If you spent any time hanging around Harvard Square in the early 1980’s, you would have seen any number of street musicians (buskers) plying their trade. (Including, occasionally, my friend Bill and me.)
One of those buskers was a college student named Tracy Chapman. (I’d love to say I saw her around town or knew her at some point but alas.) Tracy’s first career choice was to be a veterinarian which is why she went to Tufts University near Boston.
She soon went from playing in the street to local clubs such as the Nameless Coffeehouse and Club Passim. Both are still standing, since 1966 and 1958 respectively. Together they have helped launch careers as diverse as, among others, Joan Baez, Mississippi John Hurt, Jay Leno, Dar Williams, Ric Ocasek and Andy Kaufman.
And while he wasn’t discovered there, Bob Dylan made trips to Club Passim (then Club 47) pre-fame. Bonnie Raitt started in Cambridge too. And while there’s no evidence she played in either of these clubs, she was a significant part of the local blues scene.
Tracy Chapman’s sound is hard to exactly categorize but I think Wikipedia gets pretty close – folk, blues-rock, pop, soul. (Although I think the blues rock component is overall less prominent than the others.)
Her big-stage debut was at Boston’s Strand Theater, opening for Linda Tillery who became a proponent of what was known as “women’s music.” That performance along with local performances, radio exposure, and demos led Chapman to sign a contract in 1987.
Her eponymous debut album, released in 1988 was a pretty big hit. critically and commercially. I can still remember “Fast Car.” was popular on the radio and the still-vital MTV at the time. A great song which provides a lot of imagery.
I’ll stick to the song rather than the video so that you can conjure up your own movie. (“Fast Car” is number 167 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Chapman won a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance):
When my wife and I first heard Chapman’s work, we immediately thought of Joan Armatrading with whom she shares a similar sound and vibe. But as I think about it, among other differences, Armatrading went in jazzier directions.
Chapman is known for her social activism and in fact appeared at an Amnesty International tour in 1988. It was either there or at Nelson Mandela’s birthday party that I saw her performing on TV for the first time. I remember being enchanted by her voice and how she mesmerized a large audience. She has a purity of voice and style that I find totally captivating. Her voice really draws you in.
This song is from the Amnesty concert and is called “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.”
Chapman’s career continued but over time she became less of a sensation. She continued to release albums, playing to a smaller, yet no less fervent audience.
She won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Song for the track. A popular tune, it’s been covered by a number of people, mostly blues musicians but even Kelly Clarkson has done a version. This song, to date, has been Tracy’s biggest hit:
Chapman long ago decamped for San Francisco. I haven’t heard much about her in a while. If you go to her website, she talks about her “current” tour and album in 2008. She shows up sporadically at events and in 2015 released a Greatest Hits album. There is no real indication that she will either record or tour again. She’s long maintained that she’s not particularly comfortable in the public eye.
I’ve signed up for her email list anyway. You never know.
I’ll leave you with one last tune, the beautiful “Baby Can I Hold You.” Hadn’t heard this one in years. Great tune:
Greatest hits below