40 Years After His Death, Harry Chapin Matters More Than Ever
By Steve Villano,
(Copyright, 2021, Part I)
(40 years ago next week, singer/songwriter/activist Harry Chapin was killed in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway. He was 38 years old.
In addition to recording 12 Albums, and performing some 2000 concerts over a 10-year career, Chapin co-founded the International world hunger organization, WHYHunger, with former Catholic Priest and social justice advocate Bill Ayres. That really wasn’t too much of a surprise since Harry’s great aunt was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement, and a force in progressive social action.
Working with Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and President Jimmy Carter, Harry Chapin pushed hard for the creation of the first—and only—Presidential Commission on Hunger in US History in 1980. It still stands as the only such undertaking.
With WHYHunger—46 years after it’s founding—still fighting hunger and the broader issues of poverty and income inequality, and Harry Chapin Food Banks feeding tens of thousands of Americans across this nation—Chapin’s music, his messages of social justice, and his work for social change are more important and relevant today than they have ever been.
Over the coming days and weeks, much will be written, televised and performed about the music, life and work of Harry Chapin. Concerts by Chapin family members will be held in towns and villages across the country, and on-line. Perhaps one of the most moving tributes, is the documentary film: “Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something.” The unique, social conscious documentary, on which I was privileged to work, was produced, written and directed by Rick Korn, S.A. Baron and one of Harry’s sons, Jason Chapin.
This article, the first of several installments , was written as a compliment to that documentary, which can be directly accessed in full by going to HarryChapinMovie.com. It is carried on ITunes, YouTube, Amazon Video, Fandango Now and Google Play.)
When Harry Chapin was killed in a motor vehicle accident on the Long Island Expressway, July 16, 1981, the news was slow to spread.
It wasn’t like when Elvis died four years earlier, nor when John Lennon was assassinated only seven months before, on December 9, 1980, just two days after Harry Chapin’s 38th and final birthday.
Then, the news of the deaths of those legends travelled at the speed of sound, like giant trees falling in the center of media forests. Everyone knew instantly. The whole world went dark for a time, as if someone pulled out the plug.
Despite their similarities of age, Elvis was 42, and Lennon, 40, Chapin’s musical career never came near those heights, with Cats in the Cradlebeing his only #1 top 40 hit, over a span of 10 years, 12 albums, and hundreds of poems and stories put to song.
Fellow Long Island musician, Billy Joel, who produced 33 top 40 hits, and performed before over 100 sell-out crowds at Madison Square Garden, recalled Harry’s many kindnesses toward him in the “dog eat dog business” of music.
“I was the opening act for him at the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis (now the Stifel Theatre) in 1973–74, “ Joel said. “ He was the headliner. He plugged me to his own audience. ‘How about that Billy Joel,’ he said. That was so gentlemanly of him, and, I never forgot that.”
Years later when the five-time Grammy Award winning Joel’s star rose faster and higher than Chapin’s, Harry opened for him, and Billy made a point of saying “we worked together, and we always worked really well as a show.’
Harry Chapin was not in the rarified league of John Lennon, Elvis or even Billy Joel when it came to fame. Few musicians were. But, regarding humanitarian work, few celebrities came close to Chapin, nor did many try to follow his lead, until after he was gone. Harry had created a Humanitarian Hall of Fame for performers who could translate their popularity into a permanent public good, and there were few stars applying to get in.
“In Harry’s case, he was literally the only artist in those days doing great humanitarian work,” said Ken Kragen, Chapin’s manager from 1976 until his death.
“ That’s what really made him unique. He was the only artist getting something done on the issues of hunger and poverty. He was very, very committed.”
Kragen, who would, in the mid 1980’s organize two enormous events aimed at alleviating hunger and poverty — We Are The World,and Hands Across America —which raised tens of millions of dollars and global awareness about the urgency of alleviating human suffering, credits Harry Chapin with being the source of his inspiration.
“ I had this overwhelming feeling that Harry Chapin had crawled up inside me, and he was directing everything I was doing, “ Kragen said. “Suddenly, I became the doer of his will. It was one of the things that pushed me to keep going.”
Billy Joel, standing next to Cyndi Lauper among the dozens of major recording artists like Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Quincy Jones, & Stevie Wonder participating in the 1985 recording of We Are The World which Kragen arranged, underscored that assessment of what made Harry Chapin stand out from everyone else in the music business a full decade earlier.
“He was inspiring how motivated he was to try to help others. He was like a saint to the point of being a martyr, “ said Joel, noting that Chapin, seven years older was like an older brother to him, and taught him the importance of giving back. “If there was a religious medal for musicians who helped other people, Harry’s face would be on it,” Joel said.
Harry’s unmistakable smiling face and lanky body were badly burned in a fiery car crash, when his tiny Volkswagen Rabbit with a flawed seat-belt mechanism, was rear-ended by a big truck bearing down on him. Family members knew something was wrong when he was late for a significant meeting in NYC with his Business Manager, half-brother Jeb Hart, and top talent agent Shellie Schultz of ICM.
The meeting, blown-off the day before by Harry, had been rescheduled for July 16, by Jeb, who was now struggling to manage the day-to-day details of Harry’s musical career, out of sheer exasperation, to get Chapin to slow down a bit, concentrate more of his time and attention on his family and career, and devote less energy to the many social and political causes that were consuming him.
“Harry’s greatest quality, was his quality of inclusion, but he was just running, running on vapors, “ said Jeb, “and his career had become secondary. He was out of control. We were trying to get him to focus.”
In his decade of performing across the country, in venues that ranged from backyard barbeques to the Bottom Line Café, to big, sprawling concert halls, college campuses and the steps of the US Capitol Building, Harry Chapin did some 200 concerts per year, with nearly half of them being benefits for one non-profit or political cause or another, mostly fighting hunger and poverty.
From March, 1980 through July, 1981—the final 16 months of his life—Harry Chapin juggled enough projects to fill a career: he finished his work on the nation’s first-ever Presidential Hunger Commission which he and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont (D-VT) were instrumental in getting President Jimmy Carter to create; participated in unique Radio “HungerThons” with WPLJ-DJ and former Catholic priest Bill Ayres raising millions of dollars for the World Hunger Year (WHYHunger) organization they jointly established; founded Long Island Cares with his wife, partner, conscience and “one-person think tank” Sandy Chapin, who gave birth to the idea of a Presidential Hunger Commission; performed with Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers at the funeral of his assassinated political hero, Allard Lowenstein; relentlessly conducted fundraising benefits across the United States for progressive Democratic candidates courageously combating the Reagan landslide of 1980; and gave the 2,000th concert of his career at the Bottom Line Café, in Manhattan over one weekend in January, 1981.
“Harry just couldn’t say ‘no’,” said Jeb Hart. “He had so many people he was talking to across a spectrum of causes and issues. He’d be making commitments to all of these entities in the midst of doing all these concerts.”
Chapin was involved with “good people,” as he liked to say, quoting Pete Seeger, long a role model for him in how to integrate his music into living a life that mattered on the most important social issues of the time.
In Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2019), author Jeff Place writes:
“Pete saw his music as a means to move mountains — to end racism, poverty, social injustice, political ineptitude and war. There was a reason behind every song Pete wrote or sang. They carried messages and taught lessons. They fostered hope or strength or both. Even the simply fun folksongs had a purpose: they made us feel happy and connected, which could lead to a respect for your fellows, or love for your neighbor, saving the earth from environmental disaster, or…”
Tom Chapin recalled a concert he, Harry and Pete did at Huntington High School, in early January, 1976, to benefit Huntington’s PAF Playhouse, the performing arts group which was a particular passion of Sandy Chapin’s, who was dedicated to arts and arts education.
“One of the students in the audience asked Pete if he thought that all of the benefits for good causes had made any difference, “Tom said. “Seeger responded with this trademark honesty. “ I don’t know,” he said to the student. “But, I do know this. I’ve met good people; people with live hearts, live eyes and live minds.”
“Such a perfect Pete answer,” Tom Chapin said. “Deflecting any credit, not putting down a young reporter’s slightly pushy question, and pointing out what the concerts had done for him personally. Harry and I never forgot it.”