In my "How I Got Here" series, in which kindie artists talk about albums that influenced them as musicians, the musicians usually limit themselves to one or maybe two albums, but Randy Kaplan's admiration for Harry Chapin cannot be contained to a mere album or two.
In his essay below, Kaplan talks about Chapin's influence, from individual songs to individual meetings with the man himself. Fans of Kaplan will definitely recognize the seeds of Kaplan's own performing style in what he remembers about Chapin's.
Kaplan's next family album, Jam on Rye, is released on June 1.
I was lucky to be given carte blanche over the many records and record players in my house growing up way out on that long, Long Island. There were my mother's 45s of Elvis Presley, The Platters, and Nervous Norvus; my father's LPs of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and The Beatles; and my great-grandfather's 78s of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. I could barely lift those multi-record symphony folders with my great-grandfather's Yiddish scrawled on the covers but I was able to memorize every Elvis song in the stack, A-sides and B-sides. Nervous Norvus was my first exposure to the novelty song and I took to the genre right off the bat. I listened to Mitch Miller, Pete Seeger, and the triple-LP Woodstock soundtrack too. But the biggest musical influence of my childhood was our hometown hero, Harry Chapin.
Harry was famous for his lengthy story songs. Sure, a lot of them are a bit corny, but Harry can pull off corny better than anyone. His music and lyrics are elaborate and complex and diverse and poetic and bittersweet. And sometimes very, very funny. I'm thinking of songs like "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" and "Six String Orchestra." And Harry and his bass player "Big" John Wallace were a veritable comedy team onstage when they wanted to be. I learned a lot about interacting with audiences of all ages from watching Harry live in concert.
My family and some other families in the neighborhood went to see Harry every time he performed in the vicinity. After every show he would mingle with and talk to his fans and offer to sign our record albums and posters. I once wrote to him just to say hello and to ask him when he'd be performing again. He sent a fairly long personal note back to me, which I hung on my corkboard (it didn't come down for decades). I remember one line in particular: "My next gig will be on December 3rd." That was the first time I'd ever encountered the word "gig." I've heard it and said it a million times since then!
My friend Nadine wrote a letter to Harry with a little bit more of an agenda. She asked him to come play a few songs at our elementary school. He obliged. My mother pulled some strings, got me backstage, and told Harry that I played guitar too. He shook my hand, flashed a smile, and told me to keep practicing. He then proceeded to do an entire show, unplugged, for the whole school. He even called Nadine up to the stage to sit next to him on the piano bench as he sang "Tangled Up Puppet."
Harry was generous, humble, charismatic, and accessible. My mother once ordered his book of poetry and lyrics, Looking...Seeing, but it never arrived in the mail. She said she was going to call Harry personally and tell him. My father made fun of her, laughing, "You think he's just listed in the phone book like a normal person?!" Well, he was listed. And when my mom called him, he answered the phone! She told him about the problem and he sent over an autographed copy of the book right away.
Now that I have a son and a family of my own, I try to keep the caveats of Harry's only #1 song, the mawkish yet magic "Cat's in the Cradle," in mind, caveats about what could happen if you don't spend enough quality time with your family. I don't travel anywhere near as much as Harry did (he was on the go non-stop!) but as a musician I have to be on the road at least sometimes. So whenever possible, my wife and son travel with me. And when they can't, there's Skype and FaceTime, so that helps.
After all this time, I'm still inspired by Harry's talent, generosity, enthusiasm, and great recordings (my favorites are Verities & Balderdash, Portrait Gallery, and Greatest Stories Live). I'm certainly glad to carry the mantle of the lengthy story song to the children and family music genre. Yes, I've rationalized more than a few indulgent song lengths by reminding myself of Harry's epic numbers!
Harry told me to keep practicing. And I did. That's how I got here.
Photo of Harry Chapin by Steve Stout from Harry Chapin.com