Throughout his life, as a performer and as a social-justice advocate, Harry Chapin was always unstoppable. And even after his untimely death in 1981, his music and work continue.
On Nov. 4, the beloved singer-songwriter will be remembered at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown with “Harry Chapin at 80,” a look back at his music performed by his family members and longtime bandmates.
Widely known for his iconic storytelling songs such as “Cat’s in the Cradle,” “Taxi” and “WOLD,” Chapin was also a fervid social-justice warrior, raising awareness about hunger in America, and money for the cause. Half of his 200-plus shows each year were fundraisers.
According to his brother, singer-songwriter Tom Chapin, the six Chapin brothers were inspired one summer while vacationing in Andover, New Jersey. They heard the just-released album The Weavers Live at Carnegie Hall, which was recorded when the famed folk revivalists reunited after being blacklisted as a result of McCarthy Era persecution.
“We listened to it all summer long,” Tom said. “It’s just incredible. The idea of these voices and the guitars and banjos, and at the end of the summer, we thought, ‘We could do that.’ And I feel like that’s the same idea Harry had — ‘we could do that’ — about hunger, and that kind of was his watchword in the world.”
Billing themselves as The Chapin Brothers, the boys dove into the burgeoning folk scene in Greenwich Village and elsewhere. Harry was also interested in making documentaries, and after he went to work on a film about hunger in Ethiopia, his brothers proceeded without him.
When he came back, Harry set out to form his own band and work on his songwriting, sometimes appearing as the opening act for his brothers.
After Harry began to create a buzz, he became the center of a bidding war between two record companies, getting a contract that was the largest for a newcomer at the time. Suddenly, Harry and his songs were everywhere.
Harry had a restless spirit and contagious enthusiasm. The family joke, Tom said, was “two is company and Harry’s a crowd.” Stardom seemed not just inevitable but just his cruising speed. “He was made for this,” Tom said.
Based loosely on an incident in Harry’s own life, the long-form narrative “Taxi” surprisingly rocketed to the top of the charts. Chapin’s spirited stage presence and connection with audiences also contributed to his success. When Harry performed on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” the audience was still applauding when the show came back from a commercial break and Carson took the unprecedented step of bringing him back the next night.
Among his other hits, Harry put music to a song written by his wife, Sandy, about a difficult relationship between a father and a son, and the resulting “Cat’s in the Cradle” became a cultural touchstone in addition to a chart-topping hit.
As he became a star, Chapin used his fame to call attention and raise funds for various causes, particularly the eradication of hunger in America. He co-founded World Hunger Year (now WhyHunger) with his friend Father Bill Ayres in 1975, became a member of a President Jimmy Carter’s hunger commission and was a frequent visitor to Congress.
Harry felt that, given the resources of the country, what was “unconscionable is the fact that there’s hungry people in America,” Tom said, adding that “poverty is really the driving force here. … That really moved him and he thought, ‘We can change this.’ He had a great American thing of, ‘We can change the world.’ ”
“Our hero was Pete Seeger, not Elvis,” Tom said. “What really moved us about that music was Pete’s world, which is, ‘Hey, we can clean up the Hudson,’ and that whole thing really resonated with us, that sense of the working class getting screwed … (Harry) loved people. He loved being in front of people.”
In 1981, while driving to a fundraising concert, Harry was killed by a truck on the Long Island Expressway at the age of 38. Inspired by his life, Harry’s family continued his work.
The Chapin family, in fact, was uniquely positioned to carry on Harry’s musical legacy. Tom and his brother Steve were singer-songwriters, and his father Jim Chapin was a professional musician who wrote a book that is still a fundamental text for jazz drummers. The family’s pursuit of music extended to the next generation, with Harry’s daughter Jen becoming a singer-songwriter and his nieces performing as The Chapin Sisters.
Over the years, the Chapin family has continued to come together for concerts that have celebrated Harry’s legacy and helped causes dear to his heart. Audience members at the Morristown concert, for example, are being asked to bring nonperishable items for the Morris County Interfaith Food Pantry.
Recognizing that he would have been 80 years old in December 2022, family members decided to create a series of shows celebrating Harry’s songs. “The reaction has really been an amazing thing because it’s not just people our age, but people who have found Harry’s music,” Tom said. “It’s just a wonderful evening. It’s an evening of just celebration.”
Of course much of what makes the evening is Harry’s musical storytelling.
“Those songs are as good as it gets,” Tom said. “Harry at his best was as good as anybody.”
The Mayo Performing Arts Center will present “Harry Chapin at 80,” Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. Performers will include Tom Chapin, Steve Chapin, Jen Chapin, The Chapin Sisters (Abigail Chapin and Lily Chapin) and Harry Chapin Band members Big John Wallace and Howard Fields). Visit mayoarts.org.
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