Harry Chapin

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Harry Chapin
Chapin in 1980
Chapin in 1980
Background information
Birth nameHarold Forster Chapin
Born(1942-12-07)December 7, 1942
New York City, U.S.
DiedJuly 16, 1981(1981-07-16) (aged 38)
East Meadow, New York, U.S.
Years active1950s–1981

Harold Forster Chapin (December 7, 1942 – July 16, 1981) was an American singer-songwriter, philanthropist, and hunger activist best known for his folk rock and pop rock songs. He achieved worldwide success in the 1970s. Chapin, a Grammy Award-winning artist and Grammy Hall of Fame inductee, has sold over 16 million records worldwide.

Chapin recorded a total of 11 albums from 1972 until his death in 1981. All 14 singles that he released became hits on at least one national music chart.

As a dedicated humanitarian, Chapin fought to end world hunger. He was a key participant in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1977.[1][2] In 1987, Chapin was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian work.[3]


Harry Forster Chapin was born on December 7, 1942 in New York City, the second of four children of legendary percussionist Jim Chapin and Jeanne Elspeth, daughter of the literary critic Kenneth Burke. His brothers, Tom and Steve, would also become musicians.[4][5] He had English ancestry. The earliest Chapin to come to America was Samuel Chapin, who was the first deacon of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1636.[citation needed] His other great-grandparents on his mother's side had immigrated in the late 19th century.[citation needed] 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.

Chapin's first formal introduction to music was trumpet lessons at The Greenwich House Music School under Mr. Karrasic (sic)[citation needed]. 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 took a job with The Big Fights, a company run by Bill Cayton that owned a large library of classic boxing films. Chapin directed Legendary Champions in 1968, which was nominated for a documentary Academy Award.[6] 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.


Early music career (1971–1972)[edit]

In 1972, there was a bidding war over Chapin between music business heavyweights Clive Davis at Columbia and Jac Holzman at Elektra. Chapin 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.[7]

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."[8] 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.

Career peak (1973–1975)[edit]

In 1973, Chapin released his third album, Short Stories. The album sold over 1 million units and produced another international hit, "W·O·L·D," a song about an aging disc jockey who has given up his entire life and family for his career. The song is sung from the point of view of the disc jockey, who is singing 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 not released as singles are "Mr. Tanner," "Mail Order Annie," and "They Call Her Easy." The song, "Mr. Tanner," was loosely based on a pair of New York Times concert reviews of baritone Martin Tubridy – once in 1971[9] and once in 1972.[10]

In 1974, Chapin released his most successful album, Verities and Balderdash. The album sold 2.5 million units due to the number 1 hit, "Cat's in the Cradle." The song is about a father who doesn't find time for his son during the boy's childhood; ultimately the son grows up to be just like his father, not making any time for his dad. The song earned Chapin another Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and he was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Verities and Balderdash 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 of how he met his wife, Sandra Chapin. "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" was included on the album and became the number one requested song for a few weeks, despite not being released as a single. It is a semi-fictional account of a truck crash that occurred in Scranton, Pennsylvania, transporting bananas -- based loosely on a March 18, 1965, accident involving truck driver Gene Sesky.[11][12] Other notable songs from the album include "Shooting Star," "Halfway to Heaven," and "Six String Orchestra."

In 1975, Chapin 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, selling 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.

Later years (1976–1981)[edit]

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 concentrated more on touring than producing hit singles, but still released one album a year. He earned an estimated $2,000,000 per year (approximately $11,75 M in 2017) until his death in 1981, making him one of the highest paid artists in the world. His album Dance Band on the Titanic sold poorly, but was voted Album of the Year by The Times of London.[13] 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.

Personal life[edit]

Chapin met Sandra Gaston, a New York socialite eight 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.

Philanthropic work[edit]

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.[14]

In the mid-1970s, Chapin devoted much time and effort to 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."[15] 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[16] 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. Among those he helped is filmmaker Michael Moore, who, in 1977, got help funding his Mid-Michigan based independent newspaper startup, The Flint Voice, with Chapin benefit concerts.[17] 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.[citation needed]

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.[18] The Harry Chapin Foundation was the result.


Gravestone in the Huntington Rural Cemetery, Huntington, New York

On the afternoon of July 16, 1981, Chapin was driving on the Long Island Expressway en route to perform at a free benefit concert at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, New York, that evening. At 12:27 PM, Chapin was fatally injured in a fiery traffic collision with a semi-trailer truck outside Jericho, New York. Passers-by managed to help the unconscious Chapin out of his engulfed 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit and he was immediately taken by helicopter to the nearby Nassau County Medical Center where he was pronounced dead at 1:05 PM due to internal bleeding.[2][19] Chapin's widow Sandy won a $12 million decision in a negligence lawsuit against Supermarkets General, the owners of the truck involved.[20]

Chapin is buried in the Huntington Rural Cemetery in Huntington, New York. His epitaph is taken from his 1978 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


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).[21]

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.[22] Kragen, explaining his work on these benefit events, said, "I felt like Harry had crawled into my body and was making me do it."[23]

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 Humanitarian Award" by actor Jeff Bridges for his work for the World Hunger League in fighting hunger in America.[24] Since WNEW-FM changed formats, other New York stations have continued to do fundraisers for the charity. In 1987, singer Kenny Rogers was awarded the first-ever "Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award" from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).[25] Since 1987, the ASCAP Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award has been bestowed more than 20 times to various artists for their various "humanitarian contributions." The ASCAP awards are now presented by Why Hunger, the organization originally co-founded by Harry Chapin and Bill Ayres as World Hunger Year.

Four additional organizations once presented awards in the name of Harry Chapin in the past. They include: the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) Harry Chapin Memorial Humanitarian Award—now known as the Music Business Association or MusicBiz,[26] the Harry Chapin Award for Contributions to Humanity by the National Association of Campus Activities (NACA),[27] the Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award for Community Service from the Long Island Association,[28] and the Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award by Long Island Cares.[29]

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.[citation needed]

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 in Huntington, New York, and a playground at the intersection of Columbia Heights and Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights.

The village of Croton-on-Hudson, New York, has hosted the Harry Chapin Run Against Hunger, a 10k, 5k, and Fun Run, since 1981.[30]

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.

In 1994, admirers of the late singer's passionate fight against hunger renamed the then 11-year old Southwest Florida Food Bank (Fort Myers, FL) the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, in tribute to Chapin, and with the permission of his widow.

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.

On September 27, 2011, former U.S. Representative Alan Grayson wrote an article on the internet publication The Huffington Post about Chapin's song "What Made America Famous".[31]

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.[32]

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.

Greenwich Entertainment released a documentary film titled Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something. It was directed by Rick Korn and produced by Jason Chapin. The film was released theatrically and through virtual cinema on October 16, 2020 (World Food Day).[33]


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 other family members.[34]

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.[5]

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 Greatest Stories Live, Legends of the Lost and Found, and Chapin Music! Tom and Steve continued to perform together (often with Harry's former bandmates) from time to time after his death.

Country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter is Chapin's fifth cousin.[35]

Awards and recognition[edit]

Grammy Awards

Year Nominee / work Award Result
1972 "Taxi" Best New Artist of the Year Nominated
1975 "Cat's 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

Rock Music Awards[36]

Year Nominee / work Award Result
1976 Harry Chapin Public Service Award Won


Year Nominee / work Award Result
1973 Harry Chapin Trendsetter Award Won


Year Nominee / work Award Result
1976 Harry Chapin Public Service Award Won
1977 Harry Chapin Public Service Award Won

Other awards and honors[edit]


Studio albums[edit]

Posthumous album[edit]

Compilation albums[edit]


Video / DVD releases[edit]


  1. ^ Harry Chapin: The Gold Medal Collection, album notes, Elektra/Asylum Records, 1988.
  2. ^ a b Rockwell, John (July 17, 1981). "Harry Chapin, Singer Killed in Crash". The New York Times.
  3. ^ "Congressional Gold Medal Recipients". United States House of Representatives. Retrieved September 11, 2021.
  4. ^ Harry Chapin Behind the Music (Television production). VH1. n.d. Event occurs at 4:07.
  5. ^ a b Grayeb, Mike; McCarty, Linda (Winter 2005). "Reflections From Harry's Mom: An Interview with Elspeth Hart". Circle!. Archived from the original on November 5, 2005. Retrieved September 30, 2021.
  6. ^ "Harry Chapin : Biography". elektra.com. Retrieved November 28, 2017.
  7. ^ Coan, Peter M. (January 2001). Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story; see pages 204–207. ISBN 9780806521916.
  8. ^ "Harry Chapin Midnight Special, Taxi; intro". YouTube.
  9. ^ "Tubridy Makes Song Debut". The New York Times. March 28, 1971. Archived from the original on September 20, 2017. Retrieved June 16, 2022.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  10. ^ "Tubridy, a Bass‐Baritone, Performs in 2d Recital Here". The New York Times. February 17, 1972.
  11. ^ "Runaway Truck Kills Driver; 16 Persons Hurt". The Daily Courier. March 19, 1965. p. 17.
  12. ^ "The 'Banana Truck' Crash: 50 Years Later". Wnep.com. March 19, 2015.
  13. ^ "Harry Chapin Behind the Music". YouTube. Retrieved August 19, 2021.
  14. ^ Bruning, Fred. "More than a Troubadour". Newsday. Archived from the original on April 15, 2008. Retrieved January 18, 2008.
  15. ^ "Jen Chapin shares her dad's idealism – but not his voice", Boston Globe, February 20, 2004
  16. ^ "Text of 1977 review of Chapin concert at Landmark Theatre". Cinematreasures.org. Retrieved October 21, 2011.
  17. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "The Story of How Harry Chapin Helped Michael Moore Start 'The Flint Voice' in 1977 (10/21/11)". YouTube. Retrieved December 31, 2019.
  18. ^ Diliberto, Gioia (March 15, 1982). "Harry Chapin's Family Fights to Carry on His Extraordinary Legacy of Compassion". People. Archived from the original on April 11, 2013. Retrieved June 16, 2022.
  19. ^ Logeman, Henry (July 17, 1981). "Singer-songwriter Harry Chapin's driver's license was revoked at the..." UPI. Retrieved December 5, 2018.
  20. ^ "Singer Chapin's Widow to Give Lawsuit Funds to Hunger Battle". Wilmington Morning Star. Associated Press – via Google News Archive Search.
  21. ^ Harry Chapin: The Gold Medal Collection, album notes, Elektra/Asylum Records, 1988.
  22. ^ Holden, Stephen (December 2, 1987). "The Pop Life". The New York Times.
  23. ^ "Harry Chapin Is Gone, but Friends Carry His Song in Their Hearts". People. December 21, 1987. Archived from the original on September 18, 2012. Retrieved June 16, 2022.
  24. ^ "Kenny Loggins - Harry Chapin Award Presentation (Live Aid 7/13/1985)" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-JIcKSjnXw&t=64s | 2015-07-07
  25. ^ "ASCAP Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award" | https://www.ascap.com/news-events/awards/chapin-award
  26. ^ "Harry Chapin Memorial Humanitarian Award" | https://musicbiz.org/events/music-biz-awards/harry-chapin-memorial-humanitarian-award/
  27. ^ "Harry Chapin Award for Contributions to Humanity" | https://www.anyoldkindofday.com/index.php/Harry_Chapin_Award_for_Contributions_to_Humanity
  28. ^ "Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award for Community Service" | https://www.anyoldkindofday.com/index.php/Harry_Chapin_Humanitarian_Award_for_Community_Service
  29. ^ "Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award" (Long Island Cares) | https://www.anyoldkindofday.com/index.php/Harry_Chapin_Humanitarian_Award_(Long_Island_Cares)
  30. ^ "Harry Chapin Run Against Hunger". Run Against Hunger. Retrieved September 27, 2020.
  31. ^ Alan Grayson (September 27, 2011). "Harry Chapin on What Made America Famous". Huffington Post. Retrieved October 21, 2011.
  32. ^ Dan Gilgoff (April 29, 2008). The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War. New York, New York: St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 7–8. ISBN 9781429917094. Retrieved June 22, 2018.
  33. ^ Martoccio, Angie (September 16, 2020). "Billy Joel, DMC, Pat Benatar Appear in Harry Chapin Doc Trailer". Rolling Stone. Retrieved September 27, 2020.
  34. ^ "The Harry Chapin Foundation". Harry Chapin Foundation. Retrieved June 16, 2022.
  35. ^ "Ancestry of Mary Chapin Carpenter". Wargs.com. Retrieved October 21, 2011.
  36. ^ Marcus, Greil (October 19, 2010). RMA award certification. ISBN 9781586489199.
  37. ^ "Billboard". Nielsen Business Media, Inc. March 24, 1973. p. 59. Retrieved August 19, 2021 – via Google Books.

External links[edit]