Harry Chapin has an interesting musical background for a singer/songwriter who became a classic pop troubadour and social reformer: his father was a big band drummer whose credits included stints with Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman. Later, when Chapin was touring, his father would open the shows with his own Dixieland jazz group.
Growing up in Greenwich Village, Chapin started on trumpet first before learning banjo and guitar, then organized a musical act with his brothers. His enthusiasm for folk music in the late 50s and early 60s led him to play them for pleasure while he studied architecture at the Air Force Academy and then philosophy at Cornell. The group he had with his father and brothers Tom and Steve played Village clubs and recorded one album. Before focusing in earnest on a musical career, Chapin did film editing and made a documentary called Legendary Champions which won an Oscar nomination for best documentary of 1969.
In 1970, his family resurrected the Chapin Brothers and got a contract to cut an album for Epic. Harry provided the songs, but didn't play in the group. A later band featuring brother Steve earned the respect of local fans and led to Chapin's contract with his primary label, Elektra.
His debut Heads And Tales and the six-minute single "Taxi" enjoyed success on the US charts. The addition of the long single to national AM radio was a first in the music business, and did much to promote Harry's quick rise to fame. His strength as a writer was already emerging in the form of fascinating narrative songs, which often had a twist in the tale. "W-O-L-D", an acute observation of the life of a local disc jockey, went on to become something of an FM radio classic. In 1974, Chapin secured the US Christmas number 1 single with the evocative "Cat's In The Cradle," a moral warning on the dangers of placing careerism above family life.
Expanding beyond the pop charts, in 1975 he wrote the Broadway musical revue, The Night That Made America Famous. That same year, he also won an Emmy award for his musical work on the children's television series, Make A Wish. By 1976, Chapin was still enjoying immense success in his homeland and his double live album Greatest Stories - Live received a gold record award. During the late 70s, he became increasingly involved in politics and was a delegate at the 1976 Democratic Convention. In 1977, "Chapin," a revue at the Improvisation Theatre based on his music, enjoyed a seven-month run and later spawned similar productions elsewhere.
During the 70s, Chapin kept up a hectic touring schedule that averaged 200 concerts a year all over the United States and in many other nations. Besides his regular commercial shows, he constantly organized benefit appearances for the many causes and charities he believed in. In the mid 1970s, for instance, he put together a series of Concerts for Africa to help victims of the drought in sub-Sahara regions. Of his 200 annual concerts, typically half were benefits.
In 1980, he switched labels to the small Boardwalk. The title track to his album Sequel, which was a story sequel to his first hit "Taxi," gave him his final US Top 30 entry. On 16 July, while traveling to one of those benefit concerts, his car was hit by a truck in Jericho, New York, and the singer was killed. A Harry Chapin Memorial Fund was subsequently launched in his memory.