Harry Forster Chapin (December 7, 1942 – July 16, 1981) was an American singer-songwriter best known in particular for his folk rock songs including “Taxi”, “W*O*L*D”, and the number-one hit “Cat’s in the Cradle”. Chapin was also a dedicated humanitarian who fought to end world hunger; he was a key player in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1977. In 1987, Chapin was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian work.
Early life and education
Chapin was born into a middle-class family in New York City, the second of four children—including future musicians Tom and Steve—born to Jeanne Elspeth (née Burke) and Jim Chapin, who was a musician—a percussionist. He had English ancestry, his great-grandparents having emigrated in the late 19th century. His parents divorced in 1950, with Elspeth 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. She married Films in Review magazine editor Henry Hart a few years later. Chapin’s maternal grandfather was literary critic Kenneth Burke.
Chapin’s first formal introduction to music was while singing in the Brooklyn Boys Choir. It was here that Chapin met “Big” John Wallace, a tenor with a five-octave range, who later became his bassist, backing vocalist, and his straight man onstage. He 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 and was then an intermittent student at Cornell University, but did not complete a degree.
He originally intended to be a documentary film-maker, and directed Legendary Champions in 1968, which was nominated as a documentary Academy Award. In 1971, he decided to focus on music. With John Wallace, Tim Scott and Ron Palmer, Chapin started playing in various local nightclubs in New York City.
Following an unsuccessful early album made with his brothers, Tom Chapin and Steve Chapin, Chapin’s debut album was Heads & Tales (1972, #60), which was a success thanks to the single “Taxi” (#24). Chapin later gave great credit to WMEX-Boston radio personality Jim Connors for being the DJ who “discovered” this single, and pushing the airplay of this song among fellow radio programmers in the U.S.
However, Chapin’s recording future became somewhat of a controversy between two powerful record companies headed by two very powerful men, Jac Holzman of Elektra Records and Clive Davis of Columbia. According to Chapin’s biography Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story by Peter M. Coan, Chapin had agreed in principle to sign with Elektra Records on the grounds that a smaller record label would give greater personal attention to his work. Davis, however, remained undaunted, doubling almost every cash advance offer Chapin received from Holzman. Despite a cordial relationship with Holzman, Davis had a long history of besting Holzman over the years to particular artists, but this was one time that he did not prevail.
Chapin ultimately signed with Elektra for a smaller advance, but with provisions that made it worth the move. The biggest stipulation in the nine-album deal was that he receive free studio time, meaning he paid no recording costs. It was a move that would ultimately save Chapin hundreds of thousands of dollars over the term of his contract and set a precedent for other musicians.
“This was completely unheard of,” said Davis in the Coan book. “There was no such thing as free studio time.”
Chapin’s follow-up album, Sniper and Other Love Songs (1972, #160), was less successful despite containing the Chapin anthem “Circle” (a big European hit for The New Seekers). His third album, Short Stories (1973, #61), was a modest success. Verities & Balderdash (1974, #4), released soon after, was much more successful, bolstered by the chart-topping hit single “Cat’s in the Cradle”, based upon a poem by his wife; Sandra Chapin had written the poem inspired by her first husband’s relationship with his father and a country song she heard on the radio. When Harry’s son Josh was born, he got the idea to put music to the words and recorded the result. “Cat’s in the Cradle” was Chapin’s only number one hit, shooting album sales skyward and making him a millionaire.
He also wrote and performed a Broadway musical The Night That Made America Famous. Additionally, Chapin wrote the music and lyrics for Cotton Patch Gospel, a musical by Tom Key and Russell Treyz based on Clarence Jordan’s book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. The original cast soundtrack was produced by Tom Chapin, and released in 1982 by Chapin Productions.
Chapin’s only UK hit was “W*O*L*D”, which reached #34 in 1974. His popularity in the UK owed much to the championing of BBC disc jockey Noel Edmonds. The song’s success in the U.S. was championed by WMEX jock and friend of Chapin’s Jim Connors who in part inspired the song. The national appeal of the song was a result of disc jockeys playing it for themselves, since the song dealt with a much-traveled DJ, problems in his personal life, and his difficulty with aging in the industry. This song was also a significant inspiration (though not the only one) for Hugh Wilson, who created the popular television series about DJs and radio, WKRP in Cincinnati.
Chapin’s recording of “The Shortest Story”, a song he wrote about a dying child and featured in his 1976 live/studio album Greatest Stories Live, was named by author Tom Reynolds in his book I Hate Myself And Want To Die as the second most depressing song of all time.
Chapin’s personal interaction with his fans (he regularly led audiences in sing-alongs) was such that during a 1977 appearance at Pensacola Junior College, Pensacola, Florida, when he was touring with only his bass viol player, he recruited the back-up singers for “Mr. Tanner” out of the audience.
By the end of the decade, Chapin’s contract with Elektra (which had since merged with Asylum Records under the control of David Geffen) had expired, and the company made no offer to renew it. A minor deal with Casablanca Records fell through, and Chapin settled on a simple one-album deal with Boardwalk Records. The Boardwalk album would be his final work.
The title track of his last album, Sequel, was a follow up to his earlier song “Taxi”, reuniting the same characters ten years later. The songs Chapin was working on at the time of his death were subsequently released as the thematic album The Last Protest Singer.
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”. 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 wrote several songs about her, including “Shooting Star” about their relationship, and “Sandy”. As for his religious views, Chapin was “an agnostic, if not an atheist”.
Chapin was 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.
Chapin served on the boards of the Eglevsky Ballet, the Long Island Philharmonic, and Hofstra University. He also energized the now-defunct Performing Arts Foundation (PAF) of Huntington.
In the mid-1970s, Chapin focused on his 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 legendary radio DJ Bill Ayres, before returning to music with On the Road to Kingdom Come. He also released a book of poetry, Looking…Seeing, in 1977. Many of Chapin’s concerts were benefit performances (for example, a concert to help save the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse, New York), and sales of his concert merchandise were used to support World Hunger Year.
Chapin’s social causes at times caused friction among his band members and then-manager Fred Kewley. 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.
Harry Chapin’s gravestone
On Thursday, July 16, 1981, just after noon, Chapin was driving in the left lane on the Long Island Expressway at about 65 mph 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 (possibly a heart attack). 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 by climbing its back and causing it to burst into flames.
The driver of the truck and a passerby were able to get Chapin out of the burning car through the window and by cutting the seat belts before the car was completely engulfed in flames. He was taken by police helicopter to a hospital, where ten doctors tried for 30 minutes to revive him. A spokesman for the Nassau County Medical Center said Chapin had suffered a heart attack and “died of cardiac arrest”, but there was no way of knowing whether it occurred before or after the accident. In an interview years after his death, Chapin’s daughter said “My dad didn’t really sleep, and he ate badly and had a totally insane schedule.”
Even though 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.
Chapin’s remains were interred in the Huntington Rural Cemetery, Huntington, New York. His epitaph is taken from his song “I Wonder What Would Happen to this World”. It is: 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 in 1977 (he was the only member who attended every meeting). He was also the inspiration for the anti-hunger projects USA for Africa and Hands Across America, which were organized by Ken Kragen, who had been Chapin’s manager. Kragen, explaining his work on these benefit events, said, “I felt like Harry had crawled into my body and was making me do it.”
A biography of Chapin entitled Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story, by Peter M. Coan, was released following his death. Although Chapin had cooperated with the writer, following his death the family withdrew their support. There is some concern 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 RIAA 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 Stony Brook University, a theater in Heckscher Park, and a playground at the intersection of Columbia Heights and Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights.
On September 27, 2011, former congressman Alan Grayson wrote an article on The Huffington Post about Chapin’s song “What Made America Famous”.
Chapin often remarked that he came from an artistic family. His father Jim Chapin and brothers Tom Chapin and Steve Chapin are also musicians, as are his daughter Jen Chapin and two of his nieces who formed a band called 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 Kenneth Burke.
Harry Chapin’s brothers, Tom and Steve Chapin sometimes performed with Harry at various times throughout his career, particularly during his live performances. They played together before his solo career took off, credited on the album, Chapin Music!, and later on his live albums Greatest Stories Live and Legends of the Lost and Found. They continued to perform together (often with his former bandmates) from time to time in the decades since his death. It is a common misconception that Mary Chapin Carpenter is closely related to Chapin, when in fact they are merely fifth cousins.