March 30 – Chapman Had Fast Lane To Early Stardom

Neo-hippie singer/songwriters were a dime a dozen around the end of the ’60s. But as the ’80s neared an end, not so much. Which is part of what makes today’s birthday girl so special. Happy 58th, Tracy Chapman!

Not only did Tracy come along about two decades after her genre had peaked, she broke ground as well by being a Black artist in one of the more exclusively-white areas of music. She remembers being given a ukulele by her music-loving mom when she was just three, but wanting to play guitar when she saw Hee Haw on TV! Her mom again obliged, and by eight, young Tracy was learning that instrument. Although she grew up in a poor neighborhood in Cleveland, she was smart and hard-working and won a scholarship to a ritzy private Connecticut high school, which in turn led her to university in the ’80s, where she got a degree in anthropology. She told PBS’ Tavis Smiley that the contrast between the poor, largely Black neighborhood she grew up in and the wealthy and largely-White schools she attended later on had a major influence on how she saw life, and the music she listened to.

After university, she’d become a popular cafe performer in Boston when she got signed to Elektra Records, who went out on a bit of a limb. As journalist Siobhan O’Neill reminds us, in the late-’80s artists like Tiffany, Whitney and Roxette were the rage and “a young Black woman singing socially-aware folk tunes about poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence was the polar opposite of what was topping the charts.” Nonetheless, Elektra gave her room to do her thing, and it paid off. Her self-titled debut album hit #1 in a range of countries, including the U.S., where it’s 6X platinum, the UK, Canada and Germany, helped along greatly by the world-weary “Fast Car”, a top 10 hit throughout much of the world. The song about the struggling waitress with hope for a better tomorrow won her a Grammy for Best Female Pop Performance and helped her snag the Best New Artist one as well, while across the sea, she took home Brit Awards for Best International Female Artist and Breakthrough Artist of the Year. Around that time, she was involved in playing Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party and concerts for Amnesty International. As VH1 point out, “along with 10 000 Maniacs and R.E.M., Chapman’s liberal politics proved enormously influential on American campuses.”

Although she failed to capture lightning in a jar again – none of her seven subsequent studio albums were chart-topping, although her next three or four still earned various platinum awards – she remained popular throughout the ’90s and as allmusic say, “helped restore singer-songwriters to the spotlight.” Fittingly, she was one of the headliners during the first Lilith Fair tour.

Chapman’s been pretty quiet for over a decade, save for a Greatest Hits CD in 2015, which included a popular live performance of “Stand By Me” she’d done on Letterman’s show. Since then the only time she’s been in music news was when she sued rapper Nicki Minaj for sampling her song “Baby Can I Hold You” on one of her records. Although a judge refused to block Minaj from releasing her own song, she did pay Chapman $450 000 to avoid a trial. However, the private Chapman (she says “I have a public life, that’s my work and my private life.”) is still involved in a number of human rights’ charities, advocating on behalf of her Cleveland’s public schools and even being a judge at the Sundance film Festival.

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12 thoughts on “March 30 – Chapman Had Fast Lane To Early Stardom

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    I was shocked when I first heard Fast Car…ok you know how I tend to look down on part of the 80s…this one was a great surprise. It didn’t belong and it was so good… I was surprised it caught on. The other song I remember that got a lot of play was Give Me One Reason in the late nineties…I liked that one also.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘World weary,’ yeah, that sums it up. Again an artist who has enough nouse to keep public and private lives seperate, though I think if you have mega success that might be a trick not so easy to achieve. I’ll have to listen to some of her later stuff.

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  3. Yes, Fast Car got worn out in a hurry, maybe because it was so different and good. I really loved Baby Can I Hold You too. I didn’t know about the legal claims with that song. Makes me sad she wasn’t appropriately accounted to for it in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never heard that Minaj song, so I don’t know if she just used one or two seconds of Tracy’s or tried to Vanilla Ice it and basically take the whole song , but it’s always wise to clear it with the artist first. even if they don’t particularly care, their publisher or record company might as the Verve found out via the Stones.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Tracy Chapman’s first album remains an amazing gem. “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution”, “Fast Car”, “Across the Lines”, “Baby Can I Hold You”…so many great songs on there. I also like the tune Max called out, “Give Me One Reason.” Her appearance at Bobfest in 1992 was superb. That woman has something really special. Too bad she essentially no longer performs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Talkin’ about a Revolution”, a good one I’d kind of forgotten. I would think she could still put out a good record or two, but if she’s not motivated, more power to her – better than cynically going through the motions .

      Liked by 1 person

    1. yep, perhaps that was the secret – like Nirvana a couple of years later, she swam against the tide of what was popular and somehow the difference worked.

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