Remembering Harry Chapin
40 Years After His Death
By Jack Coll
As long as I can remember, music has been a big part of my life. I fell in love with my transistor radio and loved all kinds of music my entire life. I’ve attended hundreds of concerts over the years, some memorable, some very memorable, and a few unforgettable. Every year when July rolls around I think of the performers who passed away during the month of July more than any other month. (Maybe because my birthday falls in July) There was Jim Morrison, Mama Cass, and a handful of others, the most memorable for me is Harry Chapin.
It crossed my mind that this July marks 40 years since Harry passed so I thought I’d share my Harry Chapin story with anyone interested in reading it. I fell in love with Harry’s music when “Taxi” was released in 1972. Harry went on to release 10 or twelve more albums over the next decade, I think I bought most of them on 8-Track Tape, it made for a great late night soundtrack.
Throughout the 1970’s Harry appeared in concert throughout the Philadelphia area, at colleges, small music venues, and larger ones as well like the Philadelphia Folk Festival. I always wanted to see him live, (It was my understanding that he was at his best live). The thing was I was raising kids throughout the 1970’s and the two things I didn’t have was time and money. When I could go I didn’t have the money and when I had the money I didn’t have the time.
I was working two jobs, coaching little league baseball, football, basketball, soccer, and babysitting duties at the Fellowship House. For everyone who raised kids, coached, worked more than one job and found yourself without time or money to spare over the years, God Bless You, but man it was a hell of a lot of fun.
So on the night of April 10, 1981 Donna calls me from her job at Levitz Furniture Store in King of Prussia and said “Hey, my boss has two tickets to see Harry Chapin at the Valley Forge Music Fair for tomorrow night and his friend can’t go, did you want to take the ticket and go with him?” well, I wasn’t sure because there was this, and there was that, and Donna said, “You’ve been wanting to see him for a long time and you don’t know when the next chance might come-around.” (There was no charge for the ticket) so I jumped on it, I’ll be there.
So on the evening of April 11, 1981 I traveled to Devon and went into the Valley Forge Music Fair, I was pretty excited to be there and was looking forward to a great evening. The place was packed, the concert was to begin as 7:30, I was in my seat no later than 7:10 sitting next to Donna’s boss whom I’d never met but thanked him for the ticket. We talked some small talk and it was getting on about 7:45 when the loud speaker kicked in and a booming voice blurted out, “Ladies and Gentleman, can I have your attention please, The plane Harry Chapin is riding in, (then there was a long pause, not minutes but seconds), a long enough pause that I was expecting to hear, “CRASHED.” But the announcer said, “Due to the stormy weather outside his plane was diverted from the Philadelphia International Airport to Wings Field in Blue Bell, and he is running a few minutes late. So of course the announcer went on to say feel free to take this additional time and go out to our lobby and enjoy a refreshing drink. (Of course he would say that.)
So not knowing Donna’s boss at all I thought I would take a walk out to the lobby just to move around a little bit. The lobby was quite crowded with folks ordering their mixed drinks and what-not so I drifted to the outer lobby and was watching the rain come down forming a small river running thru the parking lot. If you weren’t familiar with the Music Fair when you entered the building there was this small glass lobby leading into the main lobby, so I was standing all alone in the outer lobby watching the rain come down when this taxi cab pulls up with Harry Chapin in the back, and all I could think about was the song “Taxi” you know, “It was raining hard in Frisco” and I though how cool is this, so I watch Harry, who was all by himself pay the driver and hop out of the cab and make a dash for the door, he comes in and says “Hey, how you doing, sorry I’m late, I’ll see you in a few minutes on stage.” I didn’t answer him I just turned around to see if he was talking to someone else and I confirmed to myself that I was the only person standing in that outside lobby, he was talking to me but I never said a word as he opened the door into the main lobby and disappeared.
So I headed back to my seat and said to Donna’s boss, “Harry’s here,” he said “Is he,” and I lied, I said,’ “I was just talking to him in the lobby, he said he’ll see me on stage in a few minutes.” I was hoping he was impressed but in reality I never said a word to Harry, he did all the talking.
Needless to say the show was everything I waited all those years to see, two songs into the show Harry was everyone’s best friend, even if you didn’t know the words to his songs you were singing-along thanks to Harry’s help. Harry was singing this song “All My Life is a Circle,” and he brings the ROAD CREW up onto the stage and has them sing-a-long to the song, who else brings their road crew on stage in the middle of a show to sing! It was all very entertaining.
Another highlight for me was the fact that Harry mentioned Conshohocken, even though it was a mistake, he mentioned Conshohocken. It turns out that Harry and his bass guitar player Big John Wallace were talking back and forth and Harry said something about Big John running around in the hills of Conshohocken, and Big John replied something like not the hills of Conshohocken Harry, the hills of Manayunk. I was impressed that they pronounced both names properly.
I was impressed with the show, I was impressed with the music but more than anything I was impressed with the easiness of Harry throughout the evening.
Following the show Harry appeared in the lobby just to chat and sign autographs, happy to talk about any of the many causes he was involved with, and there were many including his involvement with the World Hunger Foundation. He considered hunger and poverty as an insult to America. More than half of Chapin’s concerts were benefit performances.
I waited around in the lobby of the Music Fair that night to get a few quality minutes with Harry and it paid off as one of the last people to speak to him after everyone else was gone I spoke to him for about 15 minutes mostly about his music and has involvement as a key participant in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger, Harry met with then president Jimmy Carter in an effort to reduce the hungry in this country. I felt like I got an education from Harry as I walked away, I was extremely happy with the entire evening, and in my mind I accepted his apology for being late.
So my Harry Chapin evening ended, the rain had stopped and it was an easy ride home, but my Harry Chapin story didn’t end there.
Flash forward three months later, July 16, 1981, Donna and I headed to the Spectrum in Philadelphia to see Bruce Springsteen in the middle of a five night run of concerts supporting his new release “The River.” As usual it was a rockin’ show that kept the crowd on their feet all night, singing along to most of the songs, I remember the crowd singing loud and proud to “Hungry Heart.” It was a banner night out for us, we didn’t have many nights out without the two kids but this night was special. And I have to brag that the Springsteen tickets cost me $12.50 each, did you read what I wrote, $12.50 EACH, that’s a total of $25.00 plus the coffee and doughnut on the ride home, take notes boys, I know how to treat a lady!
On the ride home we decided to treat ourselves and stop by Dunkin Doughnuts on the Ridge and grab a coffee and a doughnut for a nightcap. Just outside Dunkin Doughnuts the DJ on the radio came on with the dreaded announcement that Harry Chapin was killed in an automobile accident on the Long Island Expressway while on his way to perform at a free benefit concert at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, New York that evening. The announcement crushed me, my first thought was a selfish one, “Thank God I had an opportunity to both see him perform and that I also had a chance to chat with him. My second thought was why him, of all the people in the world why him, he was one of the good guys.
One report quotes his widow Sandra as saying soon after his death—“only with slight exaggeration”—that Harry was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, seven foundations, and 82 charities, Harry wasn’t interested in saving money.
Chapin is buried in the Huntington Rural Cemetery in Huntington, New York. His epitaph is taken from his 1978 song “I Wonder What Would Happen to This World”:
Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
To this world
In the back-room of our frame shop among other things I have my autographed program from the night of April 11, 1981 that hangs with a photograph of Harry and a ticket stub from the evening, a night I’ll never forget. I also have about a dozen or so CD’s of Harry’s that continue to be part of our regular playlist.
It’s good to remember Harry 40 years after his death, I don’t know if many, or any radio stations today would even play a tribute to Harry on the 16th, but it’s good to be remembered, even if it’s only one person. Harry made this world a better place to live.
Here’s to you Harry!