We have already celebrated Eric Clapton’s birthday, but there are several other musicians also becoming one year older today. Norah Jones is one of them (she’s now 31 years old) and Tracy Chapman is another (she’s now 46). Chapman is an interesting case, as even in her prime she remained a perpetually underrated but supremely talented songwriter and performer.
The Cleveland native first made waves playing coffeehouses in Cambridge, Massachusetts while she attended Tufts University. She was signed to a record deal by one of her classmates and put out her self-titled debut in 1988. It contained the song “Fast Car,” which became a gigantic hit (peaking at number six on the Billboard Hot 100). The album also scored three Grammy Awards and earned her a slot performing at the tribute concert held in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday (a major event that summer).
Chapman’s career hit a lull before she broke out again with the appropriately-titled album New Beginning in 1995, which contained the hit single “Give Me One Reason” (a track that landed her in the MTV Buzz Bin). She has continued to produce albums (she last put one out in 2008) and has been on the forefront of many of the female-centric music movements of the past 20 years. Her influence is felt deeply in the work of Colbie Caillat and especially in the performances of “American Idol” contestant Crystal Bowersox, whose easy, authoritative voice and command of a groove make her a clear heir apparent. (We often argue what Bowersox’s album will sound like, and the answer is probably, “A lot like Tracy Chapman’s Telling Stories.”)
Her music has continued to evolve to embrace more rock and international elements, but her bread remains buttered on the stark folk sounds of “Fast Car,” which is still just as haunting and beautiful as it was in 1988.