It’s hard to believe it’s been forty years since the world lost one of its greatest musicians of his time and one of the most generous men of his time. Harry Chapin will forever be remembered for his poetic folk and pop music including “Cat’s In The Cradle” and “Taxi” and “Sniper” and his humanitarianism especially encouraging activism for those Americans living in poverty. Chapin died tragically at just 38 years old in a car crash on July 16, 1981 as his career and philanthropic work continued to influence others. His legacy continues to live on.
Harry Chapin’s Early Life and Influences
Harry Chapin was born in New York City on December 7, 1942, the second of four children of Jeanne and Jim. Harry often talked about his artistic and talented family. His dad was a percussionist who performed with many bands. His mother’s father, Kenneth Burke, was a literary critic. His stepfather, Henry Hart, was an editor for “Films In Review”. His two brothers, Tom and Steve, were musically talented and often performed with Harry. His daughter and niece are musicians.
When he was young, Harry took trumpet lessons at The Greenwich Music School. His brothers performed in a choir and introduced Harry to “Big” John Wallace”, a 5 octave range baritone who would become Harry’s bassist and back up vocalist. Harry graduated from Brooklyn Technical School in 1960. He spent a brief time studying at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado before transferring to Cornell University where he studied to become a documentary film maker. While Harry never did complete college, he did become a documentary film maker as well as continuing his music career. In 1968 Chapin directed a film about boxing, “The Legendary Champions” which earned him an Academy Award nomination.
As he worked on filming documentaries, Harry Chapin also continued to hone his music skills. By 1971 he was playing regularly in New York City nightclubs with John Wallace, Tim Scott, Ron Palmer and sometimes his brothers and father. In 1972 Chapin signed a recording contract with Elektra Records . He recorded his first studio album Heads and Tales with his first hit single “Taxi”. The record received a Grammy nomination, and Chapin performed it on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and was asked back to perform it the next night. The single remained on the Charts for 16 weeks. Chapin quickly followed up with a second album “Sniper and Other Love Songs”. The title single “Sniper” alluded to Charles Whitman’s 1966 mass shooting attack at the University of Texas.
In 1973 Harry Chapin released his third studio album “Short Stories” which included the hits “W-O-L-D”, “They Call Her Easy” and “Mr. Tanner”. The following year, Chapin released his most commercially successful album “Verities and Balderdash” with the Grammy Nominated “Cat’s In the Cradle” which alludes to his relationship with his dad who was often on the road when Chapin was growing up. The album also included “I Wanna Learn A Love Song”, an homage to his wife, Sandra, who he met in 1966 when she called him for music lessons. They married in 1968 and raised their two children, Jennifer and Joshua, along with Sandra’s children, Jaime, Jason and Jonathon, from her first marriage.
Chapin released his fifth studio album “Portrait Gallery” with the hit “Dreams Go By” in 1975. He also wrote and performed in a Broadway Play, “The Night That Made America Famous” which earned Chapin two Tony nominations. Chapin also released a book of poetry “Looking…Seeking” that year. The following year Chapin released a live performance album. During the late 1970’s Chapin did more touring than recording earning an average of $2 million a year. He recorded his ninth studio album “Sequel” in 1980.
One of the things that stood out with Harry Chapin is his interest in supporting and funding humanitarian causes. He dedicated himself to charities through most of his career. He co-founded World Hunger Year with radio personality Bill Ayres to raise money to combat hunger in the United States. He performed several concerts and benefit performances to raise awareness and money for causes including arts and universities on Long Island and the Landmark Theater in Syracuse, New York. In 1977 Chapin helped documentary film creator Michael Moore raise funds to start an independent newspaper “The Flint Voice”. In all Chapin donated about a third of his concert income to support humanitarian causes and support several family members and friends. With the roughly $3 million he raised during the last six years of his life, Chapin created The Harry Chapin Foundation.
His Tragic Death
Sadly Harry Chapin’s life ended too soon with his tragic death. Chapin was driving himself to a benefit concert in East Meadow, New York the afternoon of July 17, 1981. He was traveling on the Jericho Turnpike in his Volkswagen Rabbit when his car appeared to have trouble. With his hazards on he attempted to travel across two lanes of traffic to reach the berm when he was rear ended by a semi tractor trailer. The impact caused Chapin’s car to burst into flames. The truck driver and other bystanders pulled Chapin from the car. He died from the force of the crash.
Harry Chapin is buried at Huntington Rural Cemetery near his home in Huntington, New York. Sandy continues to serve as chairperson to The Harry Chapin Foundation which continues to raise money for the charitable causes that Chapin was dedicated to. His son Josh is very involved with the Foundation. His daughter Jenn is also involved and has a music career of her own. Chapin is considered one of the most popular folk singers of the 1970’s. He earned a Grammy Award and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. He sold 16 million records internationally. He recorded 11 albums with fourteen singles reaching the top of the music Charts. During his life, Chapin helped create the Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1977. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for humanitarian work posthumously in 1987. He was the inspiration for USA For Africa, Hands Across America and the World Hunger League Benefit Concert “Hungerthon” which took place annually on Thanksgiving sponsored by New York City’s WNEW-FM 102.7 for many years. Chapin was inducted to the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006.