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How standing in for Stevie Wonder helped Tracy Chapman cut to the soul with Fast Car

Tracy Chapman's self-titled album propelled her to stardom, with the song Fast Car regarded as a classic
Tracy Chapman's self-titled album propelled her to stardom, with the song Fast Car regarded as a classic Tracy Chapman's self-titled album propelled her to stardom, with the song Fast Car regarded as a classic

Radio Review

Soul Music: Fast Car

BBC Radio 4

It’s the summer of 1988 and that guitar opening is a beautiful, haunting earworm.

It’s long ago but always brings me back to that summer.

You know that song; you know it long before Tracy Chapman starts singing.

It’s Fast Car – a song about a woman who needs a fast car to get away from poverty; drive into the city; make a life somewhere.

She sang it to an audience of 600 million across the globe at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute.

Fitzroy Samuels, straight out of Jamaica, has a thing for that song.

“It’s soul stirring; nothing like in a fairytale world – she’s actually singing about life – I have seen what this woman was singing about.”

It whisks him back to his early years after his mother left.

His dad was a ganja farmer; marijuana was his thing, he said.

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Fitzroy remembered as a small child trying to find a place to sleep and settling down on the stacks of marijuana – that was his bed.

He had some schooling and then he was at home.

Until the day when a car pulled up and it was his mother and he was told he could go with her.

Chapman’s words “etched themselves on the tables of my heart”, he said.

Priscilla Manson was 16 when the song came out: “I felt like I was not alone.”

They had plenty but then her parents got divorced when she was 14.

They went from being “spoiled” to her mother working in a factory and having little.

On a stormy night, lightning struck the TV and after that there was no TV.

She went to bed hungry and learned to like mustard and pickle sandwiches.

“Starting from zero, got nothing to lose, maybe we’ll make something...” those lyrics said everything back to her.

She was a check-out girl in a grocery store and then she did get her fast car.

Music journalist Nigel Williamson said Tracy Chapman was the shyest star he ever met, she was delightful.

She was booked to play Nelson Mandela at Wembley and Stevie Wonder was a headliner.

But he had a synthesizer problem and she got pushed out to fill in. She sang Fast Car; it was an overnight sensation.

Soul Music; it’s the personal stories that draw you in – what a song means to so many, how you carry it with you in your heart.