A couple of rounds back, I picked one of the great debut singles of the 1970s. Maybe of any decade really, “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. For this round I pick another great song by a story-telling star of the ’70s…”Taxi” by Harry Chapin.
The early-’70s were the golden age of singer/songwriters who could tell a story and put it to memorable melodies – Carole King, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, and others, all at their prime. So, it’s little wonder there was interest in Harry when people heard him. The New Yorker came from a musical background (his dad was a respected jazz drummer) but didn’t get around to settling down to be a musician until well into his 20s. In the meantime, he’d bounced around, going to college for a spell, attending the Air Force Academy and being involved in the movies… he was nominated for an Oscar for a documentary he produced in 1968! But by 1971, he was singing and writing songs, and performing around the Big Apple, with a growing reputation. Before long Columbia and Elektra both wanted him to record for them; Elektra won the bidding war signing him to one of the biggest contracts they’d given out to that point. They offered him free studio time to record, and a lot of leeway. So strong was their belief in his talent, the label’s CEO, Joc Holzman even came in to produce his first album, Heads and Tales. Chapin brought along his brother Steve, who played keyboards, and his friend, bassist John Wallace to L.A. to make the album, and Elektra got some fine session players to supplement the sound, like drummer Russ Kunkel and Tim Scott, who plays the evocatively moody cello on this track.
His career then got off to a flying start. Around the time the LP came out, Harry made his nationwide debut on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, where he did “Taxi.” So great was the response, Johnny called him back to do the next night’s show as well – not bad going for a singer no one had heard of a few days earlier!
Like many of his tunes, the inspiration for “Taxi” was personal. The song about the cab driver who recognizes his fare as a girlfriend from long ago and realizes neither one of them are happy with the course their lives has taken since they were a couple is nearly autobiographical. While struggling to make ends meet writing and singing early on in his career, Chapin drove a cab in New York for several months. His wife recalls thinking “wow, it’s would be a great experience because people in cabs will tell him stories and he’ll get all kinds of characters.” One such character was his old college sweetheart, Sue, whom his wife assures us was real. The “I was gonna learn to fly” line refers to Harry’s signing up for Air Force Academy when he was young; the only total fiction appears to be that he set the song in San Francisco not NYC, apparently liking the sound of “it was rainin’ hard in Frisco.”
The song was a hit and pushed the album up to gold status at home, and platinum up in Canada, where “Taxi” was a top 5 hit. It got to #24 in the U.S. … again, good going for a newcomer with a single that was nearly seven minutes long, far longer than AM radio liked to play for the most part. He was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy (losing to America, although so too did the Eagles and John Prine that year) and of course went on to even greater fame and accolades a couple of years later with his also fairly autobiograhpical “Cats in the Cradle.” He continued writing and performing interesting story-driven songs through the decade while also becoming a noted humanitarian. He was an advisor to President Carter on world hunger and was awarded a Congressional Medal posthumously. Posthumously because sadly he was killed in a car accident en route to a show in 1981, not long after his sequel to “Taxi” ” – entitled “Sequel” – had hit the charts.
I always loved this song. 1972 seemed to be when I first started really noticing music and taking an interest in it, as a small child. I was given a little transistor radio and listened in attentively, usually to Toronto powerhouse hit radio station of the day 1050 Chum (which published weekly charts that one could pick up in record stores, like the one in the attached photo). There were so many good songs that year from so many greats – Elton John, Paul Simon, Roberta Flack, Eagles – but this one was one of my favorites then and is to this day. Even as a small kid, I could follow the gist of the story, his disappointment and sense of wistful nostalgia and I loved the melody, the rumbling strings below it all. As an adult, I’m happily spoken for now, but spent enough years of being single or in a bad relationship, or bad job, to have listened to it many times thinking “Yeah! I’ve been there!” , wondering “What if?” about a face from the past. I think we all have, which was part of the reason for the appeal of the song, and for Harry. A talent who let us see his life through his own eyes and musical ears.