Most people remember Harry Chapin as the guy that sang “The Cats in the Cradle” in the 1970s, but Long Islanders still mourn the loss of this kind and gentle storyteller, a man who was one of their own, and whose selfless philanthropic efforts during his lifetime still resonate across the Island today.
Born in Greenwich Village in 1942, Harry Chapin entered into a family of extraordinary talent. His father was a famous jazz drummer and music educator; his grandfather, a noted literary critic and philosopher; and his uncle, a celebrated filmmaker.
After stints in the Air Force Academy and Cornell, Harry decided to try his hand at filmmaking, earning an Academy Award nomination for one of his earliest efforts, but it didn’t satisfy his creative urges. Chapin, having grown up in a very musical household, eventually turned to singing and songwriting.
In 1972, he released his first album, Heads and Tales. A Boston DJ took notice of a song called “Taxi” and started playing the recording frequently, leading to Harry Chapin’s first hit record.
This song got the attention of the major labels who got into a bidding war, much to Chapin’s advantage. He was eventually presented what was considered the biggest contract ever offered to a new artist. The eventual winner, Elektra Records, ended up making a wise decision.
Harry Chapin’s first two offering on Elektra, Sniper and Other Love Songs in 1972, and Short Stories the following year, were mildly successful. The next album, Verities and Balderdash, released in ’74, would turn Chapin into a superstar, thanks to a touching song based on a poem written by his wife.
“Cats in the Cradle” traveled all the way up the charts to the #1 spot, bringing Harry Chapin both fame and fortune.
He would never repeat that feat – and it might be the end of the story regarding most performers, but not Harry. His future contributions to the world would prove far more substantial than a hit song, good as it was. Charity is where his true impact would be felt on Long Island.
Chapin was passionate about Long Island and her people, having lived there most of his life. He regularly contributed to charities that supported the local arts, but the most important cause in Harry’s eyes was hunger.
In 1975, he founded the organization World Hunger Year, which now operates as WhyHunger, and along the way helped to ensure that large numbers of families, local and abroad, wouldn’t go without something to eat. He regularly lobbied Congress for his cause, leading Sen. Patrich Leahy to say about Chapin, “It’s hard to overestimate the amount of good he did.”
Sadly, only a year after the 1970s ended, Harry Chapin was taken from New Yorkers, the victim of a fiery car crash on the Long Island Expressway on July 16, 1981. Long Islanders sorely mourned his loss, and later ensured that his name would never be forgotten.
Today, Eisenhower Park is home to The Harry Chapin Lakeside Theater, while The Chapin Rainbow Stage occupies a section of Heckscher Park in Huntington, Chapin’s hometown. His grave sits in a quiet cemetery overlooking Route 110 in Huntington, a road that Harry despised because it divided the Island and its people.
Along with WhyHunger, there are other charitable organizations that bear his name today, including Long Island Cares, which Chapin founded in 1980 and The Harry Chapin Foundation, founded after his passing.
The music industry also regularly gives out a Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award. Harry’s family continues to run his charities and, believe it or not, still continues to receive fan mail to this day.
Harry Chapin touched the hearts and lives of everyone in his path, leaving a legacy that continues to thrive around Long Island, and well beyond.
If you were a fan of this talented performer and amazing humanitarian, I hope you’ll take a moment to share any memories you have about Harry Chapin in our comments section below.