Michael Chapman Is the Greatest Musician You've Never Heard of

By Tony Rettman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 21, 2012

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For most of the public, Michael Chapman is nothing more than the greatest musicians they’ve never heard. But to the crate digging, know-it-alls, he is a behemoth. Bring up his name among the dust caked racks of any second hand record store in this city and you’re sure to get a clerk’s mouth running and brain buzzing.

But why?

Well, Chapman is simply one of those entities; strong enough to be the king of the musical world, yet obscure enough to be championed by those who are sonically in-the-know. Along with the likes of Bert Jansch, Wizz Jones, Al Stewart and John Martyn, he was one of the first guitarists from his country of England to take folk from it’s tweed-lined confines and cross it over into the psychedelic counterculture going on in London at the time. The sides he cut in the early seventies for the Harvest label—Home of Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and E.L.O among others—are the perfect distillation of the elation and desperation found in the act of solitude. With his whiskey stained voice and mind boggingly proficient playing, Michael is your man; whether it’s an afternoon backyard beer party of one or a 3 a.m. comedown.

Prior to any cultural revolution or anything of that sort, Chapman was allured to playing the guitar for one reason only. ‘Girls!’ he blurts out after giving off a mischievously hoarse giggle. ‘You can ask any guitar player in the world – whether it’s John Fahey or Eric Clapton – and they’d give you the same answer. Guys with guitars had better looking girls’. Once he got the guitar in his hand though, he found himself worshipping at the alter of the acoustic blues players of the American South. But due to the technical confines of the fifties, Michael’s playing took on a bizarre twist. ‘You didn’t see guitar players on TV‘ he recalls. ‘I heard someone like Big Bill Broonzy and tried to play like him while playing with a flat pick. I didn’t know he used his thumb and his finger. I’d hear a record and not know there were two guitar players on it, so I tried to play like I was both. That’s why I ended up playing as weird as I do, I suppose.’

Michael paid his way through college playing in Jazz bands, but it was a rainy night in the seaside town of Cornwall in 1966 that solidified his career as a folk guitarist. ‘I was bumming around in Cornwall and wanted to get out of the rain. I didn’t have enough money to get into this pub, so I told them I’d play guitar for them instead. They ended up giving me a job for the rest of the summer and I’ve been at it ever since.’  Soon enough, Chapman found himself in London playing at the legendary folk haunt Les Cousins, sharing the stage with the cream of the British folk elite. While he was there, he also fell in with the rock scene that was percolating underneath the stir of big timers like the Rolling Stones or The Who.

It wasn’t strange to see Michael share a bill with a psychedelic blues trio like The Edgar Broughton Band or the freeform shambolic folk unit, The Third Ear Band. The two things that united him with these freaks was being represented by the management company Blackhill Enterprises and being signed to EMI’s ‘underground’ subsidiary, Harvest Records. ‘The thing with Harvest was we were pretty much a family. We were all managed by Blackhill Enterprises and we were all these people that were coming up with this left field stuff.’ Chapman stuck with Harvest up until 1971, when he moved onto the Deram label which he stuck with until the late seventies. When asked where his career went in the eighties, Chapman is blunt:  ‘I was drunk’. ‘My wife calls that era: ‘Michael Chapman: The Missing Years’ he jokes. Due to his indulgence and excess, Chapman suffered a heart attack, but cleaned himself and powered through the nineties self releasing his music and doing one-off releases with small labels.

Somewhere in the early 2000’s, John Allen—a deejay at the prestigious free form radio station WFMU in New Jersey—came to see Michael perform at the Half Moon Café in London and asked the man why he never came to New York to play. ‘No one asks me’ he simply replied. ‘Not any more’ said Allen and that was that. Through connections John had made from his years of running the independent record label New World of Sound, he set up a tour for Chapman throughout the east coast in the fall of 2005. From this tour, Michael found out he had a new breed of fans; some not even old enough to be born at the time of the release of his first album. He also came to discover his early albums had been championed for years by tastemakers such as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and underground music historian Byron Coley. But one of his biggest supporters was the late great Philadelphia guitarist, Jack Rose. Jack and Michael struck up such a great friendship when they first met, they toured  the U.S together in 2008, almost exactly a year prior to Rose‘s passing. ‘I loved Jack as a guy and he was a great player. We had so many plans we were going to do …’ Chapman trails off and never finishes the sentence.

Since touring the states with Rose, Chapman’s early records have been re-issued very lovingly by the California based label,  A Light In The Attic. Last month, another west coast based label - Tompkins Square - released Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman, a tribute CD that finds Chapman’s song covered by the likes of Lucinda Williams, Thurston Moore and Philly resident, Meg Baird.

More than 40 years since the release of his first album, it looks like Michael is finally getting the respect he deserves. When pressed as to how he’s survived all these year’s being the musician’s musicians and the true music fan’s favorite, he thinks for awhile. ‘I’m a great believer in letting things happen.‘ he says rather smoothly.  ‘I’m not good at plans. I’ve made plans only a few times in my life and they’ve always gone tits up, so I don’t do it anymore. Since then, things have seemed to work out fine.’

Michael Chapman performs Sun., June 24, 7pm. $22. With Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Trocadero, 1003 Arch St. thetroc.com 

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