Some articles are harder to write than others for various reasons. Writing about Harry Chapin is difficult because when he passed away it felt like we had lost a family member. Harry Chapin was incredibly loved not just because of his music, but because of his humanity. When we say the world would be a different place if Harry Chapin had not passed away, we mean it quite literally.
While I never knew Harry Chapin on a personal level, I knew many people who did. Harry Chapin was always described as a man who was relentless in his work and his goals. There were two sides to Harry. On one side he was the poet, songwriter, musician and entertainer. The other side was the humanitarian. While there have been many artists who have donated their time and money to charitable causes, there was never anyone who had spent as much time helping others as Harry Chapin did. Defeating hunger was his main cause, and he worked continuously to end the needs of the hungry until the day he died.
The first concert I ever saw in my life was Harry Chapin at Long Island New York’s Smithtown High School West. It was the year 1975 and Harry Chapin was at the top of his game. Chapin had been enjoying worldwide success with his hit single “Cats in the Cradle,” A year earlier, the song had hit number one on both the Billboard and Cashbox Hot 100 charts. Yet, here he was playing at a high school unaccompanied by any other musicians. Just his voice, his guitar, and his stories. Stories told both in his songs and his introductions. Harry Chapin was funny, charming, and one hundred percent genuine. He received standing ovations throughout the night because he was so good.
Harry Chapin defined the art of storytelling in songs. While the early 1970s yielded other great musical storytellers like Jim Croce, Billy Joel, Neil Young Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and of course Bob Dylan, Harry Chapin took storytelling in songs to a level of his own. Every album he released was loaded with tales of sorrow, love, heroism, and hope. Our Top 10 Harry Chapin Song list defines some of the Harry Chapin Songs that his fans talked about the most. These are the songs that I remember everyone arguing were his best. It’s always subjective, but this one is also pretty emotional. Thanks Harry!
# 10 – What Made America Famous
We start our Top 10 Harry Chapin songs list with the great track “What Made America Famous.” The song was released on Harry Chapin’s Verities & Balderdash album. The record was released in 1974 and has been regarded as the most successful album of Harry Chapin’s career from both an economic and artistic standpoint. The song “What Made America Famous,” was a powerful song with deep emotional social commentary. I used to cry every time I listened to this song. In one song Harry Chapin said it all. Take a listen and you will understand.
# 9 – Sniper
The Harry Chapin song “Sniper,” was the opening track on Harry Chapin’s second album entitled Sniper & Other Love Songs. The album was released in 1972. It was songs like “Sniper,” which ran close to 10 minutes that established Harry Chapin as a musical storyteller. Many of Harry Chapin’s songs were based on true stories with some artistic license usually added. To describe the stories of the songs here would take away from the joy of listening to them. Our point is to turn people on to the music, not define it. The songs speak for themselves. This is Harry Chapin the storyteller.
# 8 – The Mayor Of Candor Lied
Harry Chapin’s album On The Road To Kingdom Come was released in 1976. The album featured incredibly strong melodies, great production and of course brilliant and entertaining stories. When I first began writing this list I had chosen the title track from the album because it’s such an exceptionally well-written song with a wonderful melody.
However the dark minor chords and haunting chorus of “The Mayor Of Candor Lied,” screamed out to be mentioned in this list. When the song reaches the mid-section break, one can’t help but come to the realization that this was a masterpiece. Songs like this need to be played and resurrected.
# 7 – Bummer
Harry Chapin’s Portrait Gallery album was released in 1975. It was the follow-up album to his career-changing album Verities & Balderdash which had featured his number one record “Cats In The Cradle.” The track “Cats in the Cradle,” was a once-in-a-lifetime song. Having to follow up a single like that for most artists would drive them insane. However, Harry did what he always did best, he released another album of songs full of stories showcasing tales of reality and fiction all bathed in the concepts of morality and fate. Our favorite track from the album Portrait Gallery was the stunning story of “Bummer.”
# 6 – 30,000 Pounds of Bananas
If there ever was a Harry Chapin concert favorite it was his legendary song “30,000 Pounds of Bananas.” Whenever someone mentions the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, I always instantly begin singing this song. I can’t hear the words Scranton Pennsylvania and not think of this great track. I don’t think I’m the only one. The song was released on the Verities & Balderdash album in 1974.
# 5 – Mr. Tanner (Live Version 1975)
While Harry Chapin performed many shows alone with just his guitar, he also performed concerts with a group of amazing musicians. His band was showcased for the entire world on his stunning 1975 live album Greatest Stories Live. One of the highlights of the amazing live record was Harry Chapin’s live version of his classic song “Mr Tanner.” Harry Chapin’s bass player Big John Wallace was also a vocalist. Wallace’s vocal performance as Mr Tanner throughout the song was worthy of a Grammy Award. It’s a spellbinding moment that defines “Mr. Tanner Live,” as one of the best Harry Chapin songs ever released.
# 4 – A Better Place To Be
Many of Harry Chapin’s stories centered on central issues of social change and concepts of morality and mortality. However, many of his greatest moments on record featured songs written about a particular place on a very personal level. Harry Chapin’s “A Better Place To Be,” was the perfect example of a story depicted in a personal setting taking place within one small moment in time. The song was released on Harry Chapin’s Sniper and Other Love Songs album in 1972.
# 3 – WOLD
The last three Harry Chapin songs on this list have always been personal favorites of Harry Chapin fans. The songs were also commercial successes. The song “WOLD,” may not have been as successful as “Cats in the Cradle,” or even “Taxi,” but it was an incredible fan favorite. The song was released on the Harry Chapin album Short Stories in 1973. It was released as a single and reached the Billboard Top 40 peaking at number 37. It can be argued that without the success of the single “WOLD,” the song “Cats in the Cradle,” may not had found the audience it did.
# 2 – Cats In The Cradle
Any man or woman who grew up as a kid in the 1970s and became a father or mother in the 80s or 90s was haunted by this song. None of us wanted to become the father in “Cat’s in the Cradle.” So we all made sure to coach our son’s or daughter’s sports teams. We became scout leaders. We made sure to turn off the television when our children walked into the room. We made sure to take time off to spend with our kids. Every time we started to ignore the children we heard Harry’s voice and we slapped ourselves in the face and picked our kids up. Thanks Harry, this one probably really did save some lives.
# 1 – Taxi
“Taxi,” was the Harry Chapin song that everyone loved. The song’s tale of lost love was the ultimate “one that got away,” story. It was a sad tale. One could not help but feel sorry for the taxi driver. Like “Cats in the Cradle,” it was a song of warning. Yet, despite the tale of lost love and sorrow, there was a certain beauty within the song. It’s hard to pinpoint why we all fell so in love with this song. The song’s story was captivating, entertaining and in a way mesmerizing. The music had a dreamlike quality that told us this was just a story, but be careful that it doesn’t happen to you. That in essence seemed to be Harry Chapin’s universal message throughout his entire career.
Harry Chapin’s artistic side in many ways echoed his humanitarian side, Harry wanted to help people whether they were starving for food or love. Harry Chapin set out to help the lonely and in the process, he balanced his work between helping those starving for affection and those who were actually starving.
In 1981, we all lost a great artist, but even more tragically we lost a great man. This article started out as just a Top 10 Harry Chapin songs list, but while writing it, I could not help but be affected by his legacy and the powerful message in his music and his work. It’s been 39 years since we lost Harry Chapin. It’s up to his fans to continue spreading his music and his message. More to come…….
Top 10 Essential Harry Chapin Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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