Billy Joel’s a great story-teller singer. So is Bruce Springsteen. But one guy both tip their caps to is the late Harry Chapin. The talkative New York bard put out some great records, but to many was best experienced playing live, so this day in 1976 was a treat for his fans. That’s when he put out his first live album, Greatest Stories Live. As the name suggests, it was largely a collection of his previous best loved songs, recorded live over a three night span the previous winter in California. The original double-LP did have three new, studio tracks on it, “She’s Always Seventeen”, “Love Is Just Another Word” and “The Shortest Story,” though the first two of those are omitted from the CD release (presumably for length, as the CD still clocks in over 70 minutes).
The record showcases him at his chatty, hyper best, with his usual backing band (including Tim Scott on cello, one of the primary reasons Elektra Records’ boss Jac Holtzman had been so determined to sign him; he felt that cello was the perfect accompaniment to sad rock music) plus his musical brothers, Tom, on piano and banjo plus Steve on piano. Steve also co-produced the record.
The album included his best-loved songs to that point, including his hits “Taxi” and “Cats in the Cradle.” As well there was “WOLD”, about a radio DJ, and “I Wanna Learn A Love Song,” like many of his tunes, semi-autobiographical in nature. That one describes, more or less, how he met his wife Sandy who was originally just a student taking guitar lessons from him. (He got to be a bit more ribald live, changing “crazy” in the lyrics to “horny.”) The album’s centerpiece however, was the black humor of “30 000 pounds of Bananas.” Unusual title for an unusual song, about an out of control truck hauling bananas, faster and faster, down a hill in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This too was based largely on real life, though not Harry’s. There was a crash in 1965 in Scranton, with a tractor-trailer, a 35-foot trailer loaded with bananas, that lost its brakes driving down a steep hill. It ran into a house at the bottom, and sadly the driver was killed, but witnesses say he did a brilliant job of avoiding pedestrians and a gas station along the way down. The 11-minute live version lets him try out alternate endings, like a take on the Chiquita banana jingle because his brothers had told him his original one “sucks.”
the album barely made it into the top 50, but sold steadily, indicative of his almost under-the-radar popularity. Eventually it went double platinum, his second-best seller behind 1974’s Verities and Balderdash.
People with Amazon Prime might want to check out the new movie Harry Chapin – When in Doubt, Do Something on their service. The movie highlights his music, energy and his remarkable dedication to helping put an end to hunger and poverty – he was doing over a hundred benefit shows a year for some time and got himself named to be an advisor to President Carter on the matter. Among his vocal fans who show up in the movie are the aforementioned Joel and Springsteen, as well as Pat Benatar, Harry Bellafonte, some U.S. senators, Bob Geldof (who more or less suggests Live Aid came out of ideas Harry had for alleviating world starvation), movie maker Michael Moore (whom Harry helped out when he was an unknown Flint journalist and novice film-maker) and perhaps most surprisingly, rappers from Run DMC. Sadly, the spoiler alert most already know, Harry was killed in a car crash driving to one of his many charity events in 1981.