2021 SONG DRAFT- ROUND 8 PICK 1- A SOUND DAY SELECTS- ‘TAXI’- HARRY CHAPIN

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.

31 responses to “2021 SONG DRAFT- ROUND 8 PICK 1- A SOUND DAY SELECTS- ‘TAXI’- HARRY CHAPIN

  1. Thank you for the extra information about Harry Chapin, I had no idea he made a documentary nominated for an Oscar. He was a talented guy and an all-around decent human being which is apparent from the timbre of his narrative songs. He was a teacher in what it is to be human. I can still remember the feelings evoked when hearing “Taxi” for the first time. Like you said, anyone who has been single, lonely, pining for an ex-love, bad job circumstance can relate to the lyrics. And he sings them just right. Excellent choice and write-up, Dave!

  2. Awesome song pick. This could have been one of my picks, if I’d thought of it. Kudos to you for bringing it to the draft. Harry was a brilliant human being, who allowed himself to be guided by a strong conscience; and then was taken too soon. I too was a kid when this song came out. I remember being in the back seat on a drive with my parents and brother, and the song kept coming on the radio all afternoon. We listened to it every time. By that evening, I think I knew it by heart.

  3. We talked about some songs being like movies on here before…this one is that. Great story and melody…I like the sequel also that he released later on.
    Not only is it a great song but he seemed to be a great person.

    • Agree on both points! Could easily have been stretched out to a Hallmark movie, but I’m kind of glad it wasn’t so we picture it as we want.

  4. Liked both ‘Taxi’ and ‘Sequel’- interesting story songs. From what I have read- a better person than he was a singer-songwriter—and that isn’t to knock him but to compliment him.

  5. I too have always loved great ‘story’ songs like “El Paso”, “Ode to Billie Joe” and “A Boy Named Sue”, and “Taxi” is one of the very best of them. I was riveted every time it came on the radio. Great write-up as always Dave.

    • funny you mentioned that– i recall the first time i heard this- on a tinny transistor late at night while staying at my grandparents house.

    • yeah, that little radio… was about three inches long and had a tiny speaker, but I sure loved it as a tot. And sometimes it could pick up random stations from hundreds of miles away… think I remember having a New Orleans station (about 1500 miles from where I was) drifting in and out one night.

    • my problem is – I was always running the battery out- usually listening to baseball games- and falling asleep late at night- waking up the next morning with the radio still on..

  6. Chapin was about to give us more. “Cat In The Cradle” is also right up there. Dan Fogelberg gave us “Same Old Lang Syne,” with that haunting saxophone. And, Cat Stevens “Father And Son.” Those were heady years for singer-songwriters.

    • Yes!! Funny you should say that because I actually almost mentioned “Another Auld Lang Syne” in the writeup… I love that one too, although I always figured it was a strange choice as a Christmas classic.

    • That’s funny about Another Auld Lang Syne – my girlfriend in high school loved that song and always said wouldn’t it be funny if that happened to us where we ran into each other many years later. Happily that’s never happened.

  7. Great choice Dave. Not sure how but I had never heard this song til I listened to it right now – what a story. Pulls you right in. Sadly don’t think it could be a hit nowadays since radio would never play a 7 minute song

    • true… it was rare then too, but the precedent was there for them with “American Pie” the same year (and “Hey Jude” only about 2 years prior.) I know there ARE good storyteller singers out there these days, but I don’t know that any really find mainstream success anymore.

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