A mere two months after the release of her debut album, Tracy Chapman snapped a stadium full of people to attention at a Nelson Mandela tribute concert in England. But not long before Chapman sold the first of her fourteen million or so records, Phoenician Rick Cyge says, the folkie "apparently wasn't at ease performing in front of a large group."
As the owner of a Boston-area music store in the mid-Eighties, Cyge used to chat with and sell guitar strings to Chapman, then a student at nearby Tufts University. (Cyge moved to Phoenix a year ago and now works as the Scottsdale Center for the Arts' retail manager.) Chapman was launched to superstardom after the son of a record-biz bigwig heard her and sent a tape to his pop, and, according to Cyge, her success was as overnight as it gets. "She sort of disappeared," remembers Cyge of the short time between Chapman's busking days in Harvard Square and her Elektra Records signing. When Cyge heard through the grapevine that Chapman had scored a deal with Elektra, he says he was shocked. After all, Chapman sounded like she had a long way to go before making it to a major label.
"From watching her perform, she was a fairly unseasoned performer," Cyge recalls. "Her guitar playing was a little unpolished. The riffs and chords were pretty straightforward, a little choppy, but I guess that became part of her style, too."
What Chapman lacked as guitarist, she made up for as a vocalist, Cyge opines. "That stood out from the start. She had a very strong voice, a lot of emotional impact. Her singing was what people really responded to."
Lyrically, Chapman stood apart from the rest of the Boston folkies by writing about topics gleaned from growing up in working-class Cleveland. Cyge says "Talkin' Bout a Revolution," Chapman's anthem of the dispossessed, was a local coffee house favorite.
That song was also the first one Cyge heard on the radio after Chapman had signed with Elektra. After recovering from his initial surprise at hearing his former customer perform over the airwaves, Cyge marveled at the stellar production and Chapman's guitar playing. "I wasn't sure how much of it was her," Cyge admits. "She must have gotten instruction or worked really hard, because she sounded a lot better than I remember her playing."
Some of Chapman's coffee house contemporaries were less than thrilled at hearing about her record deal, says Cyge. They thought she hadn't paid her dues. "I think it's only natural for people who've been been playing on that scene and developing a reputation that they're going to feel some envy and jealousy." Cyge hasn't seen Chapman since she turned into the voice of the CD generation, but he doesn't believe she's turned into the untouchable icon, as some portray her. "It's not unusual in pop culture that once somebody is picked to be a star that they are blown way the heck out of proportion. She's kind of this soft-spoken, somewhat naive, gentle person. This image that started being broadcast everywhere made her into a giant. That's not the way I remember her."
Some of Chapman's coffee house contemporaries thought she hadn't paid her dues.
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