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H » H » Music

Harry Chapin 1942-1981

Country : Manhattan, NY
Profession : Singer, Songwriter
Date of birth : 1942-12-07
Date of death : 1981-07-16
Cause of Death : Car accident

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Harry Forster Chapin (December 7, 1942 – July 16, 1981) was an American singer and songwriter known for folk rock songs such as "Taxi," "W*O*L*D," and the number-one hit "Cat's in the Cradle" as well as his masterful folk musical based on the biblical book of John, "Cotton Patch Gospel". Chapin was also a dedicated humanitarian who fought to end world hunger, with his work being widely recognized as 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 in New York City, the second of four children—including future musicians Tom and Steve—born to Jeanne Elspeth and Jim Chapin. He had English ancestry, his great grandparents having emigrated in the late 19th century. His parents divorced by 1950, with Elspeth keeping custody of their four sons, as Jim spent much of his life on the road as a drummer for Big Band era acts such as Woody Herman. She married National Films in Review magazine editor Henry Hart a few years later.

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 would later become his bassist and backing vocalist. 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. He did not complete a degree.

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 decided to focus on music. With John Wallace, Tim Scott and Ron Palmer, Chapin started playing in various local nightclubs in New York City.

Recording career

Following an unsuccessful early album made with his brothers, Tom and Steve, 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 pushed the air play of this song amongst 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. Clive 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 (1974, #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. Sandy 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 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.

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 fell through, and Chapin settled on a simple one-album deal with Boardwalk Records. The Boardwalk album, though no one knew it at the time, 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.

Personal life

Chapin met Sandy Cashmore (nee 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 fathered two children with her, Jennifer and Joshua, and was stepfather to her three children by a previous marriage.

Philanthropic work

Chapin was resolved to leave his imprint on Long Island. He envisioned a Long Island where the arts flourished and 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, Hofstra University. He 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.

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.


On Thursday, July 16, 1981, just after noon, Chapin was driving on the Long Island Expressway to appear in a free concert in New York, in the left hand lane, at about 65 miles (105 km) per hour on the way to his concert scheduled for later that evening at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, NY. 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 was 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 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 debate about the accuracy of the details included in the book.

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. "Cat's In The Cradle" was also re-recorded by hard rock group Ugly Kid Joe in 1992 and once again topped the charts. A country version was also recorded by Ricky Skaggs in 1995. It was sampled by Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan, and subsequently by Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC in 2006 after the rapper's discovery that he was adopted in infancy. Jason Downs also recorded an "updated" version of the song entitled "Revenue".

"Cat's in the Cradle" was used in an episode of The Simpsons, in an episode of King of the Hill, and in an episode of Family Guy, and was featured in Shrek The Third. The song has also been heard many other times on television and film.

"Cat's in the Cradle" 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 rock band M.O.D. wrote an irreverent song about Chapin's death called "Ode To Harry". Hector released a Finnish-language cover version of his song "Six String Orchestra". The cover can be heard under the name "Monofilharmoonikko" as the sixth track of the 1977 album H.E.C.; it was released as a single as well.

A graduate student apartment complex, Harry Chapin Apartments at Stony Brook University on Long Island, is named after Chapin.

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.

The comedy team The Smothers Brothers have often performed a version of "Six String Orchestra" when they tour and perform with local symphonies. The song usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes to complete as they stop and banter back and forth. Dick usually stops the song to sarcastically tell Tommy what great guitar playing he did.

The Classic Metal Show radio program regularly does a segment on their show called "Happy Time With Harry", where the morbid lyrics of Chapin's stories is analyzed extensively by shock jocks Neeley and Chris Akin.

In the 1980 film One Trick Pony musician Paul Simon portrays Jonah, an aging rock star famous for a 1960s protest song. In one scene Jonah is approached at an airport by Hare Krishna followers. To their "Hare Krishna?" Jonah responds "Harry Chapin".

Extended family

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 (see the Chapin Sisters). His paternal grandfather was an artist who illustrated Robert Frost's first two books of poetry; his maternal grandfather was the philosopher Kenneth Burke.

Notable musicians in their own right, Tom and Steve Chapin sometimes performed with Harry throughout his career, as is especially evident on the live albums Greatest Stories Live and Legends of the Lost and Found. He also performed with them before his solo career took off, as seen on the album Chapin Music! Chapin's family members and other long-time bandmates have continued to perform together from time to time in the decades since his death.



  • Chapin Music! (1966, Rock-Land Records)
  • Heads & Tales (1972, Elektra)
  • Sniper and Other Love Songs (1972, Elektra)
  • Short Stories (1973, Elektra)
  • Verities & Balderdash (1974, Elektra)
  • Portrait Gallery (1975, Elektra)
  • Greatest Stories Live (Double Album, 1976, Elektra)
  • On the Road to Kingdom Come (1976, Elektra)
  • Dance Band on the Titanic (Double Album, 1977, Elektra)
  • Living Room Suite (1978, Elektra)
  • Legends of the Lost and Found (Double Album, 1979, Elektra)
  • Sequel (1980, Boardwalk Records)
  • Anthology of Harry Chapin (1985, Elektra)
  • Remember When the Music (1987, Dunhill Compact Classics)
  • The Gold Medal Collection (1988, Elektra)
  • The Last Protest Singer (1988, Dunhill Compact Classics)
  • Harry Chapin Tribute (1990, Relativity Records)
  • The Bottom Line Encore Collection (1998, Bottom Line / Koch)
  • Story of a Life (1999, Elektra)
  • Storyteller (1999, BOA Records)
  • Onwards and Upwards (2000, Harry Chapin Foundation)
  • VH1 Behind the Music: The Harry Chapin Collection (2001, Elektra)
  • The Essentials (2002, Elektra)
  • Classics (2003, Warner Special Products)
  • Heads and Tales / Sniper and Other Love Songs (2004, Elektra. Double CD re-release of first two albums with bonus tracks)
  • Introducing... Harry Chapin (2006, Rhino Records)



Song Title

Highest US
Chart Position








"Sunday Morning Sunshine"



"A Better Place to Be"






"Mr. Tanner"



"Cat's in the Cradle"



"I Wanna Learn A Love Song"



"Flowers Are Red"





Video / DVD releases

  • An Evening With... Harry Chapin (also known as "The Book of Chapin") (1998)
  • Rockpalast Live (2002)
  • Remember When: The Anthology (2005)
  • You Are the Only Song (also known as "The Final Concert") (2006)

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