Singer-songwriter, philanthropist, and social activist Harry Chapin died in a car crash in July 1981. Despite being just 38 at the time of his death, he left behind a vast body of work that, over 40 years later, continues to inspire and influence as much as ever. Over the course of his decade-long career, he released 11 albums and 14 singles, all of which became hits across the globe. Here, we look back at some of his finest moments with our pick of the ten best Harry Chapin songs of all time.
10. What Made America Famous
In What Made America Famous, Chapin sings about a family living in a rundown house that catches fire. The firefighters decide to “let them sweat a little”, eventually forcing a plumber to save them instead. The family spends the night at the plumber’s home, concluding that the real heroes are often the people you suspect the least. Chapin was inspired to write the song by his wife, explaining: “What Made America Famous basically comes out of a thing where my wife was saying ‘You should write a song about a volunteer fire department and name it “Answering the Call”.’ Now, I took it to a whole other place, but I’m a believer in recognizing good ideas. My wife happens to be a fantastic poet and I’ve been very lucky to have her with me.” Described by Cash Box as a “totally captivating musical experience,” the song reached number 87 on the Cash Box 100 in August 1974.
9. Remember When The Music
Initially written as a tribute to New York senator Allard K Lowenstein, who was murdered by Dennis Sweeney in 1980, Remember When The Music took on extra significance when John Lennon was shot and killed that same year. Released as a single from the album Sequel in 1980, it became another top 50 hit for Chapin, spending a total of five weeks on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.
The last studio album released during Chapin’s lifetime was Sequel. After hitting the shelves in March 1980, it charted at number 58 on the Billboard 200, eventually certifying gold. The title track, which revisits the characters of Harry and Sue from Chapin’s very first hit single, Taxi, peaked at number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, one position above Taxi.
7. Flowers are Red
Chapin wrote Flowers are Red after his secretary told him about a note from her son’s teacher that read: “Your son is marching to the beat of a different drummer, but don’t worry we will soon have him joining the parade by the end of the term.” Using the story as his inspiration, he wrote about a little boy who, on his first day at school, is punished by his teacher for painting pictures of flowers in every shade of the rainbow, rather than the prescribed red and green. Eventually, the boy gives in and begins painting the same way as everyone else. A few years later, he moves to another school where his new teacher encourages him to be more creative, only for him to meekly quote his previous teacher by replying “flowers are red, and green leaves are green.” Released as a single from Chapin’s 1978 album Living Room Suite, it became a top 20 hit in Ireland.
6. I Wanna Learn a Love Song
Chapin’s follow up to his number 1 hit, Cat’s in the Cradle, was I Wanna Learn a Love Song, a charming little ditty about a guitar teacher who tries to teach a woman how to play, only to find she wants a lot more from him than a few lessons. Chapin later revealed that the song was based on the true story of how he met his wife, Sandra. Released in August 1974, it reached number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 7 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.
5. A Better Place to Be
Another of Chapin’s famous “story” songs, A Better Place to Be is about a midnight watchman regaling a waitress with his story about a beautiful woman he’d met the previous week and had a one-night stand with. Described by Chapin as his favorite song, it hit number 18 on its release as a single in October 1972. In 1976, he reissued the song as a sprawling live single, whereupon it became one of the longest songs to ever reach the Billboard Hot 100.
In W.O.L.D., Chapin sings about an aging disk jockey who moves from place to place in search of happiness (something he thinks he’ll find by pursuing his dreams in radio), only to find that his life, looks, and voice have all passed him by. So too has his chance of finding the love and companionship he’d secretly always wanted. Released in December 1973, it peaked at number 34 in the UK, number 36 on the US Billboard Hot 100, number 9 in Canada, and in the top ten across numerous other countries, eventually selling over a million copies in total.
Although the 1972 album Sniper and Other Love Songs spawned several hit singles, its true beauty lies in the deep cuts. One of its best is Circle. As rocksoffmag.com explains, the song became so popular among fans it earned the nickname the “Chapin theme song,” with Chapin regularly using it as part of the closing set at his concerts. In 1972, Australian pop band the New Seekers earned one of the biggest hits of their career with their cover version.
2. Cat’s in the Cradle
Arguably Chapin’s best-known song, Cat’s in the Cradle is a poignant story about the changing dynamics between a father and son. It began life as a poem written by Harry’s wife about the awkward relationship between her first husband and his father. A lyrical triumph and commercial juggernaut, it shot to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on its release in 1974 before snagging a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. In 2011, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Chapin’s introduction to the world came via Taxi, the first single released from his debut album, Heads & Tales. Chapin debuted the song on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” delivering such an electrifying performance that he was bought back the following night for an encore performance – the very first time a guest had been invited to appear two nights in a row in the show’s history. Released in March 1972, it spent an impressive 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 24.