Tracy Chapman got her start in Marblehead

Singer Tracy Chapman arrives at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors Performance and Gala Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 at the State Department in Washington. Chapman is among the nominees for the 2024 Songwriters Hall of Fame. Photo by Associated Press

In 1988, three-time Grammy Award-winner Tracy Chapman burst onto the scene with her hit single, “Fast Car.” But did you know that two years prior, her journey began right here in town at the Me&Thee Coffee House? With Chapman’s duet performance of the hit single with country superstar Luke Combs at the Grammy Awards this past Sunday, Me&Thee founder Anthony Silva recalled her performance in Marblehead more than 30 years ago.

In 1986, Chapman was attending Tufts University in Medford. At the time, she was busking in the area when Silva came across her performing on the streets in nearby Cambridge. Silva was working in Harvard Square and had heard her singing across the street. He then approached Chapman and offered her a gig at Me&Thee, which she accepted.

Chapman ended up performing at the shop not once, but twice in the same year. Her first appearance was on Jan. 31 for a set titled “Four New Friends: Eric Kilburn, Kenje Ogata, Dean Stevens, Tracy Chapman.” 

That night, Chapman was the last of the four to perform. At the end of her set, she received a standing ovation from the audience. Silva, who was doing introductions for the artists on stage, said that he remembered her being overwhelmed with joy from the reaction of the crowd. 

“At the end of her set, I think it was probably a 20-minute set, she had an instantaneous standing ovation,” Silva said. “My vivid memory is she teared up.”

Silva said that he believes that her performance at Me&Thee was her first on-stage performance with a paying crowd. She returned for another set 10 months later on Nov 7. 

A 1986 listing for the November concert said “Tracy combines the textures and rhythms of Joan Armatrading with the intensity and conviction of Sweet Honey in the Rock. An anthropology major at Tufts, Tracy has quickly built a loyal following in the area.” 

The following year, Chapman signed with Elektra Records, and in 1988, released her self-titled album with “Fast Car” as a single. At the 1989 Grammys, she took home awards for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Best New Artist awards.

Her career came full circle on Sunday as her performance with Combs, who released a “Fast Car” cover in 2023 that revitalized the song, went viral as Chapman’s original version soared to number one on the charts within an hour of its conclusion. 

Silva said seeing her performance of the song three decades after she appeared at his venue was “emotional.”

“When you see somebody that young perfecting their craft, and going that far in their career, that’s what the music business is about,” Silva said. “When art gets to that level, her song, even now, can be a hit. It’s amazing how a well crafted song can live for so long and can have that deep, emotional message.”