Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

5/5 (1)

Back in the ‘70s I used to sometimes watch a Sunday morning TV show called “Make a Wish.” A children’s program with songs, it was hosted by a genial musician named Tom Chapin. Little did I know he was the younger brother of an even more famous singer named Harry Chapin.

If you’re old enough – or hip enough – you’ll remember some of Harry Chapin’s bittersweet stories in the form of songs.

“Taxi” told about a cabbie encountering an old girlfriend as a passenger in his taxi, and realizing their lives had been disappointments. She wanted to be an actress and he wanted to learn to fly. Their relationship ended when she “took off to find the footlights” and he “took off to find the sky.” But here he was, hacking a taxi cab. And she had married wealthy sugar daddy.

Asked if it was if the song was true, Chapin said “It’s emotionally true, if not literally true.”

He added. “I’ve been in the film business on and off for a lot of years, and wasn’t doing well at one point. So I went out and got a hack license for bread, and during the month that I was waiting for it to come through, I heard an old girlfriend of mine had gotten married and instead of becoming an actress she married a rich guy. I envisioned some night I’d be driving a cab in the big city streets and this lady would get in the back, and I’d turn and look at her and she’d look at me and know we both sold out our dreams.”

WMEX DJ Jim Connors is credited with discovering Chapin and pushing his songs on the air.

Connors was also the inspiration for another of Chapin’s popular stories-in-a-song, “W-O-L-D.” Here is the tale of an aging disc jockey who has given up his entire life and family for his career. Chapin wrote the song after overhearing Connors’ plaintive phone calls to his ex-wife while hanging out in the WMEX studio. The song became a Billboard Top 40 hit, a Top 10 in Canada, and Top 10 in several other countries.

This song appeared on Chapin’s third album, appropriately title “Short Stories.”

Perhaps Harry Chapin’s most famous song was “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a cautionary tale about a father who doesn’t find time for his son and when the boy grows up – like father, like son – he doesn’t make time for his dad. A No. 1 hit, that one sold 2.5 million copies.

You can follow Harry Chapin’s life and career in a new documentary called “Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something.” It is currently showing at Tropic Cinema for one week only.

In this profile directed by first-timer Rick Korn, you will hear from Chapin’s family, band members, and musical friends (Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Pat Benatar, Pete Seeger, Bob Geldof, Harry Belafonte, and others) in a series of interviews, archive footage, and photos.

While the story of Harry Chapin’s life is certainly interesting, the real reason to see this film is to watch Chapin perform some of his classic songs.

Harry Chapin led a charmed life or so it seemed. Releasing one album a year, he earned an estimated $2 million per annum. He married a socialite named Sandra Gaston, a romance immortalized in his ballad, “I Want to Learn a Love Song.” They had two children (one singer Jen Chapin), and he also raised her three children from a previous marriage. Chapin devoted much of his time to social activism and he was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts in combating hunger in the United States.

Then – suddenly – he was dead, hit by a semi-trailer truck on the Long Island Expressway in 1981.

At his death, he was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, seven foundations, and 82 charities. Despite his success as a musician, he left little money and it became difficult to maintain these causes. As his wife explained, “Harry always said, ‘Money is for people,’ so he gave it away.” Thus, The Harry Chapin Foundation was established.

During his career, Harry Chapin produced 11 studio albums. Another 17 appeared posthumously. One of these albums was titled “Songwriter.” Another was titled “Storyteller.”

Email Shirrel: srhoades@aol.com

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