GRAMMY AWARD winning artist Tom Chapin has been described as “the pied piper of children’s music”. His recordings aimed at four to 11-year-olds and their families have brought him worldwide acclaim.
Growing up in an artistic family in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1950s and 1960s he was an integral part of the Greenwich Village folk scene. His father Jim is an accomplished jazz drummer and his late brother, Harry, was a songwriter/humanitarian who wrote hit songs such as ‘Cat’s In The Cradle’ and ‘Taxi’.
Over the course of the past decade Tom has become a big hit in Galway and makes a welcome return to the city as part of the Baboró International Children’s Festival. As part of the festival, Tom will play the Black Box Theatre on Tuesday October 14 at 1pm and 7pm; Wednesday 15 at 10am and 12 noon, and Thursday 16 at 10am and 12 noon.
Among the eclectic mix of events at this year’s Baboró, New Yorker Tom Chapin is bound to be among the most popular. When asked what brings him back to Galway again he quips: “It’s the weather and the Irish temperament!”
Joking aside, Chapin’s almost biennial appearance at Baboró allows him to get back to his Irish roots. Chapin’s maternal grandfather Kenneth Burke (an Irish-American ) was a literary theorist and philosopher heavily influenced by Friedrick Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.
“My grandfather Burke was born and raised in Pittsburgh but from what I’ve heard his father came over from Ireland to America at a very early age,” Tom tells me. “It’s always fun to sing at family-friendly concerts in Galway because the kids are just so musical. Baboró itself is just an amazing festival and probably one of the best in the world in terms of the diverse range of shows. I’m always delighted when they ask me to perform at it every couple of years.”
Chapin’s father was a mainstay of the New York jazz scene throughout the 1930s and 1940s and trained under the legendary Sanford A Moeller (the inventor of the Moeller method of drumming ) Jim Chapin is a close personal friend of iconic jazz drummers such as Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. He is also the author of several books about jazz drumming.
“I just spoke to him yesterday about my trip to Ireland,” says Tom. “He’s 89 years old and still alive and kicking. Even though I come from quite an artistic background, he was actually the first musician in the family. The motto was to find something in the arts that you enjoy and then to make that your job.”
In the 1960s Tom, Harry, and Steve Chapin formed a group entitled The Chapin Brothers and they were regularly joined on stage by their father. The Chapin Brothers befriended Joni Mitchell and Dave Van Ronk and became part of the folk music scene.
“We did a TV show in Winnipeg in Canada in 1965 and Joni and Dave and everyone was on that,” says Tom. “Joni was known as ‘Joni Anderson of Saskatoon’ back then and we were just starting out.
“My brothers and I grew up in Brooklyn so we were literally right next to the Greenwich Village folk scene. Our dad would play drums with us and we started to use pickups on our guitars so we almost became like a folk/rock band. Even though we were never stars or anything in any way, we did learn so much from all those incredible folk musicians. It was an amazing apprenticeship for us.”
The Chapin Brothers split in the late 1960s when Tom decided he wanted to travel the world. Throughout the early 1970s Harry toured as a solo artist and such was his success that Elektra Records and Columbia began a bidding war to sign him. He eventually signed with Jac Holzman at Elektra and in 1974 he wrote his biggest hit ‘Cat’s In The Cradle’ which went to number one and made him a millionaire.
The success Harry enjoyed afforded him the opportunity to work with his brothers again and together they wrote and performed a Broadway musical entitled The Night That Made America Famous. The family collaboration was to be short-lived as in 1981 Harry Chapin died in a road traffic accident in Long Island.
It took many years for Tom to come to terms with the death of his eldest brother. Eventually it was through writing songs for children that he found a new lease of life.
“It’s been 20 years since I brought out my first family-friendly album,” says Tom. “In 1988 my daughter Abigail was at that age where she was too young for young cartoon songs and she wasn’t really quite ready to listen to pop radio either. So, I started to write some songs I thought she’d enjoy and the whole thing kind of went on from there. I’ve now recorded over 12 albums of kids’ songs and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
These days Abigail is a member of folk/pop musical group The Chapin Sisters alongside her siblings Lily Chapin and Jessica Craven. The Chapin Family Band will gather together this weekend in St Louis to sing Harry’s songs and other family hits. “We all get together about once or twice a year to remember through song those dear departed family members,” says Tom.
Chapin family songs have even travelled into space! In 1998 NASA played Tom’s ‘This Pretty Planet’ to wake the space shuttle Discovery crew. Chapin says: “John Glenn, the oldest man in space, woke up to one of my songs and that’s pretty amazing when you think about it.”
Tickets to see Tom Chapin’s concert are available from the Baboró box office at the Town Hall on 091-569777.