I imagine Benjamin Orr would be surprised if he knew just how long and how far his legacy has spread. Sixteen years after his death, and more than 30 years since Live Aid (arguably the pinnacle of his days in the spotlight), the memory of his contribution to music history continues to motivate and influence people all over the world. Indeed, many have been so inspired that one can see Benjamin’s fingerprints in the focus of their adult lives.
I have had the privilege of meeting one man for whom this is particularly true – and many of you know him, too. Kirk Johnston is a singer and guitar player from Texas who has devoted his time and talents to paying homage to Benjamin.
Though no one in his immediate family played instruments themselves, Kirk grew up experiencing a huge variety of sound. His mom and grandmother listened to just about anything from the 50s, 60s, and 70s eras, and his father might have Led Zeppelin blasting one minute and George Jones the next. Kirk was hooked! His grandmother would take him to the local record store where he could buy 45s for about $1.25 and play them on his Dukes of Hazzard record player. By the late 80s his dad had given Kirk his turntable and records, and Kirk used them to build a full stereo system, complete with cassette and CD capabilities. He was about 10 years old when he first picked up a guitar, and ended up taking lessons twice a week until about the age of 14. He was hugely influenced by The Cars and Benjamin Orr.
In fact, Kirk’s earliest music memories are sewn with Cars’ songs; he remembers seeing the videos for “You Might Think” and “Drive” on MTV as a young boy. Later, Kirk was deeply impressed with the strength and texture of Benjamin’s voice, saying, “He has the coolness of Elvis and the range of Roy Orbison, but in an absolutely unique and brand new way.” He marveled at Benjamin’s work on “Just What I Needed”, “Let’s Go”, “It’s Not The Night”, and his solo album The Lace.
Benjamin’s hit song “Stay The Night” stood out to him in particular. “I think it’s a very romantic and confident song that is way deeper and more than a one night stand.” Kirk’s imagination was kindled with a desire to cover the song himself. But it wasn’t just the man’s musical contributions that affected Kirk. Watching Benjamin’s humble coolness, his stage presence, and his warm demeanor out of the spotlight all left a mark on Kirk and increased his admiration for Benjamin, securing him as a life-long role model for this young guy from Texas.
Kirk spent nearly ten years as the lead guitarist in a band called Snowblind. They traveled all over Texas and played coast to coast, from the Whiskey a Go Go in California to CBGB’s in New York, and released two albums of original music. During that time Kirk met Mark Younger-Smith, a talented writer, musician, and producer who has worked with artists like Billy Idol and INXS. Mark produced a couple of songs for Snowblind, and it wouldn’t be too long until he and Kirk would work together again.
As an adult, the idea of doing his own version of “Stay the Night” consumed Kirk for about a year. He started putting out feelers with Diane Grey Page, Benjamin’s estate, and others who could help him get his project off the ground. He approached his friend from the Snowblind days and Mark agreed to take on the project, and pre-production meetings began in the fall of 2012. Because this was the only song Kirk originally planned to record, he and Mark really took their time getting the sound to come out the way Kirk envisioned it. He had already developed the keyboard lead from Ben’s original into a unique guitar riff. He also used 3 different guitars on various parts of the song: a 1984 ES 335, a 1978 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe and a 1992 Fender Telecaster.
By early 2013 they had both an album mix and an extended mix in the can. The fun thing about listening to Kirk’s version is that it is not simply a straight-up cover of Benjamin’s song; Kirk captures the overall spirit of the original, but he adds in his own flavor: a little tropical feel with the percussion, the sweetness of the swaying background vocals, and a touch of Texas twang.
Because the project had been so fulfilling and Kirk’s creativity was still flowing, he began to consider other songs that would blend well with his style. His continuing admiration for 80s music showed itself in the list of titles he would record next: “Hands To Heaven” by Breathe, “Wouldn’t It Be Good” by Nick Kershaw, and Ric Ocasek’s “Emotion In Motion.” He also recorded a duet with his wife, Kari, using Adam Schlesinger’s “Way Back Into Love.” Kirk and Mark bundled the five songs together and released the group on CD in December 2013 (and digitally for Spotify and iTunes in 2014) under the title Full Circle.
Though he knew that the Full Circle project was a labor of love and a true tribute to Benjamin, Kirk wasn’t satisfied that he had done all he could in Benjamin’s memory. In 2014, he contacted the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCan) and arranged to have all of the proceeds from his recording of “Stay The Night” donated to their foundation in Benjamin’s name.
Kirk’s next inspiration came with “Wonderful One” by Page & Plant. Again Mark was the producer, and while they worked on the recording during the winter of 2014 the two began to talk about rounding out the Full Circle EP into a full album. More influential artists came to Kirk’s mind as he chose “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” by Dwight Yoakam, “Here Comes Your Man” by The Pixies, and “Words of Love” by Buddy Holly.
He also contributed his own original song to the album, “Oh Baby It’s True”, which has an unintended Beatles’ charm to it. Kirk’s own experiences out and about in the world met up with his early music foundation, and once his mind started forming the initial flavor the rest of the song just took off.
The final piece was “Drive”, originally performed by The Cars and sung by Benjamin. This song had a huge impact musically on Kirk throughout his life, and getting to remake it was an exciting and emotional venture. He added his own optimistic, comforting nuances to the music and vocals, and brought out Greg Hawkes’ signature synthesizer sound by having the four background vocalists sing the lines. The result is an organic, pretty love song that honors the original and encompasses Kirk’s own signature sound.
It seems only fitting and right that the recording of Full Circle should begin and end with Benjamin Orr, one of the strongest musical influences in Kirk’s life.
The completion of the second batch of songs and the mixing of the album was done as 2015 came to a close. Kirk switched gears and spent the fall making videos for some of the songs (check them out here on his Youtube channel). After the album was released in the spring of 2016 Kirk was off on a trip to Liverpool to do a promotion there. Toward the end of the year he worked up a terrific fundraiser for PanCan featuring a deluxe version of the Full Circle LP (which includes the extended versions of “Stay The Night” and “Hands To Heaven”) along with a wonderful limited-edition “I Wage Hope” 5 x 7 print of Benjamin as our Electric Angel Rock-and-Roller.
Kirk met his wife Kari, who is also a singer, in 2006, and they enjoy writing songs together. Future projects may include an album of duets with her, and will certainly encompass more creative endeavors from Kirk. In the meantime, Kirk has a heart to continue to promote Benjamin’s legacy. “Benjamin deserves so much credit for his contribution to music and I am very happy to be a part of pushing the music forward in some way.”
While he contributes to, and works for, his family’s business, making music is his full-time job. “On the music side I am doing things on a DIY basis and I wouldn’t have it any other way. What you see is what you get; there are no smoke and mirrors. Sometimes I may be on a particular track over a week or I may be editing one music video over two days. I love every moment. My home is really peaceful for that … Mr. Orr even blinks the lights at me now and then if I am working on a Cars number.”
To keep up with Kirk and his future projects, follow him on Twitter: @KirkJohnstonTX