Born the son of a big band drummer in New York in 1942, Chapin began performing while he was in high school, singing in the Brooklyn Heights Boys' Choir and forming a band with his brothers Tom and Stephen.
After dropping out from the Cornell University philosophy department, Harry was giving guitar lessons in his Brooklyn apartment and trying to write a screenplay. One of his first students was Sandra Cashmore, a woman eight years his senior with three young children. Sandy, who was unhappily married to a businessman, was studying for a Ph.D in philosophy at Columbia. She and Harry fell in love and, after her divorce, were married. Harry adopted her three children; Jaime, Jonothon and Jason and the couple also had two of their own, Jennifer and Josh. Their love story would later be put to music in one of Harry's hit records, "I Wanna Learn A Love Song".
In 1971, he decided to give music another chance and recruited a backing band through an ad in the Village Voice. The respondents included bassist John Wallace, guitarist Ron Palmer, and cellist Tim Scott. The group began performing in various clubs around New York and within a year, landed a deal with Elektra Records.
Chapin's first album, "Heads and Tails", was released in the summer of 1972. The album became an instant hit thanks to the success of the six-minute single "Taxi," which would became Chapin's signature tune, followed by "I Wanna Learn A Love Song". Later that year, he released his second album, "Sniper and Other Love Songs", which failed to interest record buyers as well as his debut.
Harry bounced back in the spring of 1973 with "Short Stories", which spent 23 weeks on the album chart, due to the success of the single "W.O.L.D.", an acute observation of the life of a local disc jockey, which went on to become something of an FM radio classic.
After recording his fourth album, "Verities and Balderdash", Chapin stopped touring and disbanded his backing band to begin work on his musical "The Night that Made America Famous". His former bassist, John Wallace worked on the show, along with guitarist Doug Walker, drummer Howie Fields, and Chapin's brothers Tom, Steve, and Jim. While he was working on the musical, "Verities and Balderdash" caught on and became his biggest hit. The album peaked at number four on the U.S. charts and became a gold record, thanks to the number one single "Cat's in the Cradle," a song about an inconsiderate, career-oriented father that was based on a poem written by his wife, Sandy. Despite the State side success of the recording, it made surprisingly little impact in the UK, failing even to reach the Top 40.
"The Night that Made America Famous" opened on February 26, 1975 and closed on April 6, after 75 performances. Despite it's short run, the show would earn two Tony nominations. Chapin also won an Emmy award that spring for his contributions to ABC television's children's series "Make a Wish", which was hosted by his brother Tom. That spring, Harry co-founded World Hunger Year, a charity designed to raise money to fight international famine. The organization earned over $350, 000 in its first year.
In the fall of 1975, he released "Portrait Gallery", as a follow-up to "Verities and Balderdash". While the album performed respectably, peaking at number 53, it failed to recapture the mass audience of his previous album. "Greatest Stories - Live", a double album released in the spring of 1976, became the singer/songwriter's second gold album, peaking at number 48. Chapin was becoming more politically active throughout 1976, as evidenced by his role as a delegate at that summer's Democratic Convention.
Late in 1976, he released "On the Road to Kingdom Come", which spent a mere six weeks on the charts. The 1977 double-album "Dance Band on the Titanic" was on the charts for a few more weeks, yet it didn't spawn a hit single. Now clearly struggling, he also released "Living Room Suite" that summer, which peaked at number 133. Chapin recorded a second live album, "Legends of the Lost and Found - New Greatest Stories Live", in the fall of 1979. It was his least successful album, spending only three weeks on the charts.
In 1980, he switched labels to the small Boardwalk Records and recorded an album called "Sequal". The title track was a story sequel to his first hit "Taxi", which gave him his final US Top 30 entry.
On July 16th, 1981, just after noon, Harry was driving on the Long Island Expressway , in the left hand fast lane, at about 65 miles an hour. For some unknown reason, either because of engine failure or some physical problem (thought to be a possible heart attack) he put on his emergency flashers near Exit 40 in Jericho, NY. He then slowed to about 15 miles an hour and veered into the center lane nearly colliding with another car. He swerved back left, then back right again and this time went directly in front of a tractor-trailer truck. The truck could not brake in time and rammed the rear of Harry's blue 1975 VW Rabbit, rupturing the gas tank and causing it to burst into flames. As a result of the crash, a piece of glass went through Harry's heart.
The driver of the truck, and another passer-by were able to get Harry out of the burning car through the window and by cutting the seatbelts, before the car was completely engulfed. He was taken by police helicopter to the hospital where ten doctors tried for 30 minutes to revive him. A spokesman for the Nassau County Medical Center said that Harry had suffered a massive heart attack and "died of cardiac arrest" but there was no way of knowing whether it occurred before or after the accident. Harry Chapin was just 38 years old.
Even though Harry's driver's license was revoked at the time of the accident, for a long string of traffic violations, his wife Sandy did win a $12 million decision in a negligence lawsuit against the truck's owners.
A memorial fund was established in his name following his death, with Elektra Records providing the initial donation of $10, 000. Over the years, the fund has raised an estimated $5 million for anti-hunger groups and other charities he supported.
On December 7th, 1987, on what would have been his 45th birthday, Harry Chapin was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his campaigning on social issues, particularly hunger around the world and in the United States. In 2001, "Cat's in the Cradle" was ranked number 186 of 365 on the RIAA list of Songs of the Century. Harry was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame on October 15, 2006.
Although it is often rumored that Country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter is closely related to Harry Chapin, they are merely fifth cousins.