Harry Chapin, folk singer, 1942-1981


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Harry Chapin was born on December 7, 1942, the second of six brothers, and later, six half-siblings. His family of artists provided a "rich little poor boy" childhood, with little money but much love and stimulation. They lived in New York City’s Greenwich Village, on West 11th Street. Each summer, the Chapin children visited their Grandfather Burke’s farm in New Jersey. Harry’s father Big Jim Chapin was a jazz drummer] with Tommy Dorsey's and Woody Herman's bands, and was often on the road. In the 50s his parents divorced and the family moved to Brooklyn Heights. Harry and his younger brothers Tom and Steve joined the Grace Church Choir, and he took trumpet lessons.

In the summer of 1957 he discovered girls and guitars.

With "The Weavers at Carnegie Hall" playing constantly in the New Jersey barn, Harry started playing banjo, Tom guitar, and Steve upright bass. In 1958, the Chapin Brothers, “singing 3-part pubescent harmony”, went public at neighborhood parties, band breaks and society dances. They were junior folkies, on the edge of the exploding Village folk boom.

In 1960 Chapin finished high school. He fell in and out of school, jobs, the former including the Air Force Academy and Cornell University (twice), and the latter including punching checks at a bank and editing films at Drew Associates. In and out of love] as well, he started writing songs, which fell into the usual categories of protest songs or “lugubrious ballads of unrequited love”. By 1965 he and his brothers decided to get serious about music. Their father joined the group that summer, adding jazz to a list of influences including gospel, folk, and rock, and they recorded an album, “Chapin Music”, on the Rockland Music label. But in September, the Vietnam War forced Tom and Steve to return to college, and the group disbanded.

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Chapin took a job in L.A. and spent six months making airline commercials. Then he returned to New York to work on boxing films with Cayton, Inc. The next 2 1/2 years culminated in the documentary film "Legendary Champions," which he made in 1967. The film won the New York and Atlanta film festival gold prizes as best documentary and was nominated for an Academy Award as best feature documentary in 1969. Chapin then went to Ethiopia with Jim Lipscomb to work on a documentary on the World Bank's impact on the underdeveloped world.

Always eclectic, Chapin now began work on a Broadway musical. He wrote four versions of what would eventually be called “The Night that Made America Famous” when the ninth version was finally released in 1975. The show was a multimedia musical that combined elements of theater and rock & roll with advanced film and lighting techniques, and though it only had a short run, it won two Tony nominations

In November, 1968, Chapin married Sandy Gaston. They set up house in Huntington Bay, Long Island with her three children, Jaime, Jono and Jason, and eventually had two children of their own, Jenny, and Josh. He worked for a time as a free lance documentary film-maker, and produced and directing short films for IBM and Time-Life. In 1970 he teamed up with Jim Lipscomb again for a one hour film about the America's Cup 12 meter yacht international sailing competition, "Duel In The Wind."

By late fall, 1970, he started writing songs again, although in a completely different style, grounded in his cinema verité experiences. Tom and Steve, who had formed their own group, performed some of his material. Though film jobs were scarce, he found three, and pocketing the profits, left film for music.


In 1971, Chapin resumed his musical career. His brothers Tom and Steve were playing at the Village Gate for that entire summer, and Harry’s band, which consisted of him on lead guitar, a bassist and a celloist, opened for them. His audiences were tiny, leading him to treat performances “like a gathering of old friends sharing stories”. Gradually the audience grew, there were positive reviews, and the band signed with Elektra. In the next six months they flew to L.A. and produced the album Heads & Tails, which included the 1972 hit "Taxi."

Ten more albums followed, yielding a handful of other hits, notably "Cat's in the Cradle" (written by Sandy for her youngest son Josh), "W*O*L*D," "Sniper," and "Sequel." Although he never sold a spectacular number of records, Chapin toured a great deal and his concerts were always well attended. In 1977 his songs formed the basis for a musical revue entitled "Chapin," which ran for seven-months at the Improvisation Theatre in Hollywood and visited several other cities.

Chapin often described himself as a "third-rate folk singer," and critics usually agreed. As he was the first to acknowledge, he was not cool, failing to maintain any distance from the world and its problems. Preachy and didactic, awkward and unhip, a simplistic and woeful singer, he was careless in the studio and overwrought onstage, but above all, he was earnest. He worked within the folk tradition of storytelling and sympathy, instead of the pop tradition of craftsmanship and cool. In an electrified rock age that prized ornate arrangements and pounding disco, Harry remained devoted to storytelling folk rock. His principal contribution was the self-described "story song," a narrative form that owed much to the talking blues. His subjects were often common people with ironic, wistful, bitter, or melodramatic stories. Musically, his idiom was the strumming acoustic guitar and conversational baritone, which he sometimes combined with complex instrumentation and a large band.


With Chapin’s career going strong, his “brave words of the 60's about the social responsibility of successful people" became bluffs to be called.” Best known for his activism on the issue of hunger, in 1975 he and Father Bill Ayres founded World Hunger Year (WHY), a non-profit organization dedicated to giving a greater visibility to and higher priority for the solutions of the problem of world hunger. In 1977 WHY’s Washington based lobby group, the Food Policy Center, resulted in the formation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger, to which Chapin was appointed. Like his songwriting, Chapin’s lobbying style was earnest, he impressed politicians with his caring, and badgered them with his relentless pestering. He was still working on plans for hunger legislation and public-food policy initiatives when he died.

Chapin was also a member of the Cambodia Crisis Committee and raised money for The Public Interest Research Group and Congresswatch (two Ralph Nader organizations), as well as Consumer Action Now. He campaigned on behalf of suc senators as Patrick Leahy, Mo Udall, Frank Church, Gary Hart, and Alan Cranston. Particularly active on Long Island, he was a member of the boards of Hofstra University, The Long Island Association, Long Island Cares, the Action Committee for Long Island, the Performing Arts Foundation, The Long Island Philharmonic, and The Eglevsky Ballet. He raised tens of thousands of dollars for the bankrupt Performing Arts Foundation, the principal theatrical group on Long Island. He mobilized Action Committee for Long Island, a community of business people in support of the arts. And he helped persuade the New York State Council on the Arts to support the formation of the Long Island Philharmonic.

At one point a full half of Chapin’s performances were benefits, and these are estimated to have netted more than $5 million for various charities. But he used to warn against what he called an "event psychosis". According to associate Ralph Nader, “Harry's conviction (was) that all his work -- musical and political, artistic and charitable -- should not be "event-oriented" but committed to a process in which each segment leads naturally to the next, and into which others can be enticed and pulled along.”


Chapin used to stress the involvement of others in his schemes, pointing out that "if I should walk across the street and get hit by a taxi tomorrow, what's left of this organization?" He once wrote a tragicomic song about a truck driver who died in a traffic accident while hauling 30,000 pounds of bananas.

On July 16th he died in a car accident. He was 38 years old.

Driving on the Long Island Expressway in Jericho, L.I. he was hit from behind by a flatbed tractor-trailer owned by Rickles Home Center of Paramus, N.J. It struck his car at 55 miles an hour as the car shifted lanes with its emergency lights flashing near exit 40, the Jericho Turnpike, at 12:27 P.M. The force of the crash crushed the rear of the 1975 Volkswagen to the pavement, sending off sparks that set its fuel tank aflame. The truck driver, Robert Eggleton of Plainfield, N.J., suffered burns on his face and arms as he cut Mr. Chapin from his seatbelt and dragged him from the flaming wreckage. But Chapin died from the crash, not from the burns, which were minor. He was pronounced dead at Nassau County Medical Center at 1:05 P.M. Police could not determine whether Chapin's car had been disabled or why the emergency lights were flashing. No charges were filed.

He was to have performed that night at a free concert in Westbury, L.I.

The official Harry Chapin website is at www.harrychapinmusic.com. Sources for this writeup were “All My Life’s a Circle”- an autobiographical statement in a concert program circa 1980, the singer’s obituaries in The New York Times (John Rockwell, 7/17/81) and Rolling Stone (Dave Marsh, 9/3/81), and AllMusicGuide.com

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