“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.
No number one hit says “massive guilt trip” like Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.” It’s become a shorthand reference to neglectful father-son parenting, featured in popular culture from Simpsons to Shrek the Third, and Stevie Wonder only wishes he prompted as many phone calls just to say “I love you.”
It started off as a poem by Sandy Chapin, Harry’s wife, inspired by the relationship between her first husband and his father. “He came home and I showed him the poem, and he sort of brushed it aside,” she said. But a year later Harry had become a father, and found himself living the life his wife had written about; he wrote music and a chorus, and David Geffen selected it to be a single. “You can’t do that; it’s ridiculous,” Sandy told him. “That song will only appeal to 45-year-old men, and they don’t buy records.” Harry himself wanted to re-record the song, saying “It’s terrible, just terrible. It’s much too fast a tempo.” Both of them were proved very wrong, as the song went to #1 in December 1974.
Any cover of the song has a good head start in reaching the listener’s emotions, simply by dint of its subject matter, and many’s the artist who took that shortcut. Here are a few of them…
The Compton Brothers – Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
Bill and Harry Compton came up with the first known recorded cover of “Cat’s in the Cradle,” releasing their version in 1975 and scraping into the US country charts with it, peaking at #97. The song takes to the C&W genre very naturally, what with its heartstring tugging and storytelling base.
Judy Collins – Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
Judy Collins’ history as a song interpreter is unimpeachable; her water-clear voice introduced Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen to the mainstream, and fifty years later she recorded an album with Stephen Stills, who authored “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” in her honor. In between she recorded this cover of “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which has become a live favorite.
Johnny Cash – Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
Before Johnny Cash’s resurrection in the mid-90s, he was half-revered, half-forgotten in the country world. Never content to be a statue when he could still move, Cash covered “Cat’s in the Cradle” on his 1989 album Boom Chicka Boom, named after the Tennessee Three sound he applies to the song. It’s a safe bet Cash’s own son John Carter Cash didn’t think these lyrics hit too close to home.
Ricky Skaggs – Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
Ricky Skaggs’s traditionalist heyday had passed by 1995, when he released Solid Ground. The album featured covers of songs by Webb Pierce and Bill Monroe, but in an era of “More Garth! More Reba! Wynonna!”, these were blowing around the dust of ghosts. At least “Cat’s in the Cradle” was a more recent presence in the lives of listeners; they related just enough to get the song into the top fifty.
Ugly Kid Joe – Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
The L.A. Times called Ugly Kid Joe’s cover of “Cat’s in the Cradle” “neither snotty nor particularly sincere.” That didn’t stop the overhauled rocker from going top 10, giving a dose of guilt to a whole new generation.
Jailbirds – Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
The Jailbirds were a German rockabilly band who nailed the country-rock-slap-bass sound, covering classics by artists ranging from Eddie Cochrane to George Michael. They jack up “Cat’s in the Cradle” to a place where any guilt steps aside so you can get out on the floor and dance.
Kik Tracee – Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
Kik Tracee was a glam-metal band from Los Angeles that proved to be a victim of timing; their first album came out the same year as Nevermind, meaning instant irrelevance. That’s not to say they deserved to be kicked to the curb – they have a cult following to this day, and their “Cat’s in the Cradle” cover is no paint-by-numbers genre crossover. (If you like this, check out their Axl-esque cover of “Mrs. Robinson.”)
Fisher and Friends – Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
The Fisher & Friends cover, suitable for a coffeehouse near you, puts a piano behind it and slows it down considerably. When Harry said that the song went at much too fast a tempo, maybe this is more what he had in mind. Could be he wasn’t very wrong after all.
Tom Chapin – Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
Jen Chapin – Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
We’ll wind this up by keeping it in the family. Tom Chapin is Harry Chapin’s younger brother, who’s carved out a niche for himself in children’s music. Jen Chapin is Harry’s daughter, a teacher by day and a singer after the last bell rings – “too folk for jazz, too jazz for folk,” she calls herself. He smilingly introduces the song as having “made more fathers ill at ease than any song in history” and makes it sound just right for one sole acoustic. Her version appeared on 2010’s A Song For My Father, a collection of covers by the grown children of famous singers, and her hushed reading is equally haunting.