Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Art & Legacy Of Harry Chapin

It is one of those nights from my childhood that I’ll never forget. Thursday, July 16, 1981. I was ten years old, enjoying the summer at a Long Island day camp. That evening, the campers were taken on a late-night trip to see a musical production of Damn Yankees at the Jones Beach amphitheater.  The big attraction: Joe Namath, the famed NY Jets Quarterback starring as Joe Hardy, the lead character.

It was approaching 10pm when the buses pulled into the camp parking lot. Some 300 kids stepped off into the dark and began looking for their ride home. I was seeking a red four-door Pontiac Bonneville, the one my Dad proudly drove in those days. The night was humid. The air-conditioning in my Dad’s car was cranked up to full blast. But when I ducked inside the back seat, I found my father in a somber mood.

“Dad, you gotta hear about the show. Joe Namath; he was so funny. He couldn’t sing. We were all laughing.”

My father – usually the life of every party – sat quietly behind the wheel. He looked up to acknowledge me in the rearview mirror and forced a smile. “Glad you had fun. It’s been a sad night. Harry Chapin died. He was driving to do a concert. Got killed in a car crash on the LIE.”

Harry Chapin: One of the regular musical voices I would hear on my Dad’s car stereo from his vast collection of 8-track tapes. Taxi. Flowers Are Red. And the unforgettable, Cats In The Cradle. Not the rangiest singer. But undeniably one of the great singer-songwriters there ever was. Also, one of music’s true humanitarians. The inspiration behind one of NY radio’s great annual traditions.

In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, the protagonist, Johnny Elias, leverages airplay on a NY radio station by performing on a radio-thon benefit. While the station in my story is fictional, the cause and the participating organization is real: World Hunger Year (now re-named WHYHunger). A foundation established by Harry Chapin and radio personality, Bill Ayers in 1975.

I have solid memories from my teenage years of the many radio-thons hosted on the old WNEW-FM around Thanksgiving time each year. So many rock stars donated items for auction to help combat world hunger. Others would pop by the studio, perform songs and chat with the DJs. These were the best broadcasts presented all year. Significant money was raised for such a basic cause. But it always came back to the man that started it all.

Ask any songwriter to compile a list of the greatest songs ever written. Cats In The Cradle is likely to appear on 90% of the lists. Harry Chapin’s lyrical story about the cycle of neglected father and son relationships is perhaps the pinnacle of the folk-rock genre. Ironically, the poignant lyrics to the song, which hit # 1 on the charts in 1974, were not penned by the great songwriter, but by his wife, Sandra. She’d written them in a poem about the awkward relationship between her ex-husband and his father. Nonetheless, credit Harry for adapting the poem as a song, and for giving it the melody, guitar playing and the voice.
Chapin was first and foremost a storyteller. His first hit, Taxi, tells the tale of a pair of ex-lovers who meet up years later by chance. Harry is the taxi-driver and “Sue” has become a Hollywood actress, successful, but unhappy. Another classic, WOLD, tells the story of an aging DJ, struggling to maintain relevance as he moves on to yet another city. The characters always so fully developed and relatable.

Chart success did not come regularly for Chapin. Aside from Cats In The Cradle, none of his singles cracked the top ten. But the success of that one chart-topper made Chapin an instant millionaire, and a popular concert attraction. Still, the singer refused to stand pat and enjoy his riches. He joined the boards of local institutions like Hofstra University and the Long Island Philharmonic. He also staged numerous benefit concerts for causes brought to his attention. Even his regular concert performances featured merchandise for sale to benefit various charities.

Harry Chapin’s tragic death on the Long Island Expressway in the summer of 1981 did not put an end to his philanthropic endeavors. WHYHunger continues to host its annual radio-thon in NY each November. This award-winning nonprofit organization now provides assistance to combat poverty and hunger in some 8,000 communities worldwide. A beautiful legacy for a remarkably talented troubadour cut down in the prime of his life.
Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE to order your copy.

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