July 16, 1981 – Harry Chapin was born on December 7th 1942 in Greenwich Village, New York, 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.
Chapin’s first formal introduction to music came 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.
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.
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. During college, he decided to pursue a career as a documentary filmmaker; in 1968, he directed the Oscar-nominated Legendary Champions. In 1971, he switched his career, concentrating on music. Chapin recruited a backing band through an ad in the Village Voice; the respondents included bassist John Wallace, guitarist Ron Palmer, and cellist Tim Scott. The group began performing in various clubs around New York and the singer/songwriter was soon signed to Elektra Records with a unique clause in the contract that studio recording time was free to him.
Heads and Tails, Chapin’s first album, was released in the summer of 1972 and became a success thanks to the hit single “Taxi,” which soon became the songwriter’s signature tune. Later that year, he released his second album, Sniper and Other Love Songs, which didn’t fare quite as well as his debut. Short Stories, Chapin’s third album, appeared in the spring of 1973; it spent 23 weeks on the chart due to the success of the single “W.O.L.D.,” a story about the life of a disc jockey. After recording his fourth album, Verities and Balderdash, Chapin disbanded his backing band (bandmembers had been complaining that he gave too much of his performance fees to charities) and began work on his musical The Night That Made America Famous; both Wallace and cellist Michael Masters worked on the show, along with guitarist Doug Walker, drummer Howie Fields, and Chapin’s brothers Tom, Steve, and Jim.
The Night That Made America Famous opened on February 26, 1975. It closed on April 6, after 75 performances; the show would earn two Tony nominations. Chapin won an Emmy award that spring for his contributions to ABC television’s children’s series Make a Wish, which was hosted by his brother Tom.
While he was working on the musical, Verities and Balderdash became his biggest hit, peaking at number four on the U.S. charts and becoming a gold record. The album’s success was benefited by the number-one single “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a song about an inconsiderate, career-oriented father that was based on a poem written by Chapin’s wife. (It was used in an episode of The Simpsons, an episode of King of the Hill, 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 and ranked number 186 of 365 on the RIAA list of Songs of the Century.)
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.” 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 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.
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.
Greatest Stories — Live, a double album released in the spring of 1976, became the singer/songwriter’s second gold album, peaking at number 48. Chapin was becoming more politically active throughout 1976, as evidenced by his role as a delegate at that summer’s Democratic Convention. Late in 1976, he released On the Road to Kingdom Come, which spent a mere six weeks on the charts. The 1977 double-album Dance Band on the Titanic was on the charts for a few more weeks, yet it didn’t spawn a hit single. The following year, Chapin met with President Jimmy Carter, discussing the need for a Presidential Commission on Hunger; he also released Living Room Suite that summer, which peaked at number 133.
Chapin released a second live album, Legends of the Lost and Found — New Greatest Stories Live, in the fall of 1979; it was his least-successful album, spending only three weeks on the charts. In 1980, he signed with Boardwalk Records, releasing Sequel that fall; the title track of the album was a sequel to his first hit single, “Taxi,” and became his last Top 40 hit.
On Thursday, July 16, 1981, 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 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. 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, 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, which the family claimed was donated to Harry’s charities.
He was only 38.
Harry was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame on October 15, 2006. As well as his musical career he 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, Harry was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian work.