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Harry Chapin

+ {The Chapin Brothers}

A narrative folk singer/songwriter with a penchant for sentimentality and moralistic, socially-aware compositions, HARRY CHAPIN split the critics on tearjerking hits such as `Cat’s In The Cradle’, `W*O*L*D’, `I Wanna Learn A Love Song’, `Taxi’ and `Sequel’. In a star-spangled 70s that spawned similar artists GORDON LIGHTFOOT, JAMES TAYLOR, JIM CROCE and BILLY JOEL, there’s a definite sadness that the confessional CHAPIN couldn’t follow his peers into most of a fresh decade; he died tragically in 1981.
Born December 7, 1942, Greenwich Village, NY, the son of a big band drummer, Harry sang in the Brooklyn Heights Boys’ Choir before forming a trio (The CHAPIN BROTHERS) with his siblings, Tom and Stephen. In 1967, they released a couple of singles, `When Do You Find Time To Breathe’ and `Old Time Movies’, the latter crediting Will Jordan & Friends and not lifted from their one-and-only LP, CHAPIN MUSIC! {*4}. Influenced by The KINGSTON TRIO and one of their kin, BARRY McGUIRE, needless to say, Harry’s tunes hadn’t yet found the necessary ingredients to turn the heads of folkies in Greenwich Village. Becoming a documentary filmmaker in the 60s, Harry directed the Oscar-nominated Legendary Champions, in 1968, before forming his own backing group and signing for Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records in 1971.
CHAPIN’s debut LP, HEADS & TALES ( 1972) {*8}, enjoyed an extended residency in the charts following the Top 30 success of his `Taxi’ single. Clocking in at over 6 orchestral minutes on the album, the first-person tale of a cabbie’s doomed romance with a rich woman going places, soft-rock singer Harry had now peppered his listeners with nocturnal moon-dust. Augmented by brother Stephen (on keyboards) and Tim Scott (cello), Ron Palmer (electric guitar), John Wallace (bass) and Russ Kunkel (percussion), fly-on-the-wall narrator CHAPIN told of despairing, lonely people looking for love behind drawn curtains; exampled best on `Could You Put Your Light On, Please’ (a failed 45), `Greyhound’, `Sometime, Somewhere Wife’ and `Same Sad Singer’.
SNIPER AND OTHER LOVE SONGS (1972) {*7} continued the trend, albeit without the same chart punch ‘cept for Top 75 entry `Sunday Morning Sunshine’. Harry’s contemporary folk-rock patterns marrying FRED NEIL, DON McLEAN with NILSSON, the conceptual aspect of the set coming in the dramatic 10-minutes of `Sniper’ and 8+ minutes from the intimate and beautiful `Better Place To Be’, the latter the moral narrative in the pack. If the latter song had flopped first time around when edited as a single, compensation spondulicks had been duly posted when The NEW SEEKERS took CHAPIN’s `Circle(s)’ into the UK Top 5, while naming an album after the track.
A year and three months on, HARRY CHAPIN became something of a mini-star when radio staple `W*O*L*D’ – ironically about a lonely ageing DJ – hit the Top 40 on both sides of the Atlantic. Spawned from SHORT STORIES (1973) {*6}, the singer’s bittersweet everyday man/woman kitchen-sink dramas had appeal to post-grads in bedsits and dysfunctional dreamers looking for `Changes’, or even `Mr. Tanner’ and `Mail Order Annie’ (about an ambitious dry-cleaner-come-singer and a dirt-hand talking to his new bride).
Several months down the line, Harry released his fourth set, VERITIES & BALDERDASH (1974) {*7}, his most commercially successful to date. The Top 5 album’s appeal was considerably sweetened with the inclusion of `Cat’s In The Cradle’, a first-person treatise on boy/father reverse injustice which became CHAPIN’s only No.1 single (and later a big hit for snotty metallers UGLY KID JOE). The signature song was in fact a poem penned by Harry’s wife, Sandy Gaston, inspired by the absence of her first hubby James Cashmore and his busy politician father, John. Not nearly as profound or indeed emotional, the AM-Pop `I Wanna Learn A Love Song’ (a Top 50 hit), the dramatic `Shooting Star’ and the politically-motivated `What Made America Famous?’, intermingled with the odd musical diversion of `30,000 Pounds Of Bananas’ and `Six String Orchestra’.
CHAPIN then concentrated on his anti-hunger initiatives, becoming a tireless social activist whose lobbying drew more recognition than his subsequent musical output. Although just failing to scratch out a Top 50 place, PORTRAIT GALLERY (1975) {*3} – again produced by Paul Leka – bombed unceremoniously when the happy-go-unlucky `Dreams Go By’ spoiled the party. Slushy and sentimental with not the same thought-provoking motif as its literate predecessors, the closing tracks `Bummer’ and `Stop Singing These Sad Songs’ just about said it all.
On the back of the double set, GREATEST STORIES – LIVE (1976) {*6} – recorded over three consecutive nights in California – his studio return ON THE ROAD TO KINGDOM COME (1976) {*6} was nearly CHAPIN back to his best. Two songs in particular that stood out was the heart-warming `Corey’s Coming’ and the 8-minute melodrama of `The Mayor Of Candor Lied’, while wife Sandy could be proud of her lyrical prowess in `Caroline’ (very BOBBY GOLDSBORO).
If his own ship had been sinking fast of late, CHAPIN’s answer was to feed his fanbase a double LP, DANCE BAND ON THE TITANIC (1977) {*7}, a wryly satirical but entertaining Top 60 concept that gave him a widescreen canvas to work upon. From the opening title track to the concluding 14-minute insight to America’s history of music, `There Was Only One Choice’ (Harry’s soft-rock “Bat Out Of Hell” moment in time), the kooky `My Old Lady’ and `Mercenaries’ were somewhat suffocated under the aforesaid grandiose magnum opus.
1978’s LIVING ROOM SUITE {*6} was out of sync with the music of the times, and as a result fell foul of the buying public who’d prefer new wave, disco and anything to music with an old-timey, FM-friendly literate bent. Formulaic and perfectly matched for all ages, there was a Nashville flavour in `Dancing Boy’, `Somebody Said’ and the “Cats…Cradle”-esque `Why Do Little Girls’. Marking his swansong for Elektra Records, his third double-set in as many years, LEGENDS OF THE LOST AND FOUND – NEW GREATEST STORIES LIVE (1979) {*4} filtered out ten fresh tracks and several silver (not golden) threads; augmented as always by his brother Steven, plus guitarist Doug Walker, drummer Howie Fields, bassist John Wallace and cellist Kim Scholes.
With much the same personnel, CHAPIN’s only Boardwalk Records appearance, SEQUEL (1980) {*4}, made a brief return from commercial oblivion and into the charts; helped along the way, funnily enough, by the enterprising Top 30 title track – the er… sequel to `Taxi’. A picturesque song updating the yearning, about-turn lives of fictional characters Harry and Sue, the storyteller aspect of his musical journey was now complete. Harry continued to play more than his fair share of benefit concerts, although tragically he was killed when his car crashed into the back of a tractor-trailer in Jericho, NY (on July 16, 1981), travelling to just such a gig.
© MC Strong 1998-2010/GRD-GFD // rev-up MCS Feb2016

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