Harry Chapin

  • Biography:

    Although singer/songwriter Harry Chapin initially came to fame with his story songs, his true legacy is that of an antihunger activist who, years before such public activism became common, was performing over half of his 200 concert dates each year for charitable causes.

    The son of a jazz drummer, Chapin sang in the Brooklyn Heights Boys Choir, and in his teens he played guitar, banjo, and trumpet in a band with his brothers. After a stint at the Air Force Academy, Chapin spent a semester at Cornell University. He and his brothers began working in Greenwich Village clubs and making documentary films. (A documentary he made with Jim Jacobs in the late '60s called Legendary Champions was nominated for an Academy Award.) His brothers left the country in 1964 to escape the draft, and Chapin continued in filmmaking.

    He formed his own band, including a cello player, in 1971. Chapin's debut album, Heads and Tales, was released in February 1972 and stayed on the charts for over half a year, peaking at #60 when "Taxi" became a Top 20 single. His 1973 album, Short Stories, produced another solid hit, "W.O.L.D." (#36). Verities and Balderdash became Chapin's first gold album in 1974 on the strength of his #1 "Cat's in the Cradle." His subsequent albums sold respectably through the end of the '70s. His The Night That Made America Famous ran on Broadway for 75 performances and was nominated for two Tony Awards.

    Chapin's later backup band included his brother Steve (piano and vocals), who also produced Harry's 1977 LP Dance Band on the Titanic. Another Chapin brother, Tom, has carried on a career of his own as a singer/songwriter and a children's artist.

    Chapin was an active lobbyist for various causes and a benefactor of Long Island arts organizations. In 1975 he founded World Hunger Year (WHY) and became a familiar figure on Capitol Hill and other centers of government as he worked tirelessly against hunger. The next year he served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and was named one of the Jaycees' 10 Most Outstanding Young Men in America.

    Chapin died in a car crash on the Long Island Expressway while driving to a benefit performance. By then he had raised over $5 million for charity. In 1987 he was honored at an all-star Carnegie Hall tribute during which his widow, Sandy (who continues his work), accepted a posthumously awarded Special Congressional Gold Medal on his behalf. An album documenting the event —with performers including Bruce Springsteen, Richie Havens, and Judy Collins —titled Tribute was released in 1990.

    from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001)