It's fair to say that when Harry Chapin's debut single "Taxi" peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100, the ballad didn't sound like much else on the chart. The top spot was held by Sammy Davis, Jr.'s bouncy ode to "The Candy Man" while the upper reaches also featured gospel-tinged R&B (The Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There"), pristine pop (Neil Diamond's "Song Sung Blue," Carpenters' "It's Going to Take Some Time"), driving funk (Billy Preston's "Outa-Space"), raunchy rock-and-roll (The Rolling Stones' "Tumbling Dice"), and novelties (The Jimmy Castor Bunch's "Troglodyte (Cave Man)"). "Taxi" was a mournful story song about a reunion of Harry and Sue, former lovers whose lives haven't turned out quite the way they expected. It left much to the listeners' imaginations, while Chapin's empathy toward his characters struck a chord. The song resisted conventions in its length (almost seven minutes), its arrangement (one section features an ethereal male falsetto), and its lyrics (some AM radio stations chafed at its rather tame references to getting stoned), not to mention its well-delineated characters that would actually lead the songwriter to craft a sequel called, well, "Sequel." Harry Chapin died in 1981 at the age of 38, but his vivid and evocative songs - also including "Cat's in the Cradle," "W-O-L-D," and "I Wanna Learn a Love Song" - remain powerful testaments to his skill to pierce the heart with authenticity. Now, Cherry Red's Strawberry imprint has collected almost his entire albums discography in the 6-CD box set Storybook: The Elektra Albums 1972-1978.
Storybook brings together every one of Chapin's studio albums for Elektra Records plus the complete Greatest Stories Live (which has previously appeared on CD in truncated form), making for a full account of Chapin's core solo discography minus the two albums that are now controlled by his family: 1979's live set Legends of the Lost and Found and his final studio LP, 1980's Sequel. As Chapin's work has gone in and out of print over the years - including an entry in Rhino's 5-CD Original Album Series and the 3-CD Story of a Life box set - Storybook is a welcome primer on the artist for those who might wish to dig deeper than "Taxi" and "Cat's in the Cradle."
The title is apt, too, as Chapin was first and foremost a storyteller. Often too pop for the folk genre and too folk for the pop genre, Chapin wore his heart on his sleeve and frequently infused his songs with a powerful social conscience. His first album, 1972's Heads and Tales, resulted from a bidding war between Clive Davis of Columbia and Jac Holzman of Elektra. Holzman won out and personally produced Heads and Tales with a subtle touch that proved sympathetic to Chapin's keenly-observed, searching portraits of crestfallen romantics and world-weary travelers. "Taxi" wasn't the only epic on the record; "Greyhound" is another finely-wrought journey with a narrator who learns "It's got to be the going, not the getting there, that's good" by song's end, while the haunting "Dogtown" takes the album's themes of loneliness and loss in an unexpected direction. Chapin's melodies, alternating between the graceful and the jagged, were adorned with stark arrangements by Fred Kewley adding just cello and recorded to the tight rhythm section.
Kewley moved into the producer's chair for Sniper and Other Love Songs from later in 1972. While the sound was of a piece with Heads and Tales, the album found the singer-songwriter moving into even more personal territory. The title track, "Sniper," is a devastating movie in miniature depicting a mass shooting in chilling fashion: "He laid out the rifles, he loaded the shotgun/He stacked up the cartridges along the wall/He knew he would need them for his conversation/If it went as planned, he might use them all..." The complex ten-minute work features Chapin as composer, lyricist, singer, and actor, telling the all-too-familiar story while probing the inner life of the shooter. Chapin was making his dramatic ambitions clear - he would later write for the musical stage - as he moved further away from the "confessional" singer-songwriter tropes. No less uncompromising were "Burning Herself" ("...and her hair was filled with ashes/She was burning herself/And her life becomes a flame...") and "Woman Child," about a teenaged pregnancy. Though it lacked a hit single such as "Taxi," Sniper's Love Songs included the warm, gently loping "Sunday Morning Sunshine" and (at least) semi-autobiographical statement of personal philosophy, "Circle."
Chapin brought another memorable character to life on 1973's Short Stories. This time, Paul Leka (The Lemon Pipers, The Peppermint Rainbow) served as producer, adding an orchestral dimension to Chapin's bittersweet, melancholy compositions. The album's centerpiece, the tense yet gripping "W.O.L.D.," is a midlife crisis in song from a disk jockey reflecting on his failed marriage and unfulfilled aspirations with sarcasm and sadness ("I am the morning DJ on WOLD/Playing all the hits for you, wherever you may be/The bright good morning voice who's heard but never seen/Feeling all of forty-five going on fifteen..."). These Short Stories also explore the lives of an impoverished farmer and his "Mail Order Annie," a dry cleaner who wishes to sing ("Mr. Tanner"), and a singer-songwriter much like Harry Chapin ("Song Man"). Chapin further laments the loss of innocence and idealism on such cuts as "They Call Her Easy" and "Changes." He had found a niche among the troubadours of the era with these penetrating portraits which often tempered the dark with an all-important sliver of light.
With Verities and Balderdash (1974), Chapin's embrace of the specific led to perhaps his most universal song. "Cat's in the Cradle," sung in the first person, had its origins in a poem written by his wife Sandy and inspired by her first husband's relationship with his father. But "Cat's" was more verity than balderdash; Chapin saw himself in the character of the absent father whose son sadly follows in his own footsteps. The incisive lyrics - with their gut punch of a conclusion - were married to an AM-friendly melody and arrangement from returning producer Leka. The poignant, tender, and ultimately sad rumination earned Chapin his first and only No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and shot the album to a Gold sales certification. Chapin made his most commercial album without sacrificing the originality and widescreen perspective that had become hallmarks of his craft. The attractive "I Wanna Learn a Love Song," with another big hook, recounted how Harry met Sandy and became a top ten AC hit. He showcased his humorous side on "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" and the self-deprecating (if decidedly fictional) "Six String Orchestra," and addressed the political divide on the sweet "What Made America Famous." The song would lend its title the next year to The Night That Made America Famous, a revue of old and new Chapin songs which briefly played on Broadway with a cast including Harry and his equally musical brothers Tom and Stephen.
Much as Sniper had failed to yield a single to follow up "Taxi," 1975's Portrait Gallery didn't capitalize on "Cat's in the Cradle" with another hit. His final album with Paul Leka, its musical portraits encompassed Chapin's wife ("Sandy"), a young child ("Tangled Up Puppet," co-written with Sandy), and a couple whose dreams remain unfulfilled with the passage of time ("Dreams Go By," a sideways rewrite of "Cat's in the Cradle" with its marriage of a bouncy melody to a melancholy lyric). The key set piece was "Bummer," set to a thrilling funk-soul arrangement by Gene Page. Chapin applied his characteristic empathy to this hard-hitting snapshot of a young African-American man who endures abuse as a child, turns to drugs and crime, and finally gets shipped to Vietnam. He earns "six Purple Hearts and the Medal of Honor" but upon his return, "there was only a couple of things that he was really trained for, and he found himself drifting back to 'em." It's not easy for the "bummer" to find his place in a society that turns its backs on veterans afflicted with what's today known as PTSD, and Chapin provides no happy ending. His critique is sharp and incisive: "There was a stew about burying him in Arlington/So they shipped him in box to Fayette/And they stashed him in a grave in a county plot/The kind we remember to forget..." Despite strong material, a striking Milton Glaser cover, and guest appearances by Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, and Tim Moore, Portrait Gallery stalled outside of the top 40.
Elektra followed up Portrait Gallery with Greatest Stories Live, preserving Chapin in the live setting in which he thrived. It was recorded in November 1975 at three California venues, capturing Chapin performing his recent single "Dreams Go By" as well as already-established favorites such as "Taxi," "Cat's in the Cradle," "W.O.L.D.," and "I Wanna Learn a Love Song" and songs by his brothers Tom ("Saturday Morning") and Stephen ("Let Time Go Lightly"), both of whom played in the band. The double album introduced three new studio recordings, too: "She Is Always Seventeen," "Love Is Just Another Word," and "The Shortest Story." Shorn of their often-elaborate orchestrations as heard on the studio albums, Chapin's songs lost none of their power. Greatest Stories Live is an intimate portrait of a warm, engaging storyteller communicating directly with his audience. While it only peaked at No. 48 on the Billboard 200, it remained a cornerstone of the Chapin catalogue and has since been certified 2x Platinum. "She Is Always Seventeen" and "Love Is Just Another Word" were dropped from the commonly-available CD for space reasons, making their appearance here all the more significant.
Stephen Chapin remained in the fold to produce and arrange 1976's On the Road to Kingdom Come. Stephen's vision was an expansive one, exploring both parts of the folk-rock equation while never overpowering his brother's quirky stories and songs. "The Mayor of Candor Lied" featured a twist ending worthy of O. Henry; "Corey's Coming" showed Chapin's deft skill at telling a dense story within a pop framework. "The Parade's Still Passing By" was a touching tribute to a fallen friend, folksinger Phil Ochs. Stephen returned for Harry's next effort, the sprawling 1977 double album Dance Band on the Titanic. Arguably the most diverse album of Chapin's career, Dance Band was titled after its wry title song: "Well, they soon used up all of the lifeboats/But there were a lot of us left on board/I heard the drummer saying, 'Boys, just keep playing!/Now we're doing this date for the Lord!" The lyric is straightforward, but one senses that Chapin also considered the metaphorical implications of the titular image; the atmosphere is heightened by the big, ironically rollicking arrangement.
"Dance Band" is just one of the wordy epics favored here by the artist, who utilizes various band and orchestral textures over fourteen tracks, touching on various musical styles from country to reggae to folk, rock, and pop. But there are simpler pleasures, too. The wistful "My Old Lady" might employ lighthearted humor on the surface ("You see my old lady went and took herself a young man last night/It got me crazy when she said, baby, don't you get uptight!") but Chapin packs his customary social commentary as well as real emotion ("She says why can't a woman play the same damn game, and act out what she feels/She says she's going to take a bath/I hear her singing in the tub upstairs/While I'm sittin' here spittin' out chunks of my heart/Forced into being fair") into the song. There's detail to savor in the stories of domestic strife ("We Grew Up a Little Bit"), sexual awakening ("Manhood"), and the vagaries of love ("I Wonder What Happened to Him"). But even the tough "Mercenaries" reveals a romantic at heart. The closing, nearly 15-minute epic "There Was Only One Choice" is a song suite in which Chapin gleefully jumps from style to style in his quirky, personal musical odyssey.
Living Room Suite (1978) turned out to be Chapin's final studio album at Elektra - and it just might be his most personal. Chuck Plotkin was behind the controls, enlisting such session veterans as Jim Keltner and Andy Newmark (drums), Ernie Watts (clarinet, flute, oboe and saxophone), and The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Cowsills (vocals). These pros added gloss to Chapin's intimate tunes. "Dancing Boy" is another personal father/son song from the author of "Cat's in the Cradle," and like its predecessor, it's openly emotional: "And when Daddy and his dancin' boy will have dwindled down to one, you know the world will have taught you other steps to match the march of time/So you'll have to keep our dancin' days in your mind." Chapin's daughter Jen is his "rainbow above" in the beautiful "Jenny," while "If You Want to Feel" is practically a declaration of Chapin's big-hearted ethos: "What makes you think emotions/Are something that you hide?" as much as "Flowers are Red" is an arresting statement of nonconformity.
The lyric of "I Wonder What Would Happen to this World" had bittersweet resonance when it was used as the epitaph on the singer and humanitarian's gravestone: "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."
Story Book: The Elektra Albums concludes there, just before Legends of the Lost and Found and Sequel. The set's greatest liability is the splitting of albums across discs; only four of the nine albums are presented in full on one disc. This format, while ostensibly more cost-effective for the purchaser as the discs are fewer in number, interrupts the flow of the albums crafted by Chapin and his collaborators. The collection is most recommended for those new to Chapin's discography, as there's no bonus material (such as one-off rarities, single versions, or outtakes, many of which premiered on Rhino's 2004 two-for-one issue of Heads and Tales and Sniper) to entice longtime collectors.
Happily, though, the presentation is top-notch. The thick 32-page full-color booklet features photos, memorabilia, album artwork, and a comprehensive and insightful album-by-album essay penned by Charles Donovan. Well-organized and beautifully written, it makes for an essential guide while listening. Simon Murphy has remastered the audio.
Harry Chapin lost his life in an automobile accident on July 16, 1981 at the age of 38. Today, his legacy of music lives on alongside his humanitarianism. He championed causes to end hunger, many of which - including World Hunger Year, now known as WhyHunger - still live on. Harry didn't just let his dreams go by; he lived them. Story Book: The Elektra Albums 1972-1978 celebrates his singular body of work.