‘Fast Car': The Long and Distinctive Journey of Tracy Chapman’s Hit
From its humble beginnings to its multigenerational success, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” has endured a long and winding journey.
Chapman was an anthropology student at Massachusetts' Tufts University when she recorded her first demo. Fellow student Brian Koppelman heard Chapman’s work and was impressed by her talent. He took the demo to his father, music executive Charles Koppelman, who signed Chapman to a record deal.
The singer’s self-titled debut album arrived in 1988, with “Fast Car” released as the first single. "It very generally represents the world that I saw when I was growing up, and Cleveland, Ohio, coming from a working-class background, being raised by a single mom and being in a community of people who were struggling," she later explained to BBC Radio of the song’s inspiration. "Everyone was working hard and hoping that things would get better."
Even though Chapman received critical acclaim, commercial response to both the single and album was modest – not entirely unexpected given that the singer-songwriter was a largely unknown artist at the time. Her popularity steadily grew through word of mouth, but things took off two months later.
Watch Tracy Chapman's 'Fast Car' Video
Playing 'Fast Car' at Nelson Mandela's Birthday Changed Everything
On June 11, 1988, Chapman performed at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute in London. The event featured a star-studded lineup that included Sting, George Michael, Eurythmics, Bee Gees, Jackson Browne, Dire Straits and more.
Given that the event was broadcast to 67 countries and an audience of 600 million, it was already going to be one of the biggest performances in Chapman’s career. The singer’s three-song set was early in the day and, interestingly enough, “Fast Car” was not one of the songs that she initially performed.
Later, fate stepped in. Stevie Wonder, who was slated to be a surprise guest, was unable to take the stage after the floppy disk carrying all of the synthesized music for his act went missing. Scrambling to fill the void, producers asked Chapman to return to the stage and perform a second time. With just her voice and an acoustic guitar, she performed two songs, most notably a heart-tugging rendition of “Fast Car.”
In a sea of stars, Chapman’s performance became one of the most talked about parts of the Mandela concert. “Fast Car” raced up the charts, peaking at No. 5 in the U.K. and No. 6 in the U.S. Its popularity also propelled Tracy Chapman to multiplatinum sales.
Watch Tracy Chapman Perform 'Fast Car' at Nelson Mandela's Birthday
In February 1989, Chapman took home Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Fast Car,” Best Contemporary Folk Album for Tracy Chapman and Best New Artist. She closed the awards show with a performance of the much-beloved tune.
In the decades since “Fast Car” became a success, the song has been covered by many artists. Although the song is not the biggest hit in Chapman’s repertoire – “Give Me One Reason” from 1995’s New Beginning peaked three spots higher on the Billboard chart – “Fast Car” remains her most identifiable song.
Luke Combs Makes 'Fast Car' a Hit Again
In 2023, Country singer Luke Combs pushed “Fast Car” back into the spotlight, delivering his take on the classic song. "It's one of the first songs I ever remember hearing riding around in the truck with my dad,” Combs noted of the song during an interview with Smooth Country. "I was probably, gosh, I don't know, 5 years old, something like that. And he had that album on cassette tape and that song has just always been a big part of my life ever since I can remember.”
Combs’ version sparked national interest, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Country chart. The latter achievement made Chapman the first Black woman to score a country No. 1 with a solo composition. “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there,” Chapman admitted to Billboard. “I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.’”
"Everyone — I mean everyone — across all these stadiums relates to this song and sings along. That's the gift of a supernatural songwriter," Combs told Billboard. "The success of my cover is unreal and I think it's so cool that Tracy is getting recognized and has reached new milestones. I love that she is out there feeling all the love and that she gave me a shout-out! Thank you, Tracy!"
Things came full-circle when Chapman and Combs shared the stage for a powerful rendition of "Fast Car" at the 66th annual Grammy Awards. It marked the first time in 15 years that Chapman had performed the song in public.
Below, we highlight 10 more notable versions of the classic tune.
'Fast Car' Covers
Daughtry and Kelly Clarkson (2010)
During a stop in Nashville on his 2010 tour, singer Daughtry brought Kelly Clarkson onstage to perform a duet of “Fast Car.” “This is probably one of my all-time favorite tunes that I wish I wrote,” Daughtry declared before performing the song with his fellow American Idol alumnus.
Michael Collings (2011)
In 2011, the song returned to pop-culture prominence in the U.K. thanks to the TV show Britain’s Got Talent. Michael Collings performed the song during his week-one audition, earning a standing ovation from the audience and propelling “Fast Car” back into the U.K.’s Top 5.
Sam Smith (2014)
The BBC Radio 1 show Live Lounge has long been known for engaging performances by its guests. In 2014, singer Sam Smith stopped by and opted to deliver a distinctive interpretation of “Fast Car.” The song was rearranged as a jazzy, slow-simmering track, with piano, percussion, strings and horns.
Tobtok feat. River (2015)
Swedish record producer Tobtok recruited British singer River for his 2015 dance version of “Fast Car.” The tropical house rendition maintained the song’s familiar guitar chords but mixed in piano, synth layers, bass and a driving backbeat.
Jonas Blue feat. Dakota (2015)
The same year of Tobtok’s release, another dance version of “Fast Car” received even more international attention. Producer Jonas Blue wasn’t even born when Chapman released her original, but he admitted the song was a favorite of his mother’s when he was a child. “It just kind of stuck with me. It was that song on the long journeys, and I loved it,” the DJ revealed in an interview with iHeart Radio. He’d toyed with the idea of recording a rendition of the song but didn’t find the right combination of styles until he heard singer Dakota performing in a local pub. Their version together became a hit across the world, reaching the Top 10 in 20 different countries and hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart in the U.S.
Justin Bieber (2015)
A year after Sam Smith performed his version of “Fast Car” in the Live Lounge, Justin Bieber delivered his rendition on the BBC Radio program. Unlike Smith, Bieber stuck to the original, performing “Fast Car” accompanied by only an acoustic guitar (and a few vocal effects).
English singer-songwriter Passenger, best known for his hit song “Let Her Go,” recorded an earnest cover of “Fast Car��� in 2017. In the notes accompanying his version, the singer called “Fast Car” “undoubtedly one of my favorite songs of all time. Such a beautiful and heartbreaking story. I remember listening to Tracy Chapman as a teenager and feeling overwhelmingly inspired to pick up a guitar and learn how to tell stories in a similar way.”
Make it a trifecta of Live Lounge covers: In 2018, Khalid performed “Fast Car” on the BBC Radio 1 show. The R&B singer’s rendition was striking in its similarity to the original, as Khalid managed to match many of Chapman's distinctive vocal inflections. "For me, Tracy Chapman was just someone who inspires me in terms of songwriting," Khalid revealed to Forbes. "When I think about songwriting just how she can make you feel like you're in that moment."
Rock duo Black Pumas performed their version of “Fast Car” on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in 2020. Singer Eric Burton, who cut his teeth busking for tourists in Santa Monica recalled that the song always connected with people. "To me, ‘Fast Car’ is a song of hope, dreams and a relentless heart to go somewhere and be someone," he said. "I learned the song when I first began to busk and of the covers that I knew, it garnered the most attention from the random passerby. As a musician and artist, I’m attracted to songs that make us reflect on our daily struggles for making life worth living for."
Electronic indie rockers !!! (pronounced Chk Chk Chk) created arguably the most distinctive reinterpretation of “Fast Car.” “The goal was to make ‘Fast Car’ sound even faster,” frontman Nic Offer told Under the Radar. “Something you would play in a fast fucking car. The verses are the bitter small-town feel of it all and the chorus is the fast car on the open highway — into a night of possibilities.”
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Gallery Credit: UCR Staff