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Friday, September 28, 2007

Friday Nite Retro

Good evening and welcome to yet another edition of Friday Nite Retro. I couldn't be more pleased to be your guest host this evening as it is both an honor to stand in for your usual Congenial Host and a pleasure to feature one of America's most overlooked geniuses, Harry Chapin. I apologize in advance for the quality of the clips, but unfortunately, Harry's career ended at the dawn of the music video age. You take what you can get...

Harry Chapin was known in his time as the World's Greatest Storyteller because of his ability to weave intricate tales into his music. Unfortunately, this intricacy is also what helped keep him in relative obscurity as his songs tended to greatly exceed the 3 - 4 minute standard invoked by most radio stations for airplay. Because of this limitation his best known works are "Cat's in the Cradle" and "WOLD", both tunes about a wasted life. His other major contribution to pop culture "Taxi" was a hit in spite of its 6:44 length largely due to college radio, the birthplace of AOR (Album Oriented Radio).

Born December 7, 1942, just one year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Harry was the second of four children born to Jim and Elspeth Chapin. His dad was a drummer for Big Band era acts such as Woody Herman. The Chapins divorced in 1950 and Elspeth retained custody of the children as Jim spent most of his time on the road. After graduating high school in 1960 Harry briefly attended the Air Force Academy and spent some time at Cornell University, though he never attained a degree. His original goal in life was to be a filmmaker and directed the documentary film Legendary Champions in 1968, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Eventually, his attention turned to music.

Following an unsuccessful early album recorded with brothers Tom and Steve, Harry released his debut album Heads and Tails in 1972 featuring his first Billboard hit "Taxi", which peaked at #24.


One of the unusual aspects of Harry's contract with Elektra Records was the bidding war over him between Elektra's Jac Holzman and Clive Davies of Columbia Records. The end result: Harry became the world's first artist to have a recording contract that stipulated free studio time. Over the course of his career this saved Chapin hundreds of thousands of dollars in recording costs.

Harry's follow-up album, Sniper & Other Love Songs, was a lesser success in the charts in spite of containing his signature anthem, "Circle". The overall tone of the album, with songs like the chilling cover track, "And the Baby Never Cries" and "Burning Herself" may have contributed to its lack of commercial appeal. Still, this one contains one of my all-time favorites about a night watchman and the girl he picks up in a diner called "A Better Place To Be".



A Better Place To Be

Harry waited over a year to release his next album, Short Stories, and that put him back on track commercially, reaching #61 on the Billboard charts, thanks in part to "W*O*L*D", which was the only hit he ever had in the UK. The album also contained my other favorite Chapin track, "Mr. Tanner", about a dry cleaner who wanted to be a singer.


Mr. Tanner

Harry's next effort, Verities & Balderdash, contained his greatest commercial success, "Cat's in the Cradle", based on a poem written by his wife, Sandy. The poem was written out of the frustration borne by her husband's life on the road and raising her children alone. The album also highlights Harry's whimsical side with songs like "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" and "Six String Orchestra".

Cat's in the Cradle

30,000 Pounds of Bananas

Six String Orchestra

Harry pretty much peaked in 1976 with the release of Greatest Stories Live although he released five more albums after that. Highlights of the latter part of his career include the sad "Flowers Are Red" from Living Room Suite and the title track from his final album, "Sequel", a revamping of 1972's "Taxi" in which the two star-crossed lovers meet once again ten years later.

Flowers Are Red


Harry's death in 1981 was the result of an auto accident in which his Volkswagen Rabbit was struck by a Semi. It is uncertain whether the accident was the result of engine failure or a heart attack. Harry is sorely missed not only for his many talents but also for his humanitarian efforts to conquer hunger in America. He was a key player in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his efforts. In addition he donated all sales of concert merchandise to World Hunger and donated an estimated third of his paid concerts to various charities.

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Blogger Paddy said...

Do I gots some tasty stories 'bout Harry..... heh. He was a great kisser.

title="comment permalink">September 28, 2007 7:44 PM  
Blogger Robert Rouse said...

I loked Harry Chapin, but I hated listening to his stuff when I was stoned. He was a real buzz kill. There was a gentleman who passed away eight years earlier than Chapin who could really make me laugh and sing along when I was stoned. I still love Jim Croce.

title="comment permalink">September 28, 2007 10:25 PM  
Blogger Robert Rouse said...

loked = liked

title="comment permalink">September 28, 2007 10:25 PM  
Blogger John Good said...

Paddy - I want DETAILS!!!

Robert - Warn us BEFORE your next vowel movement! ;) (Croce was awesome!)

title="comment permalink">September 28, 2007 10:30 PM  
Blogger Parson said...

Some pretty good tunes there. I think I could live without the 30,000 banana song though. Looked like most of the audience in that video felt the same way.

title="comment permalink">September 29, 2007 5:32 AM  
Blogger Vic DeMize said...

Robert - I have to concur with your assessment of Harry as someone who could really "harsh yer buzz", but when I read the next line about someone else who could make you laugh and sing along my immediate thought was, "My God, I didn't know John Prine was dead!"

title="comment permalink">September 29, 2007 1:45 PM  

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