Harry Chapin died aged thirty-eight on 16th July 1981 at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, New York, U.S.A. He had been driving on his way to perform at a free concert scheduled for later that evening. Just after midday, he put on his emergency flashers, presumably because of either a mechanical or medical problem . He then slowed to about 15 miles per hour and veered into the center lane, nearly colliding with another car. He swerved left, then to the right again, ending up directly in the path of a tractor-trailer truck. The truck could not brake in time
and rammed the rear of Harry's blue 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit, rupturing the fuel tank as it climbed up and over the back of the car, which burst into flames. The driver of the truck and a passerby were able to get Harry Chapin out of the burning car through a window after cutting the seat belts before the car was engulfed in flames. Harry Chapin was taken by police helicopter to a hospital, where ten doctors tried for 30 minutes to revive him. A spokesman for the Nassau County Medical Center said Harry Chapin had suffered a heart attack and died of cardiac arrest, but there was no way of knowing whether it occurred before or after the accident. In a 2004 interview, many years after his death, Harry Chapin's daughter Jennifer said, "My dad didn't really sleep, and he ate badly and had a totally insane schedule." Even though Harry Chapin was driving without a license – his driver's license having previously been revoked for a long string of traffic violations – his widow Sandy won a $12 million decision in a negligence lawsuit against Supermarkets General, the owners of the truck, based on what Harry Chapin would have earned over the next twenty years. An earlier phase of the trial had found Harry Chapin 40 percent negligent in the accident and Supermarkets General 60 percent negligent, so the award of $12 million for the financial loss to the family was automatically reduced to $7.2 million.
Harry Chapin's remains were interred in the Huntington Rural Cemetery in Huntington, New York. His epitaph is taken from his song "I Wonder What Would Happen to this World":
Harry Chapin met Sandy Cashmore (née Gaston), a New York socialite nine years his senior, in 1966, after she called him asking for music lessons. They married two years later. The story of their meeting and romance is told in his song, "I Wanna Learn a Love Song". Harry Chapin wrote several additional songs about her, including "Shooting Star" about their relationship, and "Sandy". He had two children with her, Jennifer and Joshua, and was stepfather to her three children from a previous marriage, Jaime, Jason, and Jonathan.
Harry Chapin was born on 7th December 1942 in New York City U.S.A., the second of four children who also included future musicians Tom and Steve. His parents were Jeanne Elspeth (née Burke) and Jim Chapin, a legendary percussionist. He had English ancestry, his great-grandparents having immigrated in the late 19th century. His parents divorced in 1950, with his mother retaining custody of their four sons, as Jim Chapin spent much of his time on the road as a drummer for Big band era acts such as Woody Herman.
She married, secondly, to Films in Review magazine editor Henry Hart a few years later. Harry Chapin's maternal grandfather was literary critic Kenneth Burke.
Harry Chapin's first formal introduction to music was while singing in the Brooklyn Boys Choir, where he met "Big" John Wallace, a tenor with a five-octave range, who later became his bassist, backing vocalist, and his straight man onstage. Harry Chapin began performing with his brothers while a teenager, with their father occasionally joining them on drums. Harry Chapin graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1960 and was among the five inductees in the school's Alumni Hall Of Fame for the year 2000. He briefly attended the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado and was then an intermittent student at Cornell University in New York State but did not complete a degree.
He originally intended to be a documentary film-maker and directed Legendary Champions in 1968, which was nominated for a documentary Academy Award. In 1971, he began focusing on music. With John Wallace, Tim Scott and Ron Palmer, Harry Chapin started playing in various nightclubs in New York City.
Following an unsuccessful early album made with his brothers, Tom Chapin and Steve Chapin, Harry Chapin's first solo album was 'Heads & Tales' (1972), which was a success thanks to the single "Taxi" . Harry Chapin later gave great credit to WMEX-Boston radio personality Jim Connors for being the DJ who "discovered" this single, and pushing the airplay of this song among fellow radio programmers in the U.S.A.
Fred Kewley, Harry's manager, signed a five-week lease with the Village Gate in Greenwich Village in order to feature the Chapins (Tom and Steve's band on Epic Records), whom he was managing. Harry decided he would like to be the opening act because "maybe I can get a publishing deal." Harry and three band members (playing cello, bass, electric guitar) who had never met before rehearsed for one week in Kewley's office and arranged the songs with cello parts and background vocals (much of which ended up on Harry's first album). On opening night there were three people in the audience and four musicians on stage. Jac Holzman and Clive Davis showed interest.
Harry Chapin ultimately signed with Elektra for a smaller advance, but with provisions that were much more valuable. The biggest stipulation in the nine-album deal was that he receive free studio time, meaning he paid no recording costs. It was a move that ultimately saved Harry Chapin hundreds of thousands of dollars over the term of his contract and set a precedent for other musicians. His follow-up album, Sniper and Other Love Songs, produced by manager Fred Kewley, was less successful despite containing the Chapin anthem "Circle" (a big European hit for The New Seekers). His third album, Short Stories, was a modest success. Verities & Balderdash, produced by hit maker Paul Leka released soon after, was much more successful, bolstered by the chart-topping hit single "Cat's in the Cradle", based upon a poem by his wife. Sandra Chapin had written the poem inspired by her first husband's relationship with his father and a country song she heard on the radio. When Harry's son Josh was born, he got the idea to put music to the words and recorded the result. "Cat's in the Cradle" was Harry Chapin's only number one hit.
Harry Chapin also wrote and performed a Broadway musical The Night That Made America Famous. He also wrote the music and lyrics for Cotton Patch Gospel, a musical by Tom Key and Russell Treyz based on Clarence Jordan's book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. The original cast soundtrack was produced by Tom Chapin, and released in 1982.
Harry Chaplin's only UK hit was "W*O*L*D", which reached Number 34 in 1974. His popularity in the UK owed much to the championing of BBC disc jockey Noel Edmonds. The song's success in the U.S.A. was championed by WMEX jock and friend of Harry Chapin's Jim Connors who in part inspired the song. The national appeal of the song was a result of disc jockeys playing it for themselves, since the song dealt with a much-traveled DJ, problems in his personal life, and his difficulty with aging in the industry.
Harry Chapin's recording of "The Shortest Story," a song he wrote about a dying child and featured in his 1976 live/studio album Greatest Stories Live, was named by author Tom Reynolds in his book 'I Hate Myself And Want To Die' as the second most depressing song of all time.
Harry Chapin's personal interaction with his fans (he regularly led audiences in sing-alongs) was such that during a 1977 appearance at The University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida, when he was touring with only his bass violin player, he recruited the back-up singers for "Mr. Tanner" out of the audience. By the end of the decade, Harry Chapin's contract with Elektra (which had since merged with Asylum Records under the control of David Geffen) had expired, and the company made no offer to renew it. A minor deal with Casablanca Records fell through, and Harry Chapin settled on a simple one-album deal with Boardwalk Records (both labels founded by Neil Bogart). The Boardwalk album was Harry Chapin's final work released in his lifetime.
The title track of his last album, 'Sequel', was a follow-up to his earlier song "Taxi," reuniting the same characters from ten years later. "Sequel" peaked one position higher than "Taxi" but lasted two weeks less on the American Hot 100. The songs Harry Chapin was working on at the time of his death were subsequently released as the thematic album
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song: 'Cat's In the Cradle' written and performed by Harry Chapin.