Harry Chapin earned a reputation as a politically conscious singer-songwriter who dedicated himself, in the years before his untimely death, to various noble causes, including wiping out world hunger. Indeed, his greatest legacy may stem more from his charitable efforts than from his music itself, but for a brief period in the early 1970s, Harry Chapin was a legitimate pop star. On this day in 1974, he earned his one and only #1 pop hit when his bittersweet story-song "Cat's In The Cradle" reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Before turning his attention to music at the relatively advanced age of 29, Harry Chapin pursued a career as a film director, earning an Oscar nomination for his 1968 boxing documentary, Legendary Champions. In 1971, he recruited a backing band via an ad in The Village Voice and recorded his first album. Released in 1972, Heads & Tales included what many fans regard as Chapin's signature song—"Taxi," a lushly produced, six-minute-plus story song about a San Francisco cab driver and a long-lost love he picks up as a fare. Despite its length, "Taxi" became a hit, reaching #24 on the Billboard pop chart in the spring of 1972. Chapin's second and third albums were nowhere near as successful as his first, and he'd turned his full-time attention to writing a Broadway show when his fourth album, Verities & Balderdash, unexpectedly became a smash hit on the strength of "Cat's In The Cradle," a tale of an absent father and an endless cycle of intergenerational dysfunction based on a poem written by Chapin's wife.
"Cat's In The Cradle" was Chapin's last big hit, and though he retained a loyal fan base through the remainder of the 1970s, his work as a social activist during this period was far more significant than his work as a musician. Chapin is widely credited with spurring the creation of the President's Commission on World Hunger in 1977, and he shares indirect responsibility for one of the biggest music charity efforts of all time, USA for Africa, which was organized by Chapin's former manager, Ken Kragen. On the occasion of Chapin's posthumous award of the Congressional Gold Medal in 1987, Kragen, who also organized Hands Across America, credited Chapin as his inspiration: "All of our efforts with hunger and homelessness began with Harry," he said.
Born December 7, 1942, in New York City, singer-songwriter Harry Chapin was killed in an auto accident on the Long Island Expressway on July 16, 1981.