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Harry Chapin and Could You Put Your Light On, Please?

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Harry Forster Chapin (December 7, 1942 – July 16, 1981) was an American singer-songwriter best known for his folk rock songs including “Taxi”, “W*O*L*D”, and the No. 1 hit “Cat’s in the Cradle.”   Chapin was born on December 7, 1942, in New York City, NY, the second of four children who also included future musicians Tom and Steve. His parents were Jim Chapin, a legendary percussionist, and Jeanne Elspeth (née Burke). He had English ancestry, his great-grandparents having immigrated in the late 19th century. Chapin’s maternal grandfather was literary critic Kenneth Burke.  His parents divorced in 1950, with Elspeth retaining custody of their four sons, as Jim spent much of his time on the road as a drummer for Big band era acts such as Woody Herman. She married Films in Review magazine editor Henry Hart a few years later.

Chapin’s first formal introduction to music was while singing in the Brooklyn Boys Choir, where Chapin met “Big” John Wallace, a tenor with a five-octave range, who later became his bassist, backing vocalist, and his straight man onstage. Chapin began performing with his brothers while a teenager, with their father occasionally joining them on drums. Harry’s first instrument was not the guitar, but the trumpet. He took lessons at the famed Greenwich House Music School on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village.  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 and was then an intermittent student at Cornell University but did not complete a degree.

Chapin met Sandy Cashmore (née Gaston), a New York socialite, in 1966, after she called him asking for music lessons. They married two years later. He had two children with her, Jennifer and Joshua, and was stepfather to her three children from a previous marriage, Jaime, Jason, and Jonathan.  Chapin 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, 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, #60), which was a success thanks to the single “Taxi” (#24). 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.  On Thursday, July 16, 1981, just after noon, Chapin was driving in the left lane on the Long Island Expressway at about 65 mph on the way to perform at a free concert scheduled for later that evening at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, NY. Near exit 40 in Jericho he put on his emergency flashers, presumably because of either a mechanical or medical problem (possibly a heart attack). He then veered into the center lane, ending up directly in the path of a tractor-trailer truck. The truck could not brake in time and rammed the rear of Chapin’s blue 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit, rupturing the fuel tank as it climbed up and over the back of the car, which burst into flames.  Chapin died in the wreck.

My collection includes the following work by Harry Chapin:

Could You Put Your Light On, Please?

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