One of the most popular singer-songwriters of the 1970s, Harry Chapin recorded a vast amount of material during the decade, including 10 albums and two musicals, but he was most widely known for a pair of emotional ballads, "Taxi" and "Cat's in the Cradle," which struck a chord among listeners with their stories of missed romantic and familial connections. In addition to his music career, Chapin was also a tireless activist for social causes, including World Hunger Year, which he co-founded in 1976. His commitment to charities would eventually take greater precedence in his life than his music, which faltered in the second half of the decade before "Sequel," a follow-up to "Taxi" that became his last Top 40 single. Chapin's death in 1981 in an automobile crash was widely mourned by fans and industry members alike, who continued to pay tribute to his songs and his charitable commitments in the decades that followed, thus ensuring that his legacy as one of the most socially conscious performers of the 1970s remain intact for generations to come.
Born Harry Forster Chapin on Dec. 7, 1942 in Brooklyn, NY, he was the second of four children by jazz drummer Jim Chapin and his wife, Jeanne. His introduction to performing came as part of the Brooklyn Boys Choir, which was followed by a band he formed with his brothers Tom and Steve, both of whom would later enjoy their own musical careers. The siblings would release a poorly received album, Chapin Music! in 1966, which prompted Harry to instead pursue a career as a documentary filmmaker. His 1968 film about early boxing legends, "Legendary Champions," received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, but by 1971, Chapin had returned to music. After recruiting a band through an ad in the Village Voice, he began performing on the New York City club circuit. His first solo album, Heads & Tales (1972), featured the single "Taxi," a melancholy ballad about a cab driver who discovered that his passenger was, in fact, a former lover, now trapped in a loveless marriage, which echoed his own forlorn existence.
The song was championed by influential Boston DJ Jim Connors, who helped to spread word about Chapin to other radio programmers across the country. As a result, the song rose to No. 24 on the Billboard singles chart and earned Chapin a guest spot on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992), where the song received such overwhelmingly positive feedback from viewers that Carson invited him to give an encore performance the following night. A fierce bidding war for Chapin soon broke out between Jac Holzman at Elektra Records and Clive Davis at Columbia, with both executives offering vast sums of money for the singer. Chapin ultimately signed with Elektra, with the provision that his nine-album contract also included free studio time with no recording costs - a previously unheard-of provision in the music industry. His first record for his new label, 1972's Sniper and Other Love Songs, failed to match the overwhelming response to his first effort, though one track, "Circle," later became a hit for the New Seekers. His third album, Short Stories (1973), fared better thanks to its lead single, "W*O*L*D," a song inspired in part by Jim Connors' experiences as an aging DJ in a youth-oriented business. Two other tracks, "Mr. Tanner" and "Mail Order Annie," would become staples of his live concerts.
After completing his fourth album, Verities and Balderdash (1974), Chapin disbanded his backing group and set to work on a musical, "The Night That Made America Famous." While working on the project, Verities spawned the biggest hit of Chapin's career, "Cat's in the Cradle" (1974), a moving dialogue between a work-oriented father who discovered too late in life that the son he had kept at arm's length for most of his childhood had grown too emotionally unattached to reconnect with him in his dotage. Based in part on a poem written by his wife, Sandra, about her first husband's relationship with his father, the song rose to the top of the Billboard charts, which sent the album itself to No. 4 and made Chapin a major star. "The Night That Made America Famous" opened shortly thereafter, earning two Tony Award nominations during its brief theatrical run on Broadway in 1975. Chapin himself would claim an Emmy for his work on the Peabody Award-winning children's television series "Make a Wish" (ABC, 1971-76), which was hosted by his brother, Tom.
That same year, Chapin used his newfound status to help a variety of causes, both locally in his hometown of Long Island, New York, and on a global canvas. With radio host Bill Ayers, he co-founded World Hunger Year, which sought to combat hunger and poverty by supporting organizations that helped to educate and inform individuals in need. Eventually, his political activism would become as dominant a force in his life as his music, as evidenced by countless benefit concerts and his appearance as a delegate at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. His recording career began to take a downward turn during this period, with Portrait Gallery (1975) enjoying only modest sales and On the Road to Kingdom Come (1976) dropping off the charts after only six weeks. However, a concert album, Greatest Stories - Live (1976) reached gold status on the strength of its track listing, which featured many of his best-known songs.
By the end of the decade, Chapin's music career was at its lowest point, with the studio record Living Room Suite (1978) rising no higher than 133 on the Billboard chart and a second live album, Legends of the Lost and Found (1979) disappearing altogether after only three weeks. When his contract with Elektra expired that same year, the company refused to renew it. Chapin briefly negotiated with Casablanca Records before settling with Boardwalk, which released his final studio album, Sequel (1980). Its title track, which concerned a reunion between the long-separated lovers in his first hit, "Taxi," became his final Top 40 hit that same year. He soon set to work on a new album while penning the music and lyrics for the musical "Cotton Patch Gospel" (1981).
On July 16, 1981, Chapin was driving on the Long Island Expressway to a free concert at Eisenhower Park. While approaching the town of Jericho, he turned on his emergency flashers and slowed to approximately 15 miles per hour before veering into the center lane, barely missing another car. Chapin's vehicle then veered between two lanes before pulling in front of a tractor-trailer truck, which struck the rear of the car and ruptured its gas tank. The driver of the truck was able to rescue Chapin from the car before it was engulfed in flames, but doctors at Nassau County Medical Center were unable to revive him. The cause of Chapin's death was cited as cardiac arrest, though whether he suffered the heart attack before or after the accident remained unexplained. Despite his success, Chapin had spent most of his money on various causes, which left his family unable to continue to support them after his death. The Harry Chapin Foundation was then established, with Elektra Records providing $10,000 as the initial donation. In the years that followed, the foundation raised nearly $5 million for various charities. Chapin himself was posthumously honored with the Congressional Gold Medal in 1987, and was cited as the inspiration for many major charity efforts involving musicians, including USA for Africa and Hands Across America. His musical legacy continued to live on through his brothers, who frequently performed with his bandmates in the decades that followed Chapin's death. His own daughter, Jen, would also enjoy a musical career, as did his nieces, Abigail and Lily, who performed as the Chapin Sisters.
By Paul Gaita