Born in Cleveland, OH, in 1964. Education: Attended Wooster School in Connecticut and Tufts University in Boston. Addresses: Record company--Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10019, and 345 North Maple Drive #123, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210.
Tracy Chapman's angry and touching debut album quickly climbed to No. 1 on the pop music charts in 1988, catapulting the 24-year-old folkie to international fame and celebrity--which she found disconcerting and uncomfortable. Chapman's powerful narratives, sparsely arranged music, and smoky contralto were a revelation-- both a throwback to the protest music of the civil rights era and unlike anything else on the radio at the time. "She may be shy and private and uneasy with some of the trappings of fame," Stephen Pond wrote in Rolling Stone, "but this young black woman from working-class Cleveland is THE new artist of the year, maybe the new artist of several years."Playboy described Chapman's voice as "laced with equal parts bitterness and dignity."Time said she was a "a cultural icon. Her short, spiky dreadlocks signaled a move away from pop glitter. Her music, pared down, almost willfully naive, was an antidote to the synthesized sound of the 1980s."
In songs like the hit "Fast Car," Chapman sang about poverty's human toll, racial violence, domestic abuse, police indifference, and obsessive love. "Chapman hits emotional chords the way the best folk singers always have," Pond wrote, "but whereas female folkies have traditionally been painted as vulnerable, fragile creatures singing about their love and fears, Chapman trashes that stereotype. While there's a vulnerability in her best songs, there's no fragility, just forthright dignity."
The self-titled debut album sold millions of copies, spawned a ubiquitous video for "Fast Car," and won three Grammy Awards, including best new artist. Chapman gained international fame in June of 1988, when she played for a crowd at England's Wembley Stadium--and a television audience of millions--at Nelson Mandela's Birthday Tribute. Subsequently, she opened concerts for Neil Young and Bob Dylan. In the fall of 1988, she shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Peter Gabriel during Amnesty International's 15-nation Human Rights Now! tour.
Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio; her parents divorced when she was four years old. She and her older sister, Aneta, lived with their mother, who refused alimony and relied on low-paying jobs and welfare to raise her daughters. "There wasn't much to work with," Chapman told Pond. "We always had food to eat and a place to stay, but it was fairly bare-bones kind of things.'' It also was a home filled with music. Chapman played ukelele, organ and clarinet as a kid. At age eight, she received a guitar and began writing songs. On the radio, she heard Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin. "My parents listened to R&B, soul and gospel," Chapman once said. "I didn't hear contemporary folk singers until I was in high school. As far as singing's concerned, my earliest influence was my mother. She's not professionally trained, but there was always music around the house."
Chapman earned a scholarship to Wooster School, an Episcopalian prep school in Danbury, Connecticut. There, she played basketball, softball and soccer, performed her songs in the campus "coffeehouse," and heard the folk rock of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young for the first time. In the fall of 1982, she enrolled at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, near Boston. Chapman studied anthropology, continued writing songs, and played her music on the street in Harvard Square and in local folk clubs. Before graduation, she caught the attention of Elektra Records, which hired music industry veteran David Kershenbaum to produce her first record. "People really wanted what she had, and they weren't getting it," said Kershenbaum, who previously had worked with Joe Jackson, Joan Baez, and Cat Stevens, among other artists. "She got there at the right moment with stuff that was good."
Unfortunately, the furor surrounding that first record faded. Chapman's next two releases--Crossroads in 1989 and Matters of the Heart in 1992--shared themes and tone with the first album, but lacked its compelling characters and narratives. Sales slipped and critics chided Chapman's lyrical lapse and legendary reticence-- with one reviewer even taking exception to the fact that she "posed unsmiling with eyes facing away from the camera" on her album covers. "Chapman's ... voice, with its small but expressive dips and curves, enriches any material it touches, but her material has become a problem," Gene Santoro wrote in The Nation. "[Her songs] are reduced to ... political soundbites or cliches about love and need." Howard Cohen, writing for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, suggested some of the trouble resulted from her subject matter. "Pop music by its nature is disposable and fans can be fickle, but Chapman's fall seemed particularly steep," Cohen wrote. "Even a comparable failure such as Matters of the Heart still was a pop record with something on its mind. The expiration date for political pop is never far off, however; the themes can prove stifling and dated."
In 1995, eight years after her spectacular debut, Chapman was back on top on the strength of her fourth record, the aptly titled New Beginning, and its infectious single, "Give Me One Reason". Ironically, Chapman had written the song a decade earlier, while still a senior at Tufts. In any event, her concerts were sold out, the album sold 100,000 albums a week, and she even smiled in the photos on the CD jacket. Time attributed Chapman's resurgence to, well, being nice. "She's always preferred to keep her distance from real-life record-buying people," the magazine reported. "In concerts, even the most ardent acclaim left her stonefaced and unmoved. Much of her time was spent holed up in her San Francisco mansion. Fans eventually repaid the favor: Chapman's last two albums sank with nary a trace. Well, the reality check has finally arrived: Chapman now reads fan mail aloud in concerts."
by Dave Wilkins
Tracy Chapman's Career
Released self-titled debut album, 1988; performed at Nelson Mandela's Birthday Tribute at England's Wembley Stadium, participated in Amnesty International's 15-Nation Human Rights Now! tour, 1988; released New Beginning, 1995.
Tracy Chapman's Awards
Self-titled debut album won three Grammys in 1989.
- Selective Works
- Tracy Chapman, Elektra Records, 1988.
- Crossroads, Elektra, 1989.
- Matters of the Heart, Elektra, 1992.
- New Beginning, Elektra, 1995.
September 24, 2004: Chapman embarked on a five-stop tour, entitled "Western Swing: An Evening with Tracy Chapman," including performances in Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; Santa Fe and Albuquerque in New Mexico; and Phoenix, Arizona. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/digest.htm, September 9, 2004.
September 13, 2005: Chapman's album, Where You Live, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_7/index.jsp, September 14, 2005.
- Entertainment Weekly, May 1, 1992, p. 52; December 1, 1995. p. 74; April 26, 1996, p. 58.
- Knight-Ridder News Service, August, 23, 1996.
- MOJO, January 1996.
- The Nation, July 6, 1992, p. 30.
- Newsweek, July 1, 1996, p. 62.
- People, October 16, 1989, p. 19; April 20, 1992, p. 27.
- Playboy, February 1990, p. 16.
- Rolling Stone, September 22, 1988.
- Time, March 12, 1990, p. 70; May 13, 1996, p. 101.