In April 1988, 24-year-old Tracy Chapman – a former Boston street busker with a degree in anthropology – released her folky debut album on the Elektra label.
Chapman had been playing guitar, writing songs and performing since she was a child. While attending Tufts University, a classmate recommended her to his father, who co-ran the SBK publishing house, in 1986.
In short order, she had both a publishing deal and a recording contract with Elektra.
She quickly gained the seal of approval from the music press (her voice was often compared to Joan Armatrading) and left on a low-key tour with label mates and darlings of the critics, 10,000 maniacs.
By chance, it was at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert at Wembley in London in June 1988 that she got her big break in front of a huge TV audience.
Although she had a lowly spot on the bill, she was called back onstage after Stevie Wonder developed a technical problem with his synthesizer.
Chapman stepped into the breach with her acoustic guitar and just started to sing. The response was amazing. People all over the world rushed out in their thousands to buy her album.
In July of that year, the self-titled Tracy Chapman album topped the UK album charts for three weeks. By August, it was #1 in the States and her first single, Fast Car, went Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.
To get an idea of how literally shocking it was that an album like Tracy Chapman would top the American charts in 1988, consider that other artists with US #1 records that year were Tiffany, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, and Bon Jovi – about as far away from Chapman and her stirring acoustic folk anthems as it was possible to get, both in terms of their broadly escapist subject matter and the fact that they were white.
The album was short (it ran just over 36 minutes), but packed a powerful punch. Fast Car, the first single (which reached #6) was a poignant description of a couple endeavouring to escape the grind of poverty, Talkin’ Bout A Revolution spoke of an uprising by America’s disenfranchised, Behind The Wall was a stark, a capella song about domestic violence. Even the ostensible love songs were tinged with melancholy – Baby Can I Hold You? addressed a one-sided love affair.
In September, she was invited on Amnesty International’s ‘Human Rights Now’ tour and found herself once again at Wembley Stadium – This time with her name at the top of the bill.
Chapman’s intensely personal music – gentle acoustic melodies with harsh, idealistic lyrics telling tales of domestic violence and social strife – spawned a host of imitators, acoustic guitar-toting singer/songwriters with serious lyrics of a kind not heard in over 20 years. She was adopted by ageing Sixties protest rockers as well as by a new young generation of folk music fans.
She won Grammy, BRIT and American Music Awards for Best Pop Female, Best International Newcomer and Favourite New Artist.