It’s now nearly 42 years since Harold Forster Chapin died in a horrific car crash on the Long Island Expressway when his tiny 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit collided with an enormous semi-trailer truck. Better known of course as Harry Chapin, he was a singer-songwriter, troubadour, humanitarian and activist before it became fashionable for musicians to get involved in charitable campaigning. In particular, Chapin was a key participant in the creation of the Presidential Commission for World Hunger in 1977 – long before the concept of Live Aid was a gleam in Bob Geldof’s eye.
Chapin was a songwriter first and foremost and it’s his songs that live on. They were in the main, mini-movies that told stories that reflected the human condition. He recorded nine studio and two live albums before his unfortunate demise, all of which hold a treasure trove of wonderful songs.
He was also a superb live performer, telling stories between the songs that drew the audience in and captivated them. I was lucky to see him in concert twice – once in June 1978 at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon and again in February 1981 just five months before his untimely death. Incredibly the former concert was so sparsely attended that he asked the people sitting at the back to come down to the front so making it more intimate and by the end, you felt you were sitting in Chapin’s living room rather than a cavernous concert hall.
Chapin left a lasting legacy that should be explored by every lover of great songwriting. As the years go by, memories of him recede into the mists of time. I hope that the ten songs I’ve chosen whet your appetite to go and listen to more of his astonishing body of work and hopefully Harry Chapin doesn’t get forgotten. His songs may not always have a verse, bridge and chorus but they do have a beginning, a middle and an end and that’s one of the things that made him so special.
Number 10: ‘Story Of A Life’ from ‘Sequel’ (1981)
Written when Chapin was flying home in a jet during a storm and he’s quoted as saying, his life flashed before his eyes. It tells of being a young boy, settling down, finding a wife and having children and life as musician. Like a lot of Chapin’s lyrics, it’s deeply personal, opening a window into his soul “And all the towns that you walk through and all the people that you talk to sing you their songs. And there are times you change your stride there are times you can’t decide still you go on”. Featuring a big production with strings, brass and female backing vocals.
Number 9: ‘What Made America Famous’ from ‘Verities & Balderdash’ (1974)
Inspired by the town he as living in at the time, Point Lookout on Long Island – a typical small American town with ‘Six traffic lights and seven cops and all the streets kept clean’. It’s a dramatic tale of the schism between the local ‘hippies” and the locals who are very conservative. It goes on to tell about a fire where the local firefighters come and save the ‘hippies’ from tragedy and it brings the two sides together. Another big, dramatic cinematic production with a superb string arrangement.
Number 8: ‘Corey’s Coming’ from ‘On The Road To Kingdom Come’ (1976)
Another of Chapin’s story songs, ‘Corey’s Coming’ tells the tale of old old John Joseph who the narrator of the song likes to visit to hear about the past and about Corey, John Joseph’s lover: “My Corey’s coming, no more sad stories coming. My midnight-moonlight-morning-glory’s coming aren’t you girl? And like I told you, when she holds you she enfolds you in her world” but does she actually exist or is she a figment of the old man’s imagination? You have to listen right through to hear the twist in the tale.
Number 7: ‘Remember When The Music’ from ‘Sequel’ (1981)
What starts off as a nostalgic look back at simpler times “When the music came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire”. It’s very melancholic with minor key strings and male backing vocals from the band. Chapin said it was written as a tribute to Allard K Lowenstein, a former New York congressman who was shot and killed in 1980. Chapin then stated that the song became even more relevant when John Lennon was murdered the same year
Number 6: ‘Sniper’ from ”Sniper And Other Love Songs”‘ (1972)
With the number of shootings on the increase in America, this powerful song resonates even more now than it did in 1972. This ten minute long tale is based on the shootings at The University of Texas in 1966 when Charles Whitman killed 15 people from high in a tower on the campus before being shot dead by the police. In the song Chapin sings from three different perspectives: the narrator, people reacting to the shootings and the sniper himself: “They’re coming to get me, they don’t want to let me stay in the bright light too long. It’s getting on noon now, it’s going to be soon now. But oh, what a wonderful sound!” This is one of Chapin’s most complicated and cinematic arrangements with changing time signatures and tempos and ends with a heavenly choir as the killer cries out “I was. I am. And now I will be, I will be”.
Number 5: ‘Dance Band On Titanic’ from ‘Dance Band On The Titanic’ (1977)
The title song from one of Chapin’s finest albums, it does what it says on the tin and tells the story of the band on the ill-fated ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. It’s sung in the first person by one of the musicians in the ship’s dance band. He starts out optimistic that things will go well and tells his mama that “Even God couldn’t sink this ship”. But as the ship hits the iceberg, he realises that there aren’t any lifeboats left so the band carry on playing. The arrangement uses boogie-woogie, a raucous, jazzy big band arrangement allied with electric guitar solos and a religious ending as the unsinkable liner disappears under the waves and everyone left on board, including the band, is lost.
Number 4: ‘Cat’s In The Cradle’ from ‘Verities & Balderdash’ (1974)
Chapin’s only number 1 single in the US, it tells the timeless story of how a man becomes a father for the first time but because of work he’s unable to spend time with his son and the boy grows up seeing little of his father at important times in his development. Then at the end the tables are turned as the son has little time for his father as he’s too busy. “He’s grown up just like me, the boy was just like me”. Chapin, who had a son thought the song was a little close to home and said “Frankly, this song scares me to death”. The arrangement once again features strings as well as a sitar which was unusual for Chapin.
Number 3: ‘W.O.L.D’ from ‘Short Stories’ (1973)
One of Chapin’s finest lyrics, it epitomises his cinematic, storytelling style. W.O.L.D, tells the story of an aging disc jockey – the title is a combination of the letter W which is assigned to radio stations on the east cost of America and OLD. It begins with an acoustic guitar and cello before building with other instruments. The narrator, “I am the morning DJ on W.O.L.D” tells the sad tale of how as he ages, he has to move on as his voice is no longer the sound of the station. He’s forced into taking outside jobs at ‘sock hops’ aimed at young kids. He’s balding and ready to retire – he’s had his day in the spotlight. One of the features of the song is the use of a pseudo radio jingle and heavy echo on the singing of ‘W.O.L.D’ that makes the story even more poignant as it fades away. When Chapin sang the song live, he changed the letters to the local radio station which always got a big cheer from the hometown audience.
Number 2: ‘Taxi’ from ‘Heads & Tales’ (1972)
Taken from Chapin’s debut album, it’s possibly his best known song although it wasn’t a hit in either the US or the UK. It features Chapin singing in the first person, playing the part of a character, this time in the guise of a taxi driver called Harry who picks up a fare who turns out to be an old girlfriend – Sue, who had big dreams “She was going to be an actress, and I was going to learn to fly, she took off to find the footlights and I took off to find the sky”. He obviously didn’t get to fly as he’s driving a cab but she’s living in a mansion. Chapin knew he was writing big, long cinematic songs and said “It’s a very cinematic technique. But it’s also a very uneconomical technique. That’s why my songs are so long. I literally put you in that cab and let you experience. It’s a more involving form of music than sitting and hearing somebody sing ‘I’m lonely”. If you’re interested in what happened to Harry and Sue, a few years later Chapin wrote a sequel and put it on his 1980 album ‘Sequel’ which was of course, also the title of the song!
Number 1: ‘Mr Tanner’ from ‘Short Stories’ (1973)
Not one of Chapin’s best known songs but probably my favourite. Once again, a long (5 minutes, 12 seconds) story ballad that tells the sad tale of Martin Tanner a local launderer from Dayton, Ohio a baritone who sings while he works “Music was his life, it was not his livelihood And it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole”. The locals thought he was so good and he should go to New York and become a professional singer. Unfortunately the critics didn’t agree and gave him terrible reviews. Shattered Mr Tanner never sang again “Excepting very late at night when the shop was dark and closed, he sang softly to himself as he sorted through the clothes”. A feature of the production is the mellifluous baritone voice of ‘Big’ John Wallace, the bassist in Chapin’s touring band who sings the part of Mr Tanner beautifully.
Wonderful list that brings back some great memories – thank you so much for this. He once played a 45 minute show with his band for the german TV format ‚Rockpalast‘. I recorded this on VHS and watch it from time to time. His live albums ‚Greatest stories live‘ and ‚Legends of the lost and found‘ are classics in my collection. Thanks again for reminding us of how great an artist he was. Cheers from Germany!
Hi Erwin thanks for the kind words. it was a real labour of love not only wrting the piece but also listening back to all those wonderful songs.
Thanks for this. I loved Harry gapin chapin! much underated and taken from us too early. A gret UNESCO supporter as well. Dedicated to making the world a far better place. He was sensational live and his live album captures most of these songs!
Wonderful article about a great man. Like the author of the article, I too, saw the great man twice.
If I may be indulged, herewith an excerpt from my book – A Life In Live Music.
Another of my great heroes in the great pantheon of singer/
songwriters. I first heard of Harry on a Noel Edmonds’ radio
programme that used to be broadcast in the early 70s – he
was singing a song called W.O.L.D. I really got into his stuff
and managed to catch him twice before his untimely death
in a car crash on July 16th, 1981. By luck, my wife and I were
visiting her parents near London in September 1977 and
were able to see Harry at The Rainbow Theatre. Some four
years later we again saw him, this time in the Usher Hall in
Edinburgh on 15th February 1981, just four months before he
My memories of that concert are still very vivid. He
started playing bang on the dot of 7.30pm and sang solidly
until round about 9.15, whereupon he took a short interval,
during which his band went off stage and Harry went into
the audience to chat with some of the crowd. He and his band
were back on after twenty minutes and played through until
nearly 11 o’clock.
Were this not enough, on our departure, there was
Harry at the stage door thanking everyone for coming, and
wishing us all a good night.
For one so talented and so committed to good causes to
die so young is just not right.
To add to the list I would recommend:
Mail Order Annie – Short Stories
I Want To Learn A Love Song – Heads And Tales
Vacancy – Verities And Balderdash
The Mayor Of Candor Lied – On The Road To Kingdom Come
Vacancy – Verities And Balderdash
Bummer – Portrait,
or just buy and listen to all of his mighty catalogue!!
Hi Ken, thanks for you comments – much appreciated. There were of course another 20 or so songs I could have put in the list especially “Mail Order Annie” and “The Mayor of Castor Lied” but I had to stick to 10!