Tracy Chapman

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):

Spotify link

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.”

Spotify link

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.

In 1996, she released a song called “Give Me One Reason.” which is a straight-up twelve-bar blues. (She later recorded it with some dude named Eric Clapton. Here’s a live duet.)

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:

Spotify link

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:

Spotify link

Greatest hits below


15 thoughts on “Tracy Chapman

  1. I dig Tracy Chapman and that album in particular. You pointed it out nicely – there is just something in her voice that draws you in. “Fast Car” and “Talking About a Revolution” are superb tunes. I also like that blues song you noted.

    I think Chapman’s popularity was tied to the “acoustic wave” at the time. Suzanne Vega was another artist who comes to my mind in this context.


    1. Yes, Vega is a good comparison. There was a heyday of good, popular female singers (think Lillith Fair) who were not pop stars per se. Also, I think I mentioned in a long ago post that a high school friend of mine, Michael Visceglia, was Vega’s bassist for years. I haven’t seen him in a while but when I last did he told me of the trials and tribulations of world travel and his lack of love for the music industry. Last I heard he was holding down the bass chair in the Broadway production of “Kinky Boots.” A steady job, probably good pay, no travel.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I lived in Boston from 77- 97 and yes the streets were full of musicians , good and bad. Passim’s was a haunt of mine and several other clubs in the Central Square area. I was a big fan of Little Joe Cook and the Thrillers who had a regular gig in Central Square.
    However, I was not a big fan of Tracy even though she was a favorite of the Cambridge/Boston crowd. Her story was more interesting than her music. To me she was another street performer that hung in Harvard Square with a limited appeal.


    1. Hey, if you’re wondering, your comment wound up in spam for reasons known only to WordPress. Just retrieved it. I remember Little Joe Cook. Played there forever. Sorry to hear you don’t dig Tracy. Me, I’d go see her in a heartbeat.


  3. Remember these tunes. She also got my respect for the ‘Amnesty’ tour. Being on that lineup said a lot about her. Like your choice on he non video cut, “conjure up your own movie”. Good one Doc. Never gave her the time she deserved. I guess I can start today.


    1. You’ll have some time to catch up on this and all the other stuff I’ve been bludgeoning you with. I hit my self-imposed monthly posting quota yesterday. Well, I may do one more but maybe one week out.

      My wife and I think Tracy is great with a capital ‘G.’ I never saw her and if she comes around, we’d go in a heartbeat. She has a presence and a sound that’s what we (and by we I also mean CB) – real, no bullshit, unaffected. That’s my take. Curious what your take is maybe on some of the stuff you haven’t heard.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Her sound and music appeal to me for those reasons you stated and others. Like me, you have gathered so much music over the years that a lot of real good stuff gets missed. Unless I get some kind of nudge or reminder I wouldn’t think of people like Tracy.


  4. Did anyone else think she was a man for ages, based on her deep voice? There was a teacher at my school who played guitar who was also called Tracy, which added to my confusion.


  5. Ha! No, the first thing I remember hearing was ‘Fast Car’ and I knew she wasn’t a guy. I can kinda see what you mean, though.


    1. That is a super cool picture. I’m pretty sure I even recognize that store front. Boy, I wish I’d seen her there. I hung around Harvard Square a lot back then, so don’t know how I missed her. Thanks!


Comments are closed.