Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Music was his life, it was not his livelihood."

      While I don't want to become one of those guys who can't stop working, one challenge I have is the intersection between what I find fun and interesting and what I consider work. Wondering about "O Holy Night" on Wednesday got me thinking it might be a good Christmas Eve post, if only to share that Jennifer Nettles video, which everyone should listen to. But digging into why I like the song brought me to Harry Chapin and Martin Tubridy, the discovery of whom prompted me to polish up this blog post and offer it to the newspaper, where it's running as a front page column Saturday. I'm posting it here in longer version—I have to tuck in under 700 words at the paper—because I wrote it on my day off. While Tubridy was identified on a Harry Chapin fan site in 2004, and in Wikipedia, it hasn't, to my knowledge, been in any newspaper outside of Weston, Connecticut. Making it news, of a sort, in my eyes. Anyway, It seemed worth pulling together in time for Christmas.

     Saturday night is Christmas Eve, and while I don't usually write a column for Saturdays, this fell in my lap late in the week. It isn't quite a Christmas miracle, more of a Christmas wonder, as you'll see if you can bear with me to the end.
     On Wednesday, an acquaintance asked if I were doing anything for Christmas. Yes, I replied, as always, on Christmas Eve, I'll play R&B singer Tevin Campbell's version of "O Holy Night."
     "It isn't celebrating Christmas, like having a tree," I explained. "It's just a pretty song."
     If you like that, my acquaintance said, you should hear Jennifer Nettles sing it. He sent me a link.
     Wow. Tevin Campbell has been topped.
     As I listened, I wondered: there are lots of carols, many quite beautiful. Why "O Holy Night"? Kinda religious for me, with all that falling on one's knees and nights divine. A French carol, incidentally, composed in 1847, the familiar English lyrics written in 1855 by a Unitarian minister, John Sullivan Dwight.
    I pulled at the thread, and immediately realized: Harry Chapin.
Harry Chapin
     When I was a teenager, I was a big fan of his songs about sad, thwarted people. Many dismissed them as sentimental, but to me they were moving. He had a couple hits—"Cats in the Cradle," "Taxi." I liked him enough to go see him twice in 1978, at Blossom Music Center outside Cleveland, and at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston. At both concerts he did something I had never seen a performer do, before or since. After the Blossom show, he stood amongst the fans, signing his "Every Year is World Hunger Year" t-shirt. I bought one and he signed it. 
     And at the Evanston show, he was running late coming straight from the airport. A student with a guitar was pressed into service, as an impromptu warm-up to distract the crowd until he arrived, and after he did, he not only thanked the kid, but had him sing a little with him. Later in the show, Chapin stepped around the microphone and sang, acappello and unamplified. He had a powerful voice.
    Of all his catalogue of songs, about small people and their frustrated dreams, the one that really got to me was "Mr. Tanner," the story of a mediocre talent from Ohio that begins:
Mister Tanner was a cleaner from a town in the Midwest.
And of all the cleaning shops around he'd made his the best.
But he also was a baritone who sang while hanging clothes.
He practiced scales while pressing tails and sang at local shows.
    But the joy music brought to him wasn't enough—fame beckoned.  His friends urge him to do something with his talent. Mr. Tanner gives in, goes to New York to try to grab the brass ring. He holds a recital.  In the song, Chapin recites the scathing review: 
     Mr. Martin Tanner, baritone, of Dayton Ohio, made his town hall debut last night. He came well prepared, but unfortunately his presentation was not up to contemporary professional standards. His voice lacks the range of tonal color necessary for it to be consistently interesting....
     Tanner returns to Dayton and never sings again, except late at night, softly to himself, sorting through the clothes.
      At several points in the song, Chapin bassist Big John Wallace sings the refrain of "O Holy Night," a soaring counter-melody.
    "Fallllll on your knees, hearrrrr the angels' voices..."
     So that's where "O Holy Night" came from, pressed into my mind by Mr. Tanner.
     But why is "O Holy Night" in the middle of a pop song about a cleaner from Dayton? That was trickier. Harry Chapin died in a fiery car accident in 1981—in a VW Golf, if I remember correctly, something that kept me from ever wanting to drive in small cars.
      I tried his surviving brother Tom, put in a call to the Harry Chapin Foundation, which carried on his work to fight world hunger. 
     The answer was waiting in an obscure interview in a Chapin fan publication from 2004, where Wallace is asked that exact question. He replied: "It was spliced together because it was operatic, and Harry knew it from Grace Church. It came from a review he read about Martin Tubridy and is the actual review."
     Tubridy was an ad man, not a cleaner. He was from Astoria, Queens, not Dayton, Ohio. But he really was a baritone who sang at local shows, good enough, at least in his own mind, that he rented Carnegie Hall and put on a performance. The New York Times sent a music critic. Its single paragraph backhand March 28, 1971 on page 63:
     "Martin Tubridy, a New York bass‐baritone, made his local debut in Carnegie Recital Hall on Friday night with Mitchell Andrews at the piano. His performance of two Purcell songs and Schumann's 'Liederkreis' cycle was not up to professional standards, lacking tonal steadiness and adequate phrasing...."
     That's what inspired Chapin to write the song, which appears on his 1974 album, "Short Stories." After Wallace outed him, people began calling Tubridy, asking: was he Mr. Tanner? Was he from Dayton? 
     So Tubridy was a little frosty when I phoned. But once he realized I wasn't one of those people, he warmed.
     No, he hadn't been a Chapin fan, he said, or had any idea he was the inspiration of the song until a decade ago. 
     "I fell in love with his music once I found out about him," he said.
     Unlike Mr. Tanner, Tubridy did not quit. He kept singing, despite the negative reviews—there were more to come—and a good thing, too. He met his wife, Marlane, while both were performing in an off-Broadway production of Guys & Dolls. For a long time, he didn't want to be associated with Mr. Tanner.
     "I knew about this, but just wanted to push it out of the back of my life," Tubridy said. "Only when Howie Fields called did I realize what it means to people."
     Fields is the drummer of the Chapin family band, which kept performing after Harry Chapin's death, headed by brothers Tom and Steve. Fields called over the summer, wanting to know if Tubridy, now in his 70s, would perform the 'O Holy Night' part in "Mr. Tanner" at a concert last month raising money for the Harry Chapin Foundation.
     "The man just gave and gave and gave," said Tubridy. "I decided to do the performance with the band."
Martin Tubridy (left) and Howie Fields before the Nov. 12 concert
 (Photograph by Peter A. Blacksberg © 2016)
     You can see the Nov. 12 performance on YouTube.
     "It was surreal," Tubridy said. "It doesn't seem like this could actually happen. A standing ovation. Incredible, really."
     There really is only one thing left to say:
      Mr. Martin Tubridy, baritone, of Weston, Connecticut, sang the 'O Holy Night' counter melody in 'Mr. Tanner' with a fullness, strength and conviction which, while at one point hard to hear over the audience cheering, was consistently interesting.
     Particularly, at the very end, when the lyrics are, "He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole," but you hear Tubridy shift to, "it just made me whole."
     Music will do that. Critics pan and the years pass. But if you stick with your dreams long enough, keep singing, and are very lucky, maybe, just maybe, you'll get to do your stuff for people who cheer and critics who rave. Or even if you never do—the usual result—just the trying will make you whole. Merry Christmas.


  1. Lovely story, perfect for Xmas Eve.


    1. Lovely indeed. I didn't quite get it reading the abridged text in the paper, but this fleshed out version makes all the difference. An instance of brevity not being the soul of wit.

      I don't really like "Oh Holy Night," at least as it is usually performed -- by pop singers with too emotive styling or opera singers backed by such overblown forces as the MTC. I've heard it in the original French, sung simply, and liked that.

      Tom Evans

  2. A heartwarming story though I never liked Chapin's music. Yes, it was a surprise to see you in the paper on Saturday but yesterday it said you took the day off.

  3. Thanks for sharing. Chapin was a unique talent whose gifts about life and living continue on.

  4. This is a wonderful story. I love that he was brave enough to rent Carnegie in the first place. Thanks for the links, the Nov. performance needs more views, and I hadn't heard the Nettles version of O Holy Night. Beautiful rendition.

  5. Very enjoyable column today and interesting story. My wife and I were fans of Harry Chapin and saw him at a concert in Downers Grove shortly before his death. I agree with TE's comments regarding O Holy Night. The best version I've heard was at midnight mass, a long time ago.

  6. Great story. I saw Chapin perform in Milwaukee, but don't remember the year. I had never heard of Jennifer Nettles before. Not many views for her version of Holy Night. Great voice. I looked up some videos. Knocked out Bohemian Rhapsody. She did Glory Days at the Kennedy Honors series in 2009 which honored Springsteen, Mel Brooks and 3 others. Millions of views for that one as well.

  7. Passing along from my wife:

    "I have always loved Chapin's "Greatest Stories Live." "Mr. Tanner" struck a chord with me, because the voice of Mr. Tanner sounded just like the voice of a man who sang "Oh Holy Night" at our church nearly every Christmas Eve. Thanks for bringing back a myriad of fond memories, and for sharing the true story behind the song."

  8. Very nice! I just looked up "O Holy Night" this morning. I didn't know the composer had also written operas!

  9. Such a wonderful story. So glad Mr. Tubridy never gave up singing after the bad review, and that he found peace with being the inspiration for the character, and that Chapin fans treated him so well at the November performance. Thank you, Mr. Steinberg.

  10. I never got to see Harry Chapin perform but I saw his brother Tom a couple of times at the Morton Arboretum back when they had summer concerts. He's very good. He even played a few of Harry's songs.

  11. My spouse did the SunTimes gift this year. It was sent to a certain school in the one they mailed him online. Then I went to get it shipped.
    But I'd prefer to send a check and not waste the $ on shipping.

  12. this is lovely, and introduced me to this lovely and heartbreaking song.

    I have added to my list of sad Christmas songs, which is my favourite type of Christmas song.


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