Making A New Start -- Tracy Chapman's Career Went From A `Fast Car' To A Slow Crawl; Now She's Back With A Whole `New Beginning'

Concert preview Tracy Chapman and the Charlie Hunter Quartet, 8 tonight, Paramount Theater; $26.50, 628-0888.

Tracy Chapman's current Top 10 album "New Beginning" probably could not have been more prophetically or suitably named. Ten years since she first flashed across the broad bright skies of popularity, and then quickly nova-ed, she has returned, Halley-like, almost as unlikely an occurrence as her original sighting.

Chapman, a gifted, conscientious writer of socially concerned folk songs, first attained stardom almost by accident. Born poor in Cleveland in 1964, she earned a scholarship to Wooster, a prestigious Connecticut prep school, and graduated from Tufts University where she majored in anthropology and African studies. Interested in music since childhood, she already played guitar and performed in coffeehouses during her school days, recording demos at the campus radio station. A fellow student, Brian Koppelman, brought her to the attention of his father, Charles Koppelman of SBK music publishers. She signed with SBK, attained Elliot Roberts (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell) as her manager and signed with Elektra Records in 1987.

`Fast car' a fast hit

Her 1988 self-titled debut album produced the hit single "Fast Car," a song about the desperate, unrequited desire for escape from the soul-killing cycle of poverty. The album went to No. 1, selling more than 10 million units worldwide. She earned three Grammies and that year toured for Amnesty International with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Youssou N' Dour, as the new kid on the block.

It became a classic case of too much, too soon. Describing herself as a "hopeful cynic," Chapman's follow-up release, "Crossroads," was another collection of songs examining racism, poverty and occasional redemption. It only sold half as many as its predecessor - a mere five million copies - and the singer was perceived to have stumbled. 1992's "Matters of Heart" failed to sell at all, despite being produced by pop master Jimmy Iovine (Tom Petty), and Chapman was largely forgotten.

To Elektra's credit, the record company stuck with her, and she eventually moved to San Francisco and put together a band. "New Beginning," released last year, got off to a slow start until the sly blues single "Give Me One Reason," written by Chapman 10 years ago, took off. After nearly 40 weeks, both the album and single remain in the Top 10 and Chapman is once again a top draw.

Exploring the love song

On "New Beginning," Chapman explores new territory, particularly the love song. Older and obviously more at peace with herself, she is still a private person reticent to invasion by the press, and she leaves it to her words and melodies to convey her feelings of growth and hope, disappointment and redemption. She accepts the ending of old ways and the promise of new days but she doesn't want to go it alone anymore. And while still somber, her deep, warm voice resonates with passion and even playfulness.

Most important, Chapman has remained true to her original vision in a business that usually demands artistic capitulation for a precious second chance. Against almost insurmountable odds she's succeeded, not once but twice.