This isn’t going to be your usual summary.
This transition period in Cars’ history has been documented many times in books, interviews and magazine articles, and I’m not planning to rehash all of the fine details here. I’m going to attempt to fill in some of the holes (though many remain) and answer a few of the questions surrounding the shift from an “almost famous band” to one with skyrocketing success.
In Part 1 of my narration I left off when I got to the autumn of 1976, with the members of Cap’n Swing (Ric Ocasek on rhythm and vocals, Benjamin Orr on vocals, possibly Glenn Evans on drums, Todd Roberto on bass, and possibly Danny Schiftlin on keys) returning home from their big audition in New York. They were ready to revamp Cap’n Swing with a tighter, more defined look and sound, in line with the feedback they had received from their trip . This process would involve several crucial changes, and as the leader of the group, it was up to Ric to make some tough decisions.
Ric and Benjamin shared the lead vocal responsibilities, and I understand that sometimes Benjamin played a variety of percussion-type instruments when he was not singing, like tambourines, cowbells, and other bits. For the most part, though, Benjamin was just there with a microphone in his hand, or he’d “stand there with his hands in his pockets — nothing dynamic.”¹
While many listeners could have been perfectly satisfied with that role for Benjamin, famed Boston deejay Maxanne Sartori didn’t agree. She said, “I told Ben he’s got to have something in his hands. He used to be a lead singer without any instrument. And he’s probably the most photogenic of anyone in the band, but he didn’t look comfortable on the stage at that time. He just looked foolish standing out there with nothing to do with his hands and nothing to do with his feet.” After a conversation with Ric she went on to suggest that Benjamin take over on bass guitar.² Inevitably, that meant that Todd Roberto was out.
Since writing Part 1 of this history I have learned that Todd Roberto has been playing bass for Vista Hill for the last several years. You can learn about that band and take a listen by clicking here.
Glenn Evans, the drummer, left Cap’n Swing of his own choice, as he shared in a public facebook post: “After losing my shirt in this band and waiting about a year for the pending recording contract, I left Cap’n Swing. Everything was too ambiguous for me at the time and I was not making the best decisions. My last gig with the band was three nights on Nantucket, very late on my van payments, all the band’s equipment in my truck as I come off the ferry in Hyannis with Elliot Steinberg (Easton) in the passenger seat and fifteen dollars in my pocket for three nights’ work.”
I am not sure if Glenn was still with the band when they auditioned in New York, but I do know that he played the drums on many of the demos recorded by Cap’n Swing, including ones that received a great deal of airplay on the radio and propelled the band into Boston popularity. I believe Glenn continues to drum, sing and produce today. You can check out his website here.
Glenn was replaced by Kevin Robichaud. And of course we know that sometime during those last months of 1976 Kevin was then replaced with David Robinson. Fortunately for Ric, this wasn’t just a changing of the drummer. David brought not only his amazing talent for percussion, but also his eye for style, his ability to streamline the look of the band, his creativity in album art and set design — and a new name for the band: The Cars.
And usually the next line in retellings of the band’s history says something like, “and Greg Hawkes rejoined the band and The Cars were formed.” They use ‘rejoined’ because Greg used to play with Ric and Benjamin back in oh-about-1974ish when they were all in a band together called Richard and The Rabbits, and Greg had done some earlier demo work for them as well. Now here is where things went off on a new track for me.
While I was researching the info on Cap’n Swing at the end of August, I came across this quote from Greg in Philip Kamin and Peter Goddard’s book, The Cars (p.68): “They [Ric and Ben] had been together for three or four shows as The Cars before I joined. In fact, I heard them as The Cars sometime in January 1977.” Uh… come again? I had never heard this before; that there was a time period when The Cars did *not* include Greg. I was half convinced it had to be a mistake in the book. I started keeping my eyes out for any other source that could dispute or verify this little nugget.
Barely a month later I got another ‘Cars history’ shock. A photo surfaced on ebay (seen here, left) which rocked my world. This picture, which was taken by Duana Lemay, was listed as a vintage original promo group photo of The Cars from 1976 . My jaw dropped. Clearly, that is NOT Greg on the right, and of course it confirmed what I had been chewing on about the band’s timeline of members. So who the heck was this guy??? (Incidentally, the photo would go on to sell for just over $70.)
Well, certainly I wasn’t the only one who was thrown off by it, and while I asked around, trying to puzzle it out, my very intelligent friend, @Night_Spots, did a very intelligent thing and straight-up asked Elliot Easton. Duh! Brilliant! So here’s what he found out.
Oh, Danny Louis! Of course! Mystery solved, right? Hahaha. C’mon. You know it’s not that easy for me. So many questions! Is Danny Louis one and the same with the elusive Danny Schiftlin? Or were there two Danny piano players? Had Ric already decided he wanted Greg, and Danny Louis was filling in until Greg finished with Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture? Or did Ric decide to add Greg in after the band was underway?
Okay, okay. In the overall scheme of things I guess it doesn’t really matter. Danny Louis has been rocking for over a decade with Gov’t Mule and gone on to terrific success of his own as a highly talented multi-instrumentalist. (See what he’s been up to by clicking here.) And of course we know that Greg was a perfect fit for The Cars. Still, I wonder. I like to have all the little slots on my chart filled in (no surprise), and these questions are leaving some uncertainties in my path. Can’t *quite* close the book on this chapter…
Greg or no Greg, The Cars’ official debut performance was on December 31, 1976, at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. What I wouldn’t give to have seen that show!
You know, as I shuffle through all of this research and spend time pondering those winter months of 1976, I can’t help but tingle at the thrill of these guys being on the cusp of their wild success; a rise so quick and so high that it would leave them all feeling a bit stunned (at least for a little while). Such exciting times! Still striving, still tweaking; all five of these talented men doing what they loved. The hours spent in Ric’s basement falling into place with each other, refining, learning; maybe discussing the ‘what ifs’, getting their hopes up one more time but not too high… laughing and working and playing and cementing themselves together into what many of us consider to be one of the greatest bands of all time: The Cars.
¹Goldstein, Toby. Frozen Fire: The Story of The Cars. Chicago:Contemporary Books. 1985. p. 17
²Kamin, Philip. The Cars. New York: McGraw Hill. 1986. p. 16