On July 16, 1981, the music world lost one of its brightest stars with the death of singer/songwriter Harry Chapin. On Saturday, November 4, 2023, the members of his family gathered together at Morristown, NJ’s MPAC to celebrate his life with a Harry Chapin at 80 retrospective concert starring brothers Steve and Tom Chapin, daughter Jen Chapin, nieces Abigail and Lily Chapin, along with The Harry Chapin Band.
Inside the MPAC auditorium, the lights dim and Steve Chapin welcomes the sold-out crowd exclaiming, “Hello, New Jersey!” and taking a seat behind the grand piano. He introduces tonight’s backup musicians including original Harry Chapin Band members “Big” John Wallace on bass and Howard Fields on drums, along with guitarist Clark Wallace on guitar and Arlen Hlusko on cello.
Opening with Chapin’s 1973 Top 40 story song about an aging disc jockey, “W.O.L.D.” Steve’s warm voice rings out as he sings, “I am the morning DJ on W.O.L.D./Playing all the hits for you wherever you may be.”
As he performs, he’s deftly accompanied by tight rhythm section work and Hlusko’s lyrical cello part.
Exclaiming, “We have a lot of Chapins here this evening!” Steve introduces his Grammy-winning brother, Tom Chapin. Announcing, “Harry opened many shows with this next song,” Tom launches into the jaunty “Sunday Morning Sunshine” where Tom, Steve, and bassist “Big” John Wallace sing in harmony on the song’s uplifting “You brought your Sunday morning sunshine/Here into my Monday morning rain” chorus.
The crowd cheers, and Tom declares, “This is one of my favorite Harry songs and I get to sing it!” Cascading piano and strumming guitar accompany Tom’s memorable voice on his brother’s poignant ballad, “Story of a Life,” which gets audience members softly humming along.
The packed house reacts with large applause, and Tom acknowledges, “One of the big stories of my life is my children and grandchildren and they’re here tonight,” prior to introducing his two daughters, Abigail and Lily — aka The Chapin Sisters — to the stage.
Abigail reveals, “We’re going to do Harry’s song about how music could make a difference in the world.” On “Remember When the Music,” Abigail plays guitar and Lily plays banjo as the duo touches hearts singing “Remember when the music/Came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire” on this treasured Chapin folk song.
Abigail sings lead on “Old College Avenue,” a dramatic folk-rocker which Steve and Tom disclose was written by Harry about Cornell University, where, as they explain, he attended college “twice” but never earned a degree. Then, Lily is featured on a Chapin Sisters’ song about Los Angeles, “Angelino,” which features Tom on an acoustic guitar solo, cascading keyboard work by Steve, and an electric guitar solo by Clark Wallace.
Moving onto a number which Abigail says people often credited to Harry but which was actually written and recorded by brother Steve, Hlusko’s cello cries out as it accompanies Steve’s inviting vocal on the lovely ballad, “Let Time Go Lightly.”
The crowd hoots and hollers, and Steve reveals, “The creation that Harry was most proud of was his daughter, Jen,” as Jen Chapin takes the stage accompanied by Jamie Fox on electric guitar and Stephan Crump on acoustic bass. Jen’s talent is front and center on her father’s composition, “Flowers are Red” where she animatedly sings, “Flowers are red, green leaves are green/There’s no need to see flowers any other way/Than the way they always have been seen” on this cautionary tale in the form of a story song.
Acknowledging that, in addition to her music career, she is also a history teacher who likes to introduce her students to the story of Gandhi, Jen performs “Satyagraha.” Accompanying herself on the acoustic guitar, Jen connects with the crowd as she sings this heartrending number about finding the truth.
After thanking concertgoers for donations they brought tonight for a local food bank, Jen is joined by Abigail and Lily for “a song about people who can’t feed their children.” Energetically backed by her trio on guitar and bass, Jen and her cousins sing together, “Worry worry, work and cry,” on this funky tune with a message entitled “Feed Your Baby.”
Tom invites his grandchildren onto the stage with a birthday cake in tow as he and the rest of the Chapin family wish Abigail a happy birthday.
First, they sing Tom’s original “Happy Birthday” song to her and then the audience joins in on a traditional version of “Happy Birthday.”
To conclude Act I, The Chapin Family performs Harry’s 1974 chart-topper, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Tom sings lead, changing the lyric to “He came from Rutgers just the other day…” for the Jersey crowd before inviting everyone to join in singing the well-known “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon/Little boy blue and the man in the moon” refrain.
Following a short intermission, Tom returns to kick off Act II, recalling, “I was 12, Harry was 14, and Steve was 11 when we first heard the album, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. Our aunt played it for us all summer and by the end of the season, Harry said, ‘We could do that!’ As a result, the siblings created the trio, The Chapin Brothers, and played together for ten years.
Accompanying himself on banjo, Tom performs “Pass the Music On” where he sings, “For the good times and the high times/Through the suffering and pain/It’s the song of generations singing in my veins” on his original composition.
The Chapin Sisters are featured on “Dreaming of You.” Featuring Everly Brothers-inspired harmonies, the sisters take turns singing lead on this country two-step as father Tom accompanies them from the side.
Abigail performs the country waltz, “Saturday Morning,” accompanied by Tom and Steve before Lily’s strong and heartfelt vocal is featured on “Shooting Star.” Hlusko’s mournful cello adds to the mood as Lily sings the moving “Oh, he was the sun burning bright and brittle/And she was the moon shining back his light a little” lyric of this powerful Harry Chapin story song.
The crowd hoots and hollers before Steve handles the lead vocal on the partner song, “Mr. Tanner,” and “Big” John Wallace reprises his role from the original Harry Chapin recording singing the song’s “O Holy Night” descant.
Concertgoers are filled with emotion as Steve croons, “And he sang from his heart/And he sang from his soul” while Wallace cries, “O Holy night, O night divine!” on this pop song masterpiece which inspires an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Jen and her trio are spotlighted on a folk song she reveals was “written by my parents for my sister, Jamie,” entitled “Tangled Up Puppet.”
They follow up with “Passive People,” an original Jen Chapin composition “about democracy and how bloody hard it is,” which has Abigail and Lily singing harmony on this snappy tune with a rumba beat.
Tom, Steve, and “Big” John Wallace gather together around a single mic to accompany Jen as she sings lead on a jazzy and bluesy rendition of her father’s song, “I Wonder What Would Happen to this World.”
The crowd listens intently as Steve handles the lead on a live presentation of Harry Chapin’s first major hit, 1972’s “Taxi,” where “Big” John Wallace sings the song’s operatic descant. Audience members can’t help but conjure up memories upon hearing the song’s timeless “You see she was gonna be an actress/And I was gonna learn to fly” refrain.
The crowd cheers, and Steve reveals that at Harry’s 1987 45th birthday celebration concert at Carnegie Hall, “the biggest standing ovation was for ‘Big’ John!” who reprises his lead on one of Harry’s final compositions, “Last Stand.” Steve accompanies on the piano as “Big” John sings with conviction on this folk-rocker inspired by the shooting of President Ronald Reagan.
Tom invites the entire family on stage as he sings his original folk song, “If Only.”
Then, segueing into Harry Chapin’s “Circle,” Tom declares, “Sing it like you believe it!” as music lovers join in singing the song’s “All my life’s a circle” refrain before responding to tonight’s presentation with a rousing standing ovation.
As concertgoers make their way out of the MPAC auditorium, several share their thoughts on tonight’s Harry Chapin at 80 retrospective. Asserts Joan from Freehold, “I loved this concert! It proved what a brilliant songwriter Harry Chapin was, and hearing the songs performed by his own family and band tonight was really special.”
Ann from Irvington reveals, “I’m a Harry Chapin fan so I knew his music, but I wasn’t very familiar with the members of his family, and they are so talented! The way they interpreted Harry’s music was a great tribute to him. His songs have so much to say — I got emotional hearing them again — and there’s something so moving about hearing his daughter, nieces, and brothers performing all of these classics together.”
George from Morristown agrees, adding, “I liked that Harry’s original band members were part of the show and that ‘Big’ John can still sing,” prior to noting, “‘Mr. Tanner’ has always been one of my favorite songs and the version they did tonight was spot on.”
Whereas Mike from Westfield contends, “I thought Steve Chapin’s vocals were great and his piano playing rounded out the songs,” Lynda from Westfield insists, “Tom Chapin can really sing and play the banjo and so can his daughter, Lily.” Sue from Millburn concurs, adding, “I loved The Chapin Sisters — their sound is so pure and their vocal blend is amazing!” and Fran from Madison notes, “Jen Chapin is a true artist. I loved how she used different voices in ‘Flowers Are Red’ to express the characters and how she interacted with her band,” prior to suggesting, “I think Harry would be very proud of her.”
Lastly, Karin from Newark confesses, “I’ve missed Harry, and this show was like seeing him again. Back in 1981, I had tickets to see him perform at the Garden State Arts Center, but he died the day before, and that just crushed me.” Pointing out, “I’m still in tears,” Karin concludes by asserting, “I wouldn’t have missed this night for anything.”
To learn more about Harry Chapin, please go to harrychapinmusic.com. For further info on The Chapin Family, please click on thechapinfamily.com. For information on future great performances at MPAC — including The Temptations and The Four Tops on December 7, Dionne Warwick on February 16, and The Simon and Garfunkel Story on February 23 — please go to mayoarts.com.
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