Harry Forster Chapin (December 7, 1942 – July 16, 1981) was an American singer-songwriter best known in particular for his folk rock songs including "Taxi", "W*O*L*D", and the number-one hit "Cat's in the Cradle"; as well as his folk musical based on the biblical book of John, "Cotton Patch Gospel". Chapin was also a dedicated humanitarian who fought to end world hunger, his work a key player in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1977. In 1987, Chapin was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian work.
Following an unsuccessful early album made with his brothers, Tom and Steve, Chapin's debut album was Heads & Tales (1972, #60), which was a success thanks to the single "Taxi" (#24). Chapin later gave great credit to WMEX-Boston radio personality Jim Connors for being the DJ who "discovered" this single, and pushing the air play of this song among fellow radio programmers in the U.S.
However, Chapin's recording future became somewhat of a controversy between two powerful record companies headed by two very powerful men, Jac Holzman of Elektra Records and Clive Davis of Columbia. According to Chapin's biography Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story by Peter M. Coan, Chapin had agreed in principle to sign with Elektra Records on the grounds that a smaller record label would give greater personal attention to his work. Davis, however, remained undaunted, doubling almost every cash advance offer Chapin received from Holzman. Despite a cordial relationship with Holzman, Davis had a long history of besting Holzman over the years to particular artists, but this was one time that he did not prevail.
Chapin ultimately signed with Elektra for a smaller advance, but with provisions that made it worth the move. The biggest stipulation in the nine-album deal was that he receive free studio time, meaning he paid no recording costs. It was a move that would ultimately save Chapin hundreds of thousands of dollars over the term of his contract and set a precedent for other musicians.
"This was completely unheard of," said Davis in the Coan book. "There was no such thing as free studio time."
Chapin's follow-up album, Sniper and Other Love Songs (1972, #160), was less successful despite containing the Chapin anthem "Circle" (a big European hit for The New Seekers). His third album, Short Stories (1974, #61), was a modest success. Verities & Balderdash (1974, #4), released soon after, was much more successful, bolstered by the chart-topping hit single "Cat's in the Cradle", based upon a poem by his wife; Sandra Chapin had written the poem inspired by her first husband's relationship with his father and a country song she heard on the radio. When Harry's son Josh was born, he got the idea to put music to the words and recorded the result. "Cat's in the Cradle" was Chapin's only number one hit, shooting album sales skyward and making him a millionaire.
He also wrote and performed a Broadway musical The Night That Made America Famous. Additionally, Chapin wrote the music and lyrics for Cotton Patch Gospel, a musical by Tom Key based on Clarence Jordan's book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. The original cast soundtrack was produced by Tom Chapin, and released in 1982 by Chapin Productions.
Chapin's only UK hit was "W*O*L*D", which reached #34 in 1974. His popularity in the UK owed much to the championing of BBC disc jockey Noel Edmonds. The song's success in the U.S. was championed by WMEX jock and friend of Chapin's Jim Connors who in part inspired the song. The national appeal of the song was a result of disc jockeys playing it for themselves, since the song dealt with a much-traveled DJ, problems in his personal life, and his difficulty with aging in the industry. This song was also a significant inspiration (though not the only one) for Hugh Wilson, who created the popular television series about DJs and radio, WKRP in Cincinnati.
Chapin's recording of "The Shortest Story", a song he wrote about a dying child and featured in his 1976 live/studio album Greatest Stories Live, was named by author Tom Reynolds in his book I Hate Myself And Want To Die as the second most depressing song of all time.
Chapin's personal interaction with his fans (he regularly led audiences in sing-alongs) was such that during a 1977 appearance at Pensacola Junior College, Pensacola, Florida, when he was touring with only his bass viol player, he recruited the back-up singers for "Mr. Tanner" out of the audience.
By the end of the decade, Chapin's contract with Elektra (which had since merged with Asylum Records under the control of David Geffen) had expired, and the company made no offer to renew it. A minor deal with Casablanca Records fell through, and Chapin settled on a simple one-album deal with Boardwalk Records. The Boardwalk album would be his final work.
The title track of his last album, Sequel, was a follow up to his earlier song "Taxi", reuniting the same characters ten years later. The songs Chapin was working on at the time of his death were subsequently released as the thematic album The Last Protest Singer.
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