Harry Chapin was a singer-songwriter who rose to stardom in the 1970s.
Chapin was a philanthropist and a humanitarian. He used his talent for writing story songs and ballads to make the world a better place.
To honor his legacy and revisit his celebrated career, explore this list of the best Harry Chapin songs.
“Cat’s In the Cradle” by Harry Chapin
Song year: 1974
There are many famous songs about fathers and sons, but “Cat’s In the Cradle” is undoubtedly one of the most well-known. It is a clear number one pick for the best Harry Chapin songs.
This folk-rock classic features on Chapin’s album Verities & Balderdash. It stands as Harry’s only number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 and is one of his most famous songs.
Chapin was nominated for a Grammy award in 1975 for Best Male Pop Performance.
The song centers around a narrator singing about becoming a new father in the first verse. Throughout, the father has less and less time to devote to his son due to his job.
Meanwhile, his son is watching and yearns to be like his father when he grows up.
Once the son graduates college, he has no time to spend with his father. After the older man retires, the son explains how his job and family take up all his time.
The father finally realizes his son has grown up to make the same mistakes.
“Taxi” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1972
This single was released in 1972 to promote Chapin’s album Heads & Tales. Harry debuted it on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
The performance was so popular that the audience sent in tons of calls and telegrams requesting the singer-songwriter return to the show. For the first time in Tonight Show history, Harry Chapin returned the following night for an encore performance of “Taxi.”
Chapin’s first single comes from real-life experiences as a New York City cab driver. It tells the story of a taxi driver whose passenger ends up being his former girlfriend.
The song is a bit melancholy with a bittersweet ending that touches on lost dreams. It established Chapin’s writing style and became one of the singer’s first signature songs.
A disc jockey in Boston named Jim Connors was the first to play Chapin’s single on air. In February of 1972, the song was gaining momentum in Boston. By April, it was topping Boston radio charts.
In June, “Taxi” reached number 24 on the charts and enjoyed a 16-week run on the Billboard Hot 100.
“I Wanna Learn a Love Song” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1974
The third song in our list of best Harry Chapin songs features in Chapin’s 1974 album Verities & Balderdash.
It's a romantic story about a guitarist and the woman he is teaching. The woman is falling in love with her instructor.
In the song, the woman rejects the guitarist’s attempts to teach her and is only interested in hearing him play. The woman is married with children, but she and the guitarist fall in love anyway.
“I Wanna Learn a Love Song” comes from the true story of how Harry met his wife. The song climbed the charts in Australia, Canada, and the US. It peaked at number 7 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart and 44 on the Hot 100.
“A Better Place to Be” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1972
Harry Chaoin included “A Better Place to Be” on his 1972 album Sniper and Other Love Songs. It tells the tale of a night watchman and a waitress drinking gin together. The night watchman confesses to the waitress about a one-night stand he had a week prior.
At first, the man is distraught and hesitant to share the story. After a few drinks, he opens up and tells the waitress everything. He sadly recounts how his short-time lover left early in the morning with only a note to say goodbye.
He eventually tells the waitress she can come home with him if she wants, the same way his one-night stand told him.
The song didn’t ever reach the Hot 100, but it did climb to number 18 on the Billboard Bubbling Under chart. A live version from 1976 eventually reached the 86th spot on the Hot 100.
Chapin claimed that “A Better Place to Be” was his favorite song to write.
“Sunday Morning Sunshine” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1972
Another tune from the 1972 album Sniper and Other Love Songs, “Sunday Morning Sunshine” is a lively tune that gives listeners a taste of big city life. It also explains how love can make a lonely place feel like home and retains an optimistic tone throughout the song.
Interestingly the song was released the same year as his debut single “Taxi.”
The song found its way to the Billboard Hot 100 chart and reached 75. It performed better on the Adult Contemporary chart and eventually climbed to the top 30.
A syndicated radio show in America called King Biscuit Flower Hour recorded a live version specifically for the show. Three years later, a band called The Swinging Blue Jeans covered the song and released it in Germany.
“W.O.L.D” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1973
“W.O.L.D” is a story song about a disc jockey facing getting old who travels the country looking for happiness. He thinks following his passion for radio broadcasting will bring him contentment.
He realizes that his life has somehow passed him by, along with his voice and good looks.
The song is unique because it takes place through a phone conversation between the DJ and his ex-wife. The listener never hears the ex-wife’s voice or point of view, only what the DJ tells her.
The theme of the story touches on how most people never change and how you can forget about what you need chasing what you think you want. Chapin drew inspiration for the song from the disc jockey Jim Connors, the same man who discovered him and promoted his single “Taxi” in Boston.
There is a real WOLD-FM that airs in Marion, Virginia. During his live shows, Chapin was known for replacing W.O.L.D with the letters of the local radio station where he was touring.
W.O.L.D was included on Chapin’s third studio album Short Stories. It peaked at 36 on the US charts and 34 in the United Kingdom. In Canada, it found more success, peaking at number 9.
W.O.L.D went on to sell more than a million units.
“Sniper” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1972
This ballad is from Chapin’s second album Sniper and Other Love Songs. It is a very long song, clocking in at nearly 10 minutes.
The song’s based on a real-life University of Texas shooting in 1966. Harry did include some fictional elements as well. “Sniper” never mentions the names of the victims or the name of the shooter, Charles Whitman. It does not make any direct reference to the shooting location either.
Chapin used a distinct writing technique to create three different “voices.” You hear the narrator, the people watching the shooting in the crowd, and the Sniper himself.
Harry sings all three parts but includes several time signature changes and tempo variations to tell the difference between all three. Chapin famously performed the song in his 1975 Broadway musical, The Night That Made America Famous.
He sang the song on a diving board with a screen playing footage of the Kennedy assassination behind him.
“Mr. Tanner” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1973
This Chapin song was a part of his third studio album Short Stories. It tells the tale of Martin Tanner. Big John Wallace plays the role of Mr. Tanner and sings the Christmas song “O Holy Night” in the background of the chorus.
Tanner is a launderer from Ohio who has a beautiful singing voice. His friends prod him into performing until he agrees. Tanner then travels to New York City to pursue his dream.
Mr. Tanner’s concert is widely panned by critics, so he goes home and gives up singing forever. Martin only sings to himself when he’s alone sorting through clothes.
“Mr. Tanner” is another song based on real-life events. Chapin once read a review in The New York Times about a singer named Martin Tubridy that inspired the song.
The real inspiration for Mr. Tanner lived in Weston, Connecticut, and did sing again. Martin Tubridy was not even aware he inspired the song until the 1990s. He eventually performed the song at a concert for the Harry Chapin Foundation.
“The Mayor of Candor Lied” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1976
This song was released off of Chapin’s 1976 album On the Road to Kingdom Come. It describes the story of a poor farmer boy who wants to marry the Mayor’s daughter. He is willing to do anything, even blackmail his bride’s father, to get what he wants.
The setting is a town called Candor, a witty wordplay on frank honesty. Coleen is the Mayor’s daughter and the narrator is a farmer’s son. The Mayor is against the match and wants his daughter to marry a man with better prospects.
The farmer boy wants to make things right with the Mayor and ends up finding him having an affair with his mother. He uses this information to force the Mayor into accepting the courtship.
The Mayor agrees and soon after he is re-elected. He takes his daughter and the rest of his family on a long vacation while the farmer boy anxiously awaits Coleen’s return. When the family returns without her, the Mayor claims she chose to stay abroad and finish her schooling.
He reveals a twist ending, telling the farmer boy that he is the boy’s biological father, making his relationship with Coleen impossible.
“Corey’s Coming” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1977
Chapin wrote this song from the first person point of view. It tells the story of an old man named John Joseph who lives in the railroad yard. It's told from the point of view of a narrator that visits John in the evenings to hear his stories.
Every night John ends his tales with the arrival of his Corey. The narrator assumes Corey is the love interest he is waiting for.
He asks the townsfolk about John’s stories and confronts the old man with their responses. John replies that reality is not a linear concept.
Soon after, the narrator finds John dead. At his funeral, a woman approaches and introduces herself as Corey. By the end of the song the narrator thanks the listeners and reveals that he now lives in the railroad yard to carry on John’s stories.
“Circle” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1972
“Circle” is another song from Harry’s second album, Sniper and Other Love Songs. It was never released as an official single but it has since become a huge fan favorite. Some fans call it Chapin’s theme song.
A group called the New Seekers recorded a cover of the song and it became one of their highest charting tunes. Chapin’s version remains the most popular and is included on many of his compilation albums.
Harry often played “Circle” during his live shows and he tended to save it for the end. He liked when the audience would sing along with him as well as members of the band’s chorus. Harry’s brother Tom claims that the song was written for a TV show called Make a Wish.
Tom was the host of the show and so he was the first person to ever perform the song. Tom still performs the song in live shows and includes it on several of his albums.
“Remember When the Music” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1980
This song is part of Chapin’s final album Sequel. It is a tribute to Allard Lowenstein, a congressman from New York who was shot and killed in 1980.
Later that year, after John Lennon was killed, Chapin said the song became even more apparent.
“Remember When the Music” has three different versions. The first features a reprise with the acoustic take, the second is the regular recorded version that was released as a single. The third only has very minor differences compared to the single version.
It spent five weeks on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart and peaked at 47. Bruce Springsteen covered the song at a tribute concert for Harry Chapin.
“Sequel” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1980
Almost ten years after Chapin released his debut single “Taxi” the singer-songwriter wrote and composed a literal sequel he aptly named “Sequel” to continue the story about the cab driver and his lost love.
In the song, Harry and Sue reunite a decade later. The character Harry is now a successful singer and visits Sally’s address in an upper-class part of San Francisco. He rides in the back of a taxi to see her but learns she no longer lives there.
Sally now lives in a modest brownstone apartment and is a working woman, but she is content. She tells Harry that she heard him on the radio but he downplays his success. He invites her to come to his show that night but she says no because she has to work.
Chapin liked to joke that if he wrote a third song about Harry and Sally he would call it “Hearse” so he could kill off the characters.
“Sequel” peaked at number 23 on the Hot 100 chart and 37 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Seven months after the song reached its zenith, Chapin died.
“30,000 Pounds of Bananas” by Harry Chapin
Song Year: 1974
This folk rock song was included on Chapin’s 1974 album Verities & Balderdash. It is based on the true story of a 1965 truck accident in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It tells the semi-fictional story of the accident, with each verse getting faster and faster as the song plays.
The truck driver was Euguene Sesky, who lost control of his vehicle down Pennsylvania’s Route 307. His truck barreled down more than two miles into Scranton where it sideswiped several cars and crashed into a residence.
Witnesses say Sesky did everything in his power to avoid hitting anyone and may have flipped the truck to avoid injuring or killing others.
He was ejected from his truck and died at the scene. Meanwhile, his load of bananas spilled in the street, hence the song’s title.
Big John Wallace sings alongside Chapin in the song’s chorus and during live shows, the audience would sing his part.
Top Harry Chapin Songs, Final Thoughts
Harry Chapin will forever be remembered as a sentimental songwriter who told emotionally powerful songs with deep meanings. His talent gained him a devoted following along with his charity work and social activism.
In 1981 he was killed in a car accident in New York. The memorial fund created after Chapin’s death has raised millions of dollars for charities that were important to Harry.
We might have lost Harry Chapin to an untimely death but we have all of the best Harry Chapin songs to celebrate his life and remember his talent.