Remembering the goodness of Harry Chapin
New book from 2006 alumnus looks back at the life of the singer/songwriter and activist
Seeing a New York City performer sing a lesser-known Harry Chapin song more than 10 years ago gave Ira Kantor ’06 the impetus to write a book about the late singer-songwriter and activist.
“He didn’t do ‘Taxi’ or ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’,” Kantor says. “He did a song called ‘What Made America Famous?’ It got to the underbelly of who Harry was as an artist. That night I said to my friend: ‘[Chapin] may make for an interesting book project.’ He was the type of artist who appealed to everybody.”
A decade later, Kantor released “Hello, Honey, It’s Me”: The Story of Harry Chapin. The book — an oral-biography that arrives almost 40 years after Chapin’s July 1981 death in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway — examines the life and legacy of the storytelling singer/songwriter who spent his final years advocating to end world hunger. (He also performed several times at Binghamton University and at The Arena in downtown Binghamton during the mid- to late-1970s.)
Kantor, a public relations manager in the Boston area who has also worked as a reporter and music writer, spoke to nearly 70 people for the project, including Chapin’s widow, children, brother, band members, managers, philanthropy partners, politicians such as U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, and music stars such as Gordon Lightfoot, Jackson Browne, and John Oates.
BINGHAMTON MAGAZINE: Why does Harry Chapin still matter today and why is it vital to keep his impact alive?
KANTOR: It’s two fronts. Nobody today is doing those major storytelling songs that Harry did. The song “Cat’s in the Cradle” alone will be around forever because of the connotations that people take from it about parental relationships. There were other singer-songwriters who told narratives, but didn’t do it with the filmmaker flair of Harry. To produce nine studio albums in less than a decade is impressive enough. … From the activist side, Harry was the troubadour who broke down the doors of Congress and also appealed to celebrities. If he knew Bruce Springsteen was staying in the same hotel, he would harangue him from the balcony and say: “Hey, Bruce, I need your help.”
BM: Just how ahead of his time was Harry as an activist? The Concert for Bangladesh took place in 1971, but Harry took lobbying for causes such as world hunger to the next level.
KANTOR: I think you could very well say that he set the precedent. Ken Kragen, who was Harry’s second manager, was behind We are the World and Hands Across America (in the 1980s). With Bill Ayres, Harry set about educating the powers that be on the topic of world hunger. Harry charmed and worked his way into the White House, all the way to President Carter, to make something happen. He led the American charge on world hunger, but I don’t think he went into it saying: “I want to be the guy who is best known for this.” I think he did it because he felt it was right. It wasn’t about him.
BM: Comments from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who worked with Harry to establish the President’s Commission on World Hunger, carry a lot of weight in the book. How did that interview happen?
KANTOR: When I first started [the book], I made repeated attempts to locate Senator Leahy and interview him, but was not successful. So I put my attempts aside and honed in on other former politicians who knew Harry — people like Thomas Downey and Bob Mrazek – who are also in the book. As I was finalizing the book, I went back to the sources I thought were unobtainable and said to myself: “I’ve got to try one more time.” I reached out to the senator’s [staff] and received an email saying he could do this particular date at this time. I dialed in when requested to. Senator Leahy came on the phone for 30 minutes and told me every Harry story he had. I didn’t even need to ask any questions. He was vivid and fantastic — and then he had to go. I’m floored that I was able to talk with him almost at the 11th hour. He truly does make a difference [being in the book]: Here is someone still in Congress and still influenced by Harry. He didn’t talk like a politician — he talked about their friendship and how Harry interacted with his kids. He talked about how he still gets choked up thinking about the day Harry died. Senator Leahy enabled me to finally put closure to the book because of the credibility he lends to the project.
BM: Was it hard to find the balance between discussing Harry’s music and discussing his activism, especially in his later years?
KANTOR: I had wondered if I should have gone into the same depth for Harry’s albums in the second half of the 1970s as I did for the first half. Then I realized that any fan of Harry’s will likely tell you that the later albums are good, but in some ways his activism [in the late ’70s] outweighs the music. When he did World Hunger Year, which became WhyHunger, that was his raison d’etre. He wanted to perform, raise money, and go to Congress and appeal to politicians. In thinking of the scope of Harry’s life, I felt at least the first four albums should have added detail because that’s where these great songs and hits came from. … When we get to 1980 and Harry’s “Sequel” album — his final hit — reflections from a couple of the album’s producers brought things full circle: the height of [musical] success, to the activism that never went away, to Harry trying to bring himself back and it’s well received. But he’s going full-throttle and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.
BM: For those readers who only know Harry from “Cat’s in the Cradle” and “Taxi,” what is a song and an album you would recommend as samplers to show what else he could do?
KANTOR: There’s a song called “Sniper” on Harry’s second album, “Sniper and Other Love Songs.” It’s a 10-minute song loosely based on a shooting at the University of Texas in 1966. In that 10 minutes, Harry does a psychoanalysis of the act as it happens — someone on a roof shooting at people — and the factors that drove the sniper to do this. It’s a tense, frightening song. It hits a nerve. It’s a fantastic, dark story, not designed for radio, that shows the depth of Harry’s songwriting, character building, and human emotion. … My favorite Harry Chapin album is “Short Stories.” It’s his third album and has “W•O•L•D,” one of his Top 40 hits, on it. There are some great songs on “Short Stories” like “Old College Avenue” and “They Call Her Easy.” The album isn’t designed to be pop music: the songs are intimate. It comes at an interesting time because he’s about to hit [double platinum] with “Verities & Balderdash.” “Short Stories” is the album that indicates where he’s about to go – to the top.
BM: What has been the reaction to the book from Harry’s family?
KANTOR: They’ve been supportive the entire time. I did a recent Facebook chat about the book with two of Harry’s sons. One of the best compliments I’ve gotten was from Harry’s youngest son Josh, who said: “Thank you for sticking with [the project] all of these years. You never gave up, you got it done, and did it in an innovative way. It’s a very Harry thing to do.” The fact that this book had a completion echoes what Harry would do when it came to his many projects. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He would see things through all the way. That was very positive to me.
“Hello, Honey, It’s Me”: The Story of Harry Chapin is available on Amazon.com and HarryChapinMusic.com. For more music writing from Kantor, visit https://vintagerock.com/category/vinyl-confessions/