Harry Chapin

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Harry Chapin
Harry Chapin-1980.jpg
Chapin in 1980
Background information
Birth name Harry Forster Chapin
Born (1942-12-07)December 7, 1942
Brooklyn, New York City, United States
Died July 16, 1981(1981-07-16) (aged 38)
Jericho, New York, United States
Occupation(s) Musician, Composer, Arranger, Author, Humanitarian, Playwright
Years active 1962–1981
Website harrychapinmusic.com

Harry Forster Chapin (December 7, 1942 – July 16, 1981) was an American singer-songwriter best known for his folk rock songs including "Taxi", "W*O*L*D", and the No. 1 hit "Cat's in the Cradle".

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

Early life and education[edit]

Chapin was born in New York City, the second of four children who also included future musicians Tom and Steve. His parents were Jeanne Elspeth (née Burke) and Jim Chapin, a legendary percussionist. He had English ancestry, his great-grandparents having immigrated 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.[2]

Chapin's first formal introduction to music was while singing in the Brooklyn Boys Choir, where Chapin met "Big" John Wallace, a tenor with a five-octave range, who later became his bassist, backing vocalist, and his straight man onstage. Chapin began performing with his brothers while a teenager, with their father occasionally joining them on drums. Harry's first instrument was not the guitar, but the trumpet. He took lessons at the famed Greenwich House Music School on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village. Years later, he recalled telling Carl Osheroff, his fellow student there, that he would never become famous playing the trumpet. He remembered that Carl told him to take a look around the Village where they both lived at the time. "He said that the guitar was the way to go. The Village was bursting with folk singers at the time.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

He originally intended to be a documentary film-maker and directed Legendary Champions in 1968, which was nominated for a documentary Academy Award. 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.[citation needed]

Recording career[edit]

Following an unsuccessful early album made with his brothers, Tom Chapin and Steve Chapin, Harry Chapin's first solo 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.

Fred Kewley, Harry's manager, signed a five-week lease with the Village Gate in Greenwich Village in order to feature the Chapins (Tom and Steve's band on Epic Records) whom he was managing. Harry decided he would like to be the opening act because "maybe I can get a publishing deal." Harry and three band members (playing cello, bass, electric guitar) who had never met before rehearsed for one week in Kewley's office and arranged the songs with cello parts and background vocals (much of which ended up on Harry's first album). On opening night there were three people in the audience and four musicians on stage. Several weeks of nightly playing and daily phone calls to labels and media suddenly ignited the interest of two record company giants: 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 unique work. Davis remained undaunted, doubling almost every cash advance offer Chapin received from Holzman. Despite a cordial relationship with Holzman, Davis and Columbia Records had a long history of beating Holzman in artist signings over the years. However, Elektra Records had just merged with Warner Brothers and Atlantic Records to form the mammoth WEA, and Harry Chapin happened to be the first test of who now had the greater artist signing power. Chapin, Kewley, and the band were in the right place at the right time and were able to negotiate what was said to be the largest recording contract in history for a new artist.

Chapin performing in 1980

Chapin ultimately signed with Elektra for a smaller advance, but with provisions that were much more valuable. 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 ultimately saved 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), produced by manager Fred Kewley, 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), produced by hit maker Paul Leka 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.[3] 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 No. 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.[4] 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.[citation needed]

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 The University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida, when he was touring with only his bass violin 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 (both labels founded by Neil Bogart). The Boardwalk album was Chapin's final work released in his lifetime.

The title track of his last album, Sequel, was a follow up to his earlier song "Taxi," reuniting the same characters ten years later. "Sequel" peaked one position higher than "Taxi" but lasted two weeks less on the Hot 100. The songs Chapin was working on at the time of his death were subsequently released as the thematic album The Last Protest Singer.

Personal life[edit]

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". 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 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.[5]

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.[citation needed]

In the mid-1970s, Chapin focused on 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."[6] 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[7] to help save the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse, New York , as well as hunger causes such as food banks ), and sales of his concert merchandise was used to support World Hunger Year.

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


Harry Chapin's gravestone in the Huntington Rural Cemetery, Huntington, New York

On Thursday, July 16, 1981,[9] just after noon, Chapin was driving in the left lane on the Long Island Expressway at about 65 mph (105 km/h) 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 as it climbed up and over the back of the car, which burst into flames.

The driver of the truck and a passerby were able to get Chapin out of the burning car through a window after cutting the seat belts before the car was engulfed in flames. Chapin was taken by police helicopter to a hospital, where ten doctors tried for 30 minutes to revive him.[citation needed] 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."[6]

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, based on what Chapin would have earned over the next 20 years. An earlier phase of the trial had found Chapin 40 percent negligent in the accident and Supermarkets General 60 percent negligent, so the award of $12 million for the financial loss to the family was automatically reduced to $7.2 million.[10]

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).[11] 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 at the end of Chapin's career, after Fred Kewley.[12] Kragen, explaining his work on these benefit events, said, "I felt like Harry had crawled into my body and was making me do it."[13]

From approximately 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, there was little to no music 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 US Live Aid concert in Philadelphia at JFK stadium in 1985, Kenny Loggins was presented with the first Harry Chapin Award for his work for the World Hunger League in fighting hunger in America. Since WNEW-FM changed formats, other New York stations have continued to do fundraisers for the charity.

Chapin had cooperated 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. There is some concern about the accuracy of the details included in the book[citation needed]. 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."[14]

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.

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


Harry's widow Sandy is now chairman of the Harry Chapin Foundation, where she continues to pursue Harry's legacy. His son Josh is involved with the foundation, along with family members.[15]

Chapin often remarked that he came from an artistic family. His father Jim Chapin, brothers Tom Chapin and Steve Chapin, 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.[16]

Harry Chapin's brothers, Tom and Steve Chapin, 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 Chapin Music!, Greatest Stories Live, and Legends of the Lost and Found. 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.[17]




Year Song Title US
Billboard Hot 100
Cash Box Top 100
1972 "Taxi" 24 20 5
1972 "Could You Put Your Light On, Please"
1972 "Sunday Morning Sunshine" 75
1973 "Better Place to Be" 118
1974 "W*O*L*D" 36 26 14
1974 "Mr. Tanner"
1974 "Cat's in the Cradle" 1 1 3
1974 "I Wanna Learn a Love Song" 44 36
1975 "Dreams Go By"
1976 "A Better Place to Be" (live) 86 80
1978 "Flowers Are Red"
1980 "Sequel" 23 34
1981 "Remember When the Music"
1981 "Story of a Life" 105
  • Note: In 1974, "What Made America Famous?" was released as a promotional 45 to radio stations.

Video / DVD releases[edit]


  1. ^ Harry Chapin: The Gold Medal Collection, album notes, Elektra/Asylum Records, 1988.
  2. ^ Grayeb, Mike; McCarty, Linda (Winter 2005). "Reflections From Harry's Mom: An Interview with Elspeth Hart". Circle!. Retrieved July 27, 2011. 
  3. ^ "Mike Grayeb, Behind The Song: Cat's In The Cradle" Circle!
  4. ^ DEEB,GARY. "'WOLD' Tells Disk Jockey's Station in Life." Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file): 1. Feb 22 1974. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune. Web. 31 Jan. 2016
  5. ^ Bruning, Fred, "More than a Troubadour", Newsday, retrieved January 18, 2008 
  6. ^ a b "Jen Chapin shares her dad's idealism — but not his voice", Boston Globe, February 20, 2004
  7. ^ "Text of 1977 review of Chapin concert at Landmark Theatre". Cinematreasures.org. Retrieved October 21, 2011. 
  8. ^ Diliberto, Gioia (15 March 1982). "Harry Chapin's Family Fights to Carry on His Extraordinary Legacy of Compassion". People. Retrieved March 3, 2013. 
  9. ^ Rockwell, John (July 17, 1981). "Harry Chapin, Singer Killed in Crash". New York Times. 
  10. ^ Singer Chapin's widow to give lawsuit funds to hunger battle, Star-News - Oct 8, 1986
  11. ^ Harry Chapin: The Gold Medal Collection, album notes, Elektra/Asylum Records, 1988.
  12. ^ Holden, Stephen (December 2, 1987), "The Pop Life", The New York Times 
  13. ^ "Harry Chapin Is Gone, but Friends Carry His Song in Their Hearts", People, December 21, 1987 
  14. ^ Alan Grayson (September 27, 2011). "Harry Chapin on What Made America Famous". Huffington Post. Retrieved October 21, 2011. 
  15. ^ "The Harry Chapin Foundation". Retrieved December 15, 2013. 
  16. ^ Reflections From Harry's Mom: An Interview with Elspeth Hart by Mike Grayeb and Linda McCarty, from Circle! magazine, winter 2005 issue.
  17. ^ "Ancestry of Mary Chapin Carpenter". Wargs.com. Retrieved October 21, 2011. 

External links[edit]