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This article by Deb Cooperman was prepared for the May 19, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Chapin Family Celebrates Harry in Song
Weaned on the Monkees, Herman’s Hermits and Bobby Sherman, as many of my fellow “end-of-the-boomer-generation” pre-teen girls were, the first time I heard Harry Chapin sing “Cat’s in the Cradle” was as though I had been invited into an exciting and complicated new world beyond the easy bubblegum-land I’d been living in. Chapin’s poignant songs of hope and longing, dreaming, losing, and dealing with life’s inevitable compromises hit a chord much deeper than the tunes that were being cranked out on popular radio in the early 1970s.
But it wasn’t just his music that made him unique. In the early ’70s Harry Chapin was at the forefront of a trend by musicians, artists, and actors who were throwing their celebrity, influence, and money behind causes that mattered to them. The generosity of spirit that infused his music also drove him to make a difference. At the height of his career, nearly 50 percent of his concert dates were benefit performances for causes dear to him, most notably causes with a mission of eradicating world hunger.
That’s why, when I heard about his death in a car accident in 1981, I was one of legions of fans, young and old, who knew that something irreplaceable had been lost when Harry Chapin died at 38.
Like his brother, Tom Chapin is also a singer-songwriter and an activist. Twenty-two years after Harry’s death, Tom — along with several members of the musical Chapin family, and some of Harry’s former band members — were performing at a benefit concert for World Hunger Year, an organization that Harry co-founded, and one that several members of the Chapin family are still involved with as board members. “I looked out at the audience and I watched people dissolve when we sang Harry’s songs,” says Tom. People had such a connection to this music, and I thought: “This is really something.”
“We all try to keep Harry’s music alive,” continues Tom, speaking by phone from his home in New York. “I would always do a few of Harry’s things at these benefits, and so would Steve (Harry’s other brother), but this was all of us together performing Harry’s songs as a family reunion with the music.” It got them thinking. “Harry’s fans have become Chapin family fans,” he says. “They come to my concerts; they buy Jen’s music (Jen Chapin is Harry Chapin’s daughter), and they have a connection to the family. It was a perfect way for us to get together. We’re kind of spread out — and it’s a total delight.”
And like his brother, who was an audience favorite at McCarter Theater in the 1970s, Tom is a frequent performer at McCarter. Just two weeks ago he appeared solo, performing some of his Grammy winning family-friendly music, including “Mother Earth” and “Family Tree” for the young (and the not-quite-as-young) crowd. This time, when he takes the stage on Friday, May 21, at 8 p.m., he will be joined by his family, both biological and musical, for a tribute concert: Harry Chapin: A Celebration in Song.
Performing Harry’s well-loved songs, including “Circle,” “Taxi,” “W-O-L-D,” and “Cat’s in the Cradle,” will be those who knew him best: his family — including brothers Tom and Steve, father Jim, daughter Jen, and nieces Abigail, Jessica, and Lily — as well as longtime band members Big John Wallace and Howard Fields.
“The foundation of the evening is Harry’s music,” says Tom. But there are also stories. “Harry loved the stories. He loved to just sit and say ‘Let me tell you a story.’ It’s amazing to hear my daughters and Harry’s daughter doing his stuff. And the audiences love it. They know us; they know the music. It’s like a great American family.”
Accomplished musicians in their own right, the Chapin family is something like the Cash/Carter family — Johnny, June Carter-Cash, Rosanne Cash, Carlene, and the Carter Family — writing and performing their music and going out on the road — each generation bringing new fans to the family.
“Dad’s the original musician,” Tom says. A jazz drummer and a drumming teacher, Jim Chapin once played with Woody Herman and Tommy Dorsey, and his book “Advanced Techniques”, known to drummers as “The Chapin Book,” is still in print today. “He’s 84 and he still travels all over the world teaching. Dad says he’s a dinosaur in the next age, but when he plays with us, he stops the show every time.”
Steve Chapin started playing with brothers Harry and Tom as the Chapin Brothers during high school. After he went to college, Steve picked up the guitar again and became the ultimate hyphenate; a successful teacher-arranger-recording artist-commercial producer-singer-song writer. He was Harry’s arranger and played in his back-up band for years.
Harry’s daughter, Jen, is a singer-songwriter and Linger, her debut album, is gaining attention and accolades from such diverse corners as People Magazine, Jazz Times, and NPR’s All Things Considered. Performing Songwriter magazine said that Jen “makes a grand entrance with her debut disk — soulful, sassy and sweet all at the same time.” And Tracks Magazine’s Alan Light reported on the Today Show that Jen is among a “fleet of new, young, singer-songwriters” to watch, one whose music is a “switch to more intimate, more authentic, handmade music rather than big pop machinery.”
The Celebration in Song show at McCarter is one in a tour. (“If,” as Tom laughs, “you count 10 dates as a tour.”) “It’s fun for us,” he says, “and for the audience too. It’s hard to describe; it’s got its own unique energy.”
What made Harry Chapin unique is hard to describe, too. Those who saw him said that it was in live performance that he really shone. His easygoing style made even the largest audiences feel like they were sitting in his living room hearing him tell stories. Yet his music got lots of airplay on the radio, even though his storytelling style often ran much longer than the usual two-and-a-half to three minute average is more typical for hit songs. His albums also sold well, even though he never got particularly positive reviews from the press (reviewers often called his songs “sentimental”, “simplistic” and “preachy”).
Still, the work has held up on its own: hopeful, thoughtful and full of heart. “His music just speaks to people,” Tom says. “It’s storytelling in the most basic way. It’s the oldest form of communication — like the Bible, like Homer. It’s about people and connection; it’s very different from your typical pop music. And people just respond.”
Harry Chapin: A Celebration in Song, McCarter Theater, 609-258-2787. Featuring Chapin patriarch Jim Chapin; brothers Tom and Steve Chapin; daughter Jen Chapin; nieces Abigail Chapin, Lily Chapin and Jessica Craven; and longtime friends and band mates Big John Wallace and Howard Fields. May 21, at 8 p.m. Tickets: $31 to $36.
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