Inside the
Summer Issue:

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For Bruce Springsteen,
"Do Something" Means
Many Things.

The Beat of a
Different Drummer:
An Interview
with Jim Chapin

Students Use
Pocket Change
to Make a
Big Difference

Cancer Patient
Cites Harry's
Message as Key
to Survival

The Power
of Design(ers)

Harry Chapin
Freedom of Choice

Goat Tales

The Cat's
in the Cradle...

Letter to
the Editor


Long Island
Songwriters Plan
"Sequel" Benefit
Tribute Concert

Howard Fields and
Al Stewart in
Concert to
Benefit KIDS Can
Make a Difference

Readers Share Thoughts
in Second Annual
Circle! Survey

Circle Calendar

The Beat of a Different Drummer:
An Interview with Jim Chapin

by Bill Hornung

Jim Chapin
Photo courtesy of


Jim Chapin, the musical patriarch of the Chapin family, proves the old saying that people are products of their childhoods.

Jim's storytelling, independence and nonstop energy were in the fiber of Harry. His laser focus to become a superb instrumentalist was inherited by Tom. Jim's perfectionist attitude and love for big band standards are ingrained in Steve. And his knowledge of world politics and history was embodied in his son and namesake James.

In the community of drummers, the name Jim Chapin holds the highest reverence. Not only was he called on by Tom Dorsey, Woody Herman and other legendary band leaders, Jim wrote Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer that remains the drummer's instructional Bible since it was first published in 1948. Visit to learn more about Jim's career.

Now 85, Jim still conducts well-attended drum workshops around the country. He credits his techniques for keeping his hands and wrists in healthy shape so he can out-drum others half his age. He says there's much left to do, including production of a new drum instruction book that has been decades in the writing.

Circle! interviewed Jim from Florida where he's been recovering the past year from a serious bone infection that threatened the amputation of a foot. Fortunately, no serious surgery was needed. He's nearing full strength and participated in a recent Chapin Family show.

What have you been up to lately?

I just got back from a family concert in Raleigh, N.C. It was wonderful. The girls have gotten so good. Jen's act is terrific and she delivers everything right. And the girls (Lily, Abigail and Jessica) — all three are very strong individual soloists.... they can stand on their own. With the three of them together, it's just fantastic.

You must be feeling better if you made it to North Carolina?

Well, I had help. The girls led me out to do a number in the beginning. I did another number in the second act in which I played the drums and sang. I played a drum solo half way through and people can't believe that anybody 85 can play at all. And surprisingly enough I played very, very well. I haven't touched the drums for a long time except for my practice pad. I couldn't believe it. Everybody sounded marvelous.

Jim Chapin with two of his sons.
Photo courtesy of the Chapin family.


Tell us how the boys got interested in music.

Their uncle Michael (son of writer and artist Kenneth Burke) had a guitar and really got them interested. The best thing about the early days was when they asked me to play with them during the summer of ’65. We just had a ball. Fred Kewley was manager at the time. Fred did very well in the beginning, but over time he didn't do as much managing as Harry did. But Fred did a good thing by keeping the peace — the boys had artistic differences. Stevie was the perfectionist, Tom was the best instrumentalist of the bunch and Harry wanted to put everything on right now. It would drive Stevie crazy. We got to do two Merv Griffin shows and had a ball.

Were you surprised that Harry, Tom and Steve pursued music careers?

Let me tell you what Tom said one time. He was asked by somebody.... "You have all these brilliant people in your family.... geniuses, painters, writers, professors. How come you and the rest of the boys decided to pursue music?" Tom responded "Well, dad seemed to be having more fun than the rest of them."

Did you give Harry or any of the boys much advice as they were getting in the business?

Harry had a better idea on how to get in the business than I did. I just played.... I wasn't much of a promoter. I think I got Stevie interested in old time music.... he's the best musician of the bunch — the best arranger. The good part about Harry was he was so aggressive and so interested in what he was doing — he was almost manic.

Which of Harry's songs do you like most?

Harry wrote some great songs. A lot of them from the show (The Night That Made America Famous) I really like.... Give Me a Road is one. He wrote some great melodies, too... you think the lyrics would just carry the songs, but some of the melodies are really beautiful. I also like The Rock.

So, what do you think of the new generation of Chapin performers?

I'm thrilled with the whole bunch of them. It's marvelous. Thank God I had so many children. We lost Harry and James — it was a terrible thing. But just think if they were the only ones; there wouldn't be much family left. Now I see Jen has got the same enthusiasm and the same directness — you look at her and you can see Harry in her eyes. But she's the most stable person I know. And the others are beginning to perform so well, too; it's just terrific.

Do you enjoy performing in the family shows?

I'm very proud of all the family. It's funny, I was never much of a entertainer. I'm more of an entertainer now.... they tell me what to do! I sing two songs — We'll All Be A Part Of It Someday and Carney Days — from a show I wrote called Passing Fair. People seem to like it.

What keeps you going after more than 60 years of drumming?

This is something I chose to do when I was 18. I was inspired by Benny Goodman's band and Gene Krupa.... the very beginning of the Swing era. The black bands were there, but the white bands never got popular until much later in 46, 47 and 48. The next 12 years were pretty much heaven except that the war intervened. I was in the Army for two years. But I got to play in a band rather than do any fighting.

Then, what started as my name on a book turned into about 20 years of going out to these big music conventions here and around the world. I hope to be going out again this summer — as well as doing clinics on my own. I went to China three years ago. I've been through the Baltic states, was in Russia about a year ago. In Bejing, we had about 300 people and in Hong Kong we had 190. So, I've just been more active in the educational thing than I've ever been.

I did an awful lot of dumb work, too. There were periods where I played for strippers like Blaze Starr [Starr became doubly famous after her affair with Louisana Governor Huey Long]. She was working at this joint on 52nd Street. There was a little part in her act with a drum solo. After she heard me do the solo and play to what she was doing, she cut the band out of much of the act and just left the drums. I'd play for three and half hours.

Jim Chapin with a student
Photo courtesy of

It seems like your popularity continues to grow at drum clinics... what contributes to your success?

Well, I just show up. They can see as even as an old man I haven't fallen back. Most old men have a big problem with playing, but I seem to have none because of the way I play. I don't overuse the wrists and hands.... it's called the Moeller technique. I popularized it again. Of course, it's misunderstood all over the world — so I have some new books that I hope to publish. But I haven't been in a good position to get them out lately. I have to get somebody with three things — knowledge of music, knowledge of a computer and time on their hands.

I also practiced all of the time because I was really thrilled with the drums. I didn't have any idea whether I'd make any money doing this. I didn't think about that at all... and good thing because I haven't made much money! But I've had so much fun.

Tell us about your experience in Russia.

It was terrific, but the people seemed to be confused. They were a little down... not too happy. Parts of the Soviet system were good — of course, they had an idiot (Stalin) in charge there for a long time. He was almost worst than Hitler. The same thing in China. But right now, people in China seem to be really up.

James Chapin was Jim’s oldest son and the Chair of WHY’s Board of Directors for 22 years.

Reflect on your loss of James and Harry.

They both left so much. James was just beginning to be known nationally because of his work for UPI. Of course, he was ruining UPI... he was a liberal voice — they hired him as the token liberal. But he busted everybody's balls — all the conservative professors were coming around to his way of thinking. He had so much knowledge — he was a genius. Harry had James for a guru — he really helped Harry a lot. He was the original one who said "Harry, are you going to piss away all this money with Ferraris and a house in the Bahamas, or are you going to put your money where your mouth is?" Sandy was a do-gooder, too.... so, everybody became Eleanor Roosevelt (lots of laughter). They never fought as children. They were yin and yang — part of the same circle.

What's your proudest achievement?

I've had a lot to pass on and I invented certain things when it came to drum playing. Piano players invent all of the time. Organ players use both hands and both feet. But in the case of drums, it hadn't been done much — it was pretty much just the hands. So, I wrote a book that most drummers probably know about if they've done any studying.

Do you have any stories that stick in your mind about Harry?

I remember traveling and getting off at a gas station once with Harry and his brothers. This place was something like out of Deliverance. These guys were sitting out front looking at us real suspiciously. Harry jumps out of the car and starts talking.... "Hey, those are my brothers and father in the car and we're going to Florida to play in Jacksonville. I just got this harmonica — I haven't learned to play it very well, but I'll play a little bit for you." After awhile, these guys are smiling and laughing — they'd never heard anything like Harry before. They didn't know what hit them.

Another story I love is from '79 when Harry had an appointment at the White House. Harry is in the car with a couple of prominent senators. They're in the front seat and Harry is in the back seat. They drive up to the entrance, and the guard says to the senators "I didn't have any message about you coming.... I'm sure you are who you say you are, but I just need to call upstairs and find out." Then the guard looks in the backseat and sees Harry and says "Hey, Harry, are these guys with you? Go ahead then."

I recall James telling me about meeting Bill Clinton when he was still governor of Arkansas back in 1990. James said "Dad, I met this guy named Clinton down at the Governor's Conference... if this guy becomes president, he's going to be at least the smartest president since Wilson — probably the smartest president since Jefferson." James was right.

What would be Harry be doing now if he was still alive?

I don't think his enthusiasm for writing and singing was as great anymore. When you try to put the best face on it you say.... he at least lived until he was 38 and he did a whole lot of stuff and marvelous things. But he would be doing something else now. You could say the same for James... even though he was teaching history at Yale when he got his doctorate's degree from Cornell, and taught at Rutgers for all those years — I don't think he really came into his own until he began creating some controversy when working for a company (UPI) that did not think at all the way he did. But James was so powerful... he slowly began to change their way of thinking. Harry was a great politician, but James would have been there right behind him.

Watch for the Next Issue of Circle! on September 7