For younger readers who may not recognize the name, Harry Chapin was an influential singer-songwriter, philanthropist, and anti-hunger activist known for folk-rock hits of the 1970s, which he …
For younger readers who may not recognize the name, Harry Chapin was an influential singer-songwriter, philanthropist, and anti-hunger activist known for folk-rock hits of the 1970s, which he affectionately referred to as "story songs." His impressive legacy includes induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame and sales of over 16 million records worldwide. Chapin and his band recorded 11 albums from 1972 until his death on July 16, 1981, at age 38. All 14 singles that he released became hits on at least one national music chart.
A dedicated humanitarian, Chapin and his band performed numerous fundraising concerts for nonprofit organizations fighting world hunger, raising more than $3 million for 82 different charities. He was driving to a fundraising concert when he was killed in a collision with a semi-trailer truck in Jericho, N.Y. In 1987, Chapin was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian work.
Harry Chapin's band, which has continued to perform in the four decades since his tragic death, will be playing a 50th-anniversary concert on Wednesday, April 26, at 8 p.m., at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside. And one local musician who is enthusiastically looking forward to the celebratory gig is Big John Wallace, a West Mt. Airy resident for the past 45 years who has been a singer and guitarist in Chapin's band from day one right up until the present.
Wallace, 79, a native of Utica, N.Y., the child of an artist father and librarian mother, answered a newspaper ad to sing in a boys' choir in Brooklyn Heights in 1955 when he was 8.
“I was a soprano soloist in the choir, but I rose quickly through the ranks,” Wallace said in a recent interview. “As it turned out, that one little ad changed my life because I met Tom and Steve Chapin, brothers of Harry, who were also members of the choir.”
Sixteen years later, in 1971, Harry Chapin, like countless other young musicians before and since, decided to put together a band.
“I was driving my own tractor-trailer for food haulers at that time when my engine blew up on I-95,” Wallace said. “Then Harry called and asked if I wanted to be part of his new band. I had never been in a band before. But he knew I could sing and play the guitar.”
So Wallace joined Chapin, Ron Palmer and Tim Scott to form the original crew of the band – and became the only musician to play with Chapin for every gig he performed for the next ten years.
The Chapin brothers had played folk music often in Greenwich Village, but the new band rented the Village Gate, a popular nightclub in Manhattan from 1958 to 1994, for their first appearance, on June 29, 1971.
“There were four of us playing music and three people in the audience, but Harry made a tape of it and shipped it to every record company,” Wallace said. “We got a good review in the New York Times, and after that, there was a bidding war between several record companies. We signed with Elektra. (The multimillion-dollar contract was one of the biggest of the era.) Harry was so happy that they were fighting over him. Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, flew us out to L.A. to record our first album.”
That debut album, “Heads & Tales,” released late in 1971, was an international success, selling more than one million records. Its success was due largely to the top-25 Billboard Hot 100 hit single, “Taxi,” which also became a top-5 hit in Canada for 16 weeks. The song was performed on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” which received so many calls that Chapin returned the next night. It was the first time in the show's history that a performer was called back to perform two nights running. The group would eventually appear on that show 19 times.
“Everything happened so fast,” Wallace said. “Harry Chapin was a multi-tasker. I've never known anyone with so much determination and voltage. He was going to be big, no matter what. He wanted a hit play on Broadway and much more. He lobbied in Washington about hunger. He was so committed to everything.”
In 1974, Wallace said, “Harry came into a rehearsal and said, 'Hey, guys, I have this new song.' Every one of us listened to it and said, 'Wow, you really have something here.' It was definitely not a typical pop song. His wife, Sandy, had written the lyrics.”
That song, “Cat's in the Cradle,” is about a father who is too busy working to find time for his son during the boy's childhood; ultimately the son grows up to be just like his father, not making any time for his dad. The record went to number one in the country. The album it was on, “Verities and Balderdash,” became the most successful album for the band, selling 2.5 million records, due primarily to “Cat's in the Cradle,” which also earned a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
Over the years other Chapin family members have also had viable careers in music. There have been The Steve Chapin Band, led by Harry’s brother; The Chapin Family Band; brother Tom Chapin, who has had a solo career, and The Chapin Sisters, Abigail and Lilly, who are Tom's daughters.
How Wallace wound up in West Mt. Airy is an odd story that Harry Chapin could have written a song about. The band members were co-hosts in the mid-1970s on “The Mike Douglas Show,” a national afternoon talk show that originated in the NBC-TV studios at 5th and Market Streets. While appearing on the show, Wallace started dating a woman who worked on the show and became so smitten that he left his home in Brooklyn Heights and bought a house in West Mt. Airy to be close to her. He was on the road so much, though, that the romance fizzled, but he has been living in the house ever since. “I love walking the loop in Carpenter's Woods near my house,” he said.
Wallace did wind up marrying Kathleen Hagan, who was born in Germantown and raised in Glenside and was the owner of Sherlock's Hair Salon at 15 W. Highland Ave. in Chestnut Hill for 39 years until 2017 when she died at age 70.
“I'm still in mourning,” Wallace said. “Kathy was one in a billion. She touched so many people. She was the best thing that ever happened to me. My biggest gift in life was spending 39 years with her. It just kept getting better.”
For more information about the Harry Chapin Band's April 26 concert, visit keswicktheatre.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org