Kid Joe, Johnny Cash, Ricky Scaggs and Judy Collins, while the New Seekers had a hit in the United Kingdom with 'Circle'.
Pat Benatar recorded her version of 'Shooting Star' (from the tribute concert) on a solo album, as did Bruce Springsteen with 'Remember When The Music'.
Based on the music tracks on The Gold Medal Collection, Harry's greatest hits were:
- 'Taxi' (1972)
- 'Sunday Morning Sunshine' (1972)
- 'Old College Avenue' (1973)
- 'I Wanna Learn a Love Song' (1974)
- 'Cat's in the Cradle' (1974)
- 'Tangled Up Puppet' (1974)
- 'Dancing Boy' (1978)
- 'Flowers are Red' (1978)
- 'She Sings Songs without Words' (1974)
- 'Shooting Star' (1974)
- 'Winter Song' (1965)
- 'Story of a Life' (1980)
- 'There Was Only One Choice' (1977)
- 'A Better Place to Be' (1972)
- 'Mail Order Annie' (1973)
- 'W*O*L*D*' (1973)
- 'Mr. Tanner' (1973)
- 'Corey's Coming' (1976)
- 'Sniper' (1972)
- 'The Rock' (1975)
- 'Dance Band on the Titanic' (1977)
- 'I Wonder What Would Happen to This World' (1978)
- 'Sequel' (1980)
- 'Remember When the Music' (Reprise) (1980)
- 'Circle' (1972)
Harry died in a car crash on the Long Island Expressway on 16 July, 1981. Although records cite a heart attack as causing his death, it is unclear whether this occurred before, during or after the crash. He is buried in the Huntington Rural Cemetery, Huntington, New York. On his gravestone is the chorus from '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.