It's hard to believe that Singer / Songwriter / Humanitarian Harry Chapin has been dead for over 30 years now.
Chapin first gained fame with songs such as "Cats In The Cradle" and "Taxi". In 1975, he co-founded the hunger-resource organization - WHY (World Hunger Year), a group dedicated to educating the public to the whys of hunger in the world and an aim to eradicate that hunger.
Harry Chapin performed over 2,000 concerts in his career and more than half were for charity. In 8 years he raised over 6 million dollars for more than 100 organizations, foundations, charities and universities.
Chapin came to Syracuse to perform at an S.R.O. benefit performance at the Landmark Theatre on October 11th, 1979, raising $8,000 for a group that went on to buy the theatre, saving it from destruction. It was one of the few times in 5 years that the theatre was filled to capacity.
Harry Chapin was also instrumental in the establishment of the Parents Commission on World Hunger. In 1977, Harry Chapin won the Man Of The Year Award from both the Junior Achievers Of New York and the Long Island Advertising Club. He was also honored by the US Jaycees as "One of the ten most outstanding young men in America." Past recipients of the award included John F. Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, Henry Ford, Joe Louis, Orson Wells, Howard Hughes and Leonard Bernstein. The only other musical personality to win the award besides Harry was Elvis Presley.
On July 16th, 1981, Harry Chapin was killed on the Long Island Expressway when his car burst into flames after being hit by a tractor-trailer. He was 38 years old. That evening, he was scheduled to perform for a record crowd of 30,000 people in Eisenhower Park's Lakeside Theatre on Long Island. When his death was announced, the majority of people in attendance remained, gathering into groups, crying and talking about the man. The theatre was later re-named The Harry Chapin Lakeside Theatre. TV anchors in New York and Chicago nearly broke down on camera when announcing the news of his death. After his death, no fewer than 30 Congressmen and 10 Senators offered eulogies on the House floor.
Who was Harry Chapin? What was he all about?
In a revealing book titled The Harry Chapin Story (Lyle Stuart - publishers) author and friend Peter M. Coan traces the enigmatic life of Harry Chapin. For 7 years, Peter Coan traveled with Harry, interviewing him for the book and recording on tape, his life story.
Q - Peter, your book is probably the definitive story on Harry Chapin, isn't it?
A - There can be no closer look at Harry because during the last 7 years of his life, which happened to be 7 out of the 10 years he had a music career, I was literally at his side, tape-recording his life. So, I was privy to backstage and private thoughts and feelings that even if his wife (Sandy) came out with a book today, it would just be her side of her view, her perspective of his life. My book takes in all sides because I interviewed over 300 people for the book. So, mine is a balanced portrait.
Q - I can understand why Sandy Chapin would not want this book published. You bring out a side of Harry Chapin most people don't know about. I'm speaking about the extra-marital affairs Harry was having. Would Harry have wanted that in his book?
A - In fact, we had talked about it. Harry had read 95% of the book before he died and he loved it! Harry always said "Peter, I always knew you had the heart, but, I never knew you had the ability." He always felt that if I could write a biography as good as Anthony Scaduto's great biography of Bob Dylan, which is sort of a definitive book on Dylan, that it would be a success. As we went along, I gave him chapters to read and he felt that my book was better than Scaduto's. It's in his (Chapin's) perspective. As far as the "Black Book", (that contained information on Chapin's affairs), he had said to me, "Look, when it comes out, Sandy is gonna be a little bit zapped, but I'll take care of it. I'll handle it." The reason it had to be put in is not because I was trying to muck rake him. Just the opposite. I was trying to show the motivation that he had to get into World Hunger. Somebody does not earn $2 million a year and suddenly turn around overnight and say "Hey, let's give $1 million every year to World Hunger Year", to a hunger cause. What's the motivation that forces someone to be so beneficent overnight? Well, it has to be an equally strong reason. So, that's the reason the "Black Book" was in. Harry knew about it. He approved of it, and he thought it was fine.
Q - Was any thought given to the children of Harry Chapin, who might be embarrassed by that segment of the book?
A - The problem that Harry had with chasing skirts, first, it's a problem among most music performers. But, besides that, it was sort of an ongoing theme within the family and the marriage throughout the years. When Harry became famous, he had to deal with the stardom. Girls were calling him and writing him letters. The family was sort of shock-treated from the whole thing. They knew about the "Black Book".
Q - Harry made a big point of letting everyone know about the charitable causes he was working for or giving to. Frank Sinatra did a lot of charitable work, but we never heard about it. And the same can be said about Elvis. Why did Harry feel the need to tell the whole world about what he did?
A - Well, I mean Harry didn't do all this for p.r. He did it because he believed in it. His first motivation was to prove to Sandy that he was a worthwhile human being by getting involved in hunger. Then it took on a momentum of its own because he saw what a big problem it was. He just felt that when he tried to do benefit concerts and asked his peers - Linda Ronstadt, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, to come and help him do this benefit, they weren't interested because it was Harry Chapin and it wasn't Bruce Springsteen. Because it was at a small college. Because it was for hunger and hunger wasn't chic then in the 1970s. And then, it's in the book and they were giving out all the public service awards, a guy like Paul Simon would do one benefit that didn't even have to do with helping people, like saving a theatre...
Q - Which Harry did.
A - Which is very noble. There's nothing wrong with that, which Harry did as part of 300 other benefits - and Simon would win the award. Lynyrd Skynyrd would do 6 concerts for this, and they would win an award. Harry would get frustrated. The very people winning these public service awards, when Harry would ask them to help him they would say "f*ck you!" Then when the music industry gives out public service awards, they would overlook Harry Chapin and give it to Simon and Skynyrd. So, Harry was frustrated with the hypocrisy.
Q - But, Peter, if Harry was really sincere, he'd just go out and do it and not be looking for awards.
A - Harry wasn't doing it for awards. He was doing it because he cared. He got 9 million awards. When you do things like this, you get so many things. He just felt that the industry was being selfish, that the industry was being hypocritical, that they should do more, that's all. It wasn't that Harry was looking for awards, believe me. When you were as famous and as rich as he was and had the kind of life he did, awards don't mean anything. Now, on the other hand, he did want to become a great man and he always talked about that. But, he did it because his grandfathers were great men and he wanted to be like them. And all of that is in the book, how he idolized them. But, it wasn't because he was looking for awards per se. Did he want recognition? Yeah. But, everyone wants recognition for what they do. After he died and that whole Hunger movement really took off, he would've been laughing with irony. But, it would have been a sad smile just the same. He would've been shocked that all the people who had turned him down in the past were now suddenly doing videos with Quincy Jones and singing "We Are The World".
Q - You bring out in the book that since Harry's death, both homelessness and hunger have increased. Were Harry's efforts then, for nothing?
A - No. Harry's philosophy was that you don't solve hunger with one concert. You solve it by getting in the trenches, lobbying Congress, raising money, doing benefits, creating awareness in the country, changing the legislation in Washington that affects billions of dollars. Money that goes to solve world hunger. These entertainers are not interested in that. Harry would have gotten those people to make that effort part of their regular work. You don't see Springsteen giving hunger benefits anymore. You don't see Jackson doing "We Are The World" videos anymore, donating any more money. You don't see any of these performers at food banks. Harry Chapin was. He created them. He started them. So, even though the "We Are The World" movement raised approximately $250 - $300 million, we have more homelessness and hunger in America than ever before. Why? Because these were just single events. And the money got chewed up.
Q - Have there been any cover versions of Harry's songs?
A - Oh, I don't think so. I know a lot of entertainers still perform his music.
Q - Has Sandy Chapin read your book?
A - Her attorney claims she'll never read it.
Q - You could almost make a Movie Of The Week for TV based on your book.
A - Yeah, except to use the actual music, Harry's actual music, you'd have to have the permission of Sandy Chapin.
Q - Sandy Chapin sued the tractor-trailer company involved in her husband's death and won - how much?
A - She won $12 million and collected $10 million. That's the only lawsuit she ever made.
Q - Harry wasn't supposed to be driving on that day. He didn't have a valid license.
A - He had no license at the time. It was revoked. He shouldn't have been driving that car. Apparently, before he left the house, he had one of his many fights with his wife. He
was in a bad mood and driving fast, which he often did when he was upset about something. He died officially, literally when a piece of glass went through his heart like a stake through a vampire. That's how he died.
Q - I recall seeing Harry in concert here in Syracuse back in 1979, at the Landmark Theatre. It was a sold-out show and he was 2 hours late. That's totally unprofessional.
A - That's just the way Harry was. Harry was always late. He didn't mean any bad by it. I think the reason he had such a tremendous concert following over the years, even though he didn't have a lot of hit records, was because he gave great concerts. He was a great showman. I think people got their money's worth. Harry sang songs about common people. People came to hear themselves. Sort of like therapy. Once he did get to a concert hall, he'd give you a three hour concert. He'd stand out in the lobby signing autographs, t-shirts, poetry books, all of which the proceeds went to fund his World Hunger Organization. Once Harry was there, he'd make it all worthwhile for you.