Harry Chapin – Story Book: The Elektra Albums (1972-1978): Box Set Review

Welcome reappraisal of the career peak of an often maligned storyteller par excellence, Harry Chapin.

Release Date: 25th March 2022

Label: Strawberry Records (a Division of Cherry Red Records)

Formats: 6 x CD Box Set

The Cherry Red team have done it again. This time, they’ve excelled themselves with this lovingly presented six-CD set that includes the nine albums – all remastered – that American singer-songwriter and storyteller par excellence, Harry Chapin, recorded for Jac Holzman’s Elektra label between 1972 and 1978. All the Cherry Red hallmarks are here of course; the set comes in a nice clamshell box, the individual discs are each packaged in their own separate picture sleeves and there’s the usual colourful and informative booklet, packed with great pictures including reproductions of the original album artwork, period adverts and promotional photographs and the booklet also includes a detailed 4,000-word critique from Record Collector writer Charles Donovan. It’s the product of beauty that we’ve all come to expect from Cherry Red – and that’s before we even get to the music!

New Yorker Chapin was often given a hideously rough ride by contemporary critics, perhaps because his music could tend to edge towards the MOR/commercial end of the spectrum. But that comfortable veneer was often the disguise for Harry’s bitingly direct lyrics, that dealt with all aspects of life including, famously, thwarted love (Taxi), campus unrest (Sniper), parental neglect (Cat’s In The Cradle) and Chapin’s own life story (I Wanna Learn a Love Song). And, whilst the critics may have been unconvinced, Chapin’s public loved his storytelling – amongst this set are four albums that sold over a million copies each, and none of the albums in the collection sold fewer than 250,000. During his career, Chapin released 14 singles (eight of which are included in this set) which all managed to make a chart appearance somewhere in the world! Harry Chapin’s work was reassessed after his tragic death in a car accident in July 1981, and the albums in this box set are now all deservedly recognised as classics – by critics and public alike.

Chapin had worked as a documentary film maker before he entered the music business by signing with Elektra shortly before his 30th birthday. Jac Holzman’s iconic label had fought off stiff and determined competition for Harry’s signature from the mighty Columbia Group, and expectations were high. Harry didn’t disappoint and his debut album for the label, Heads And Tales, was a million seller, boosted by the popularity of his first single, Taxi, which saw chart action in the USA, Australia and Canada. When Chapin performed the song on Johnny Carson’s Tonight TV show, the public response was such that he was asked to return the next night to reprise the song!

Follow-up album Sniper and Other Love Songs was less commercially successful but, nevertheless, contains some fine material, not least the dramatic Sniper, a song inspired by a real-life Texas campus mass-shooting, the harrowing Burning Herself which deals with self-mutilation and the troubling Woman Child which deals with underage sex and its often inevitable result. 1973’s Short Stories included the hit single W.O.L.D., his biggest UK hit and, perhaps, the Harry Chapin song that just about EVERYONE knows. The song’s success boosted the sales of the Short Stories album and new converts will have been pleased to discover gems such as Mail Order Annie, Mr Tanner and They Call Her Easy alongside the “hit.”

1974 album, Verities And Balderdash was, indisputably, Harry Chapin’s commercial peak. The album sold over two million copies and lead single, the devastating Cat’s in the Cradle is, indeed, a masterwork. A story of a parent who is too concerned with his commitment to his career to enjoy fatherhood, and who only realises what he’s missed once the opportunity has passed will resonate deeply with many who have allowed themselves to have the same experience. The song was Chapin’s only American Number One single. But, again, there’s much more to Verities and Balderdash than just one hit single. The semi-biographical I Wanna Learn A Love Song, the enduringly popular 30,000 Pounds of Bananas (a song about a Pennsylvania truck accident) and the hilarious Six String Orchestra are just three further examples of solid gold on an album that is packed with excellent songs.

Portrait Gallery, from 1975, is an album filled with the well-crafted story-songs that were Harry Chapin’s stock in trade. Lead single Dreams Go By is another song with a lyric that will strike many-a-chord with its tale of lost opportunity, whilst the delightful Sandy is one of Harry’s several stirring tributes to his wife, Sandra.

In 1976, Harry released his first LIVE album, the double-disc Greatest Stories Live. The album reaches back into Harry’s earliest days with Elektra and contains fabulous versions of the big hits – Taxi, W.O.L.D. and Cat’s in the Cradle – plus great cuts of Dreams Go By, I Wanna Learn A Love Song, Mr Tanner and 30,000 Pounds of Bananas. The original vinyl album also included three previously unreleased studio recordings – She is Always Seventeen, Love Is Just Another Word and The Shortest Story – which were omitted from earlier CD reissues of the album. Thankfully these wonderful tracks have now been restored to their rightful place with this new collection.

Greatest Stories Live was another big-selling album and I find it strange, therefore, that Harry’s studio outing, On the Road To Kingdom Come, released just a few months later, performed relatively poorly. It’s a shame, because On the Road To Kingdom Come is certainly an album that’s worth a listen, as songs like The Mayor Of Candor Lied, Johnny Be Fair and- my personal favourite – Caroline (a co-write between Harry and his wife Sandy, and a long time favourite of the couple in York who first introduced me to Harry’s music) adequately demonstrate.

Harry’s 1977 double album, Dance Band On The Titanic also contains a raft of great material. The album didn’t sell particularly well, but, unusually, received a number of critical plaudits and was voted as Album of the Year by readers of The Times in the UK. And the praise and accolades were deserved – Dance Band on the Titanic is an ambitious, mature and well-produced album and, with songs like Why Should People Stay The Same, We Grew Up aALittle Bit and the wonderful Bluesman – Harry’s tribute to the pioneering guitarists of the early blues movement – Chapin once again shows what an excellent writer he is.

Harry’s tenure with the Elektra label ended in 1978 with Living Room Suite, an album that saw Harry return to his folkier roots after the more lush explorations of Road to Kingdom Come and Dance Band On The Titanic. It sold relatively poorly, but Living Room Suite remains a personal favourite, particularly for the hard-hitting lead single Flowers Are Red, which deals with the damage caused by forced conformity. After Harry left Elektra, he did go on to make a couple of further albums, including another live double in 1979, but it’s for his Elektra catalogue that he’s best remembered and Strawberry Records/Cherry Red have done a marvelous job in repackaging that catalogue. Harry Chapin was a genius, no less, and this collection shows him at his very best.

Before I close, I feel that I must mention the work that Harry Chapin performed in support of various World Hunger charities. Harry was a dedicated Humanitarian and established several charities, including Why Hunger and Long Island Cares and he was instrumental in the creation of The Presidential Commission On World Hunger on behalf of US President Jimmy Carter. In 1987, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – the US Congress’s highest expression of appreciation – for his campaigning activities. And for these reasons, as much as any, it’s good to see the music of Harry Chapin receiving new interest.

See Harry Chapin perform the excellent Cat’s In The Cradle – with explanatory comments from his wife Sandy and his son Josh – here:

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2 replies »

  1. Very nice review, John. I must point out, however, that Harry’s tenure with Elektra didn’t end with “Living Room Suite.” His second double live album, which featured many new songs never recorded in the studio, was called “Legends Of The Lost And Found.” This was the last album he released on Elektra. The final album released in his lifetime, “Sequel” came out on the Boardwalk label. I’ve read that the reason “Legends…” wasn’t included in this box set is that the Chapin family now owns the rights to that one.

    • Many thanks for the feedback Harris and for pointing out my error! We like to get things right but, unfortunately, some details sometimes do get missed…

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