Do you remember those late night infomercials they used to play on television in the 1990s, advertising ‘greatest hits’ music compilations? Back before the internet and iTunes could put together your mixes for you? Well, I don’t know how successful those efforts were at actually selling products, but I do know they sold one young kid on his future: “I can remember seeing a ten second spot of The Cars’ ‘Just What I Needed’ promo video; seeing these guys in ties and aviator shades; Benjamin Orr playing a Stingray bass with bleach-blonde hair, and I thought, ‘That’s what I wanna do.’”
And that is precisely what he went on to do. Scott Bell was instantly hooked on that addictive sound of The Cars, and it would help to define his career. Though Benjamin passed away before Scott’s first professional project even got off the ground, Scott would end up making a connection with his rock hero in a unique and unexpected way.
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, in 1979, Scott has spent his life pursuing music. Not long after seeing his first glimpse of The Cars, Scott picked up the bass in 1992 and began learning how to sing shortly thereafter. Benjamin’s voice was the perfect teacher.
“When you’re learning how to control your voice, his songs are the perfect template. His nuances, his throat, arrogant strut, pompous bravado, and his phrasing… somehow I found when I was learning how to sing, I could also do that. Take something like ‘All Mixed Up.’ In that song Benjamin’s range is all over the place and really, that’s an ideal song for someone who wants to learn how to sing! It even has falsetto!”
Scott began singing and playing in bands at the age of 15, playing local parties and every gig they could get in the Windsor area, but it wasn’t until 2004 that he went professional with his talents. His band, Solidarity, had modest success with their single “Transgression,” from their 2005 Materializer album. Later, he released two albums with Doug Peters under the name Peters and Bell . The year 2009 saw Scott’s first solo album, The Voyage, which he describes as “a very Vangelis-meets-Oldfield ambient project.”
After that, Scott changed directions a bit. “Benjamin was about 31 when he recorded [‘All Mixed Up’]. He was already a seasoned singer, he had already cut his teeth blowing out PA systems in clubs for years. So, when I was about 31, I kind of left on my own on the music scene and I thought that I would like to try performing some cover songs to post on Youtube. The first band that came to mind was The Cars.”
Scott began working on covers of his favorite songs from Benjamin’s vocal catalog, including his solo album, The Lace, and selections from Benjamin’s unreleased tracks. Working alone in his own home studio, which was still under construction, he recorded all the parts fairly quickly. He started with “In Circles” and “Just What I Needed” (“Horrible guitar solo and all!” he laughs) and uploaded them to Youtube in the fall of 2010. About a year later he added “Stay the Night” and “Coming Home Tonight.” Another groan. “’Stay The Night?’ It’s funny. I can’t listen to my version of it now, it’s so bad. I should re-record it properly!” Rounding out his collection and with his studio now complete, he added “Cruiser” and “Don’t Tell Me No” this spring. (Here is a full playlist of Scott’s covers.)
Scott was inspired when he heard that The Cars would be reuniting for another album and tour. “I knew that they weren’t going to replace Benjamin and that Greg would be playing all of the bass parts, but something inside me said to do a few tracks, just in case. What’s the worst that could happen, right? I’d die for THAT gig!”
And of course, he was right: The Cars did reunite… and they were not in the market for a bass player. As it turns out, though, Scott’s Youtube uploads brought him as close as he could come to standing in for Benjamin as one could expect at the time. Not for The Cars, but in an another, more unusual circumstance.
About 600 miles south of Scott, a charity album was in the works benefitting the rare but serious childhood condition known as Kawasaki Disease. Part of that project included a song that was originally written by Benjamin Orr and Diane Gray Page sometime in the mid-1980s, and never released to the public. Left largely unfinished, the composition was completed and polished around 2011, and a search was begun for a vocalist who could do justice to this rare piece of Benjamin’s legacy.
In late 2014 Scott was contacted out of the blue by a music producer in Nashville, Tennessee. Apparently someone had passed on the videos of Scott’s cover tracks and wanted Scott to have a go at this new song. He recorded a rough vocal track and sent it off. While his interest was piqued in the project, he tried to keep his expectations low about what the outcome might be. He didn’t hear anything back for about a year. Then in October of 2015 he received an email letting him know that Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes were ready to record the track, along with famed drummer John “JR” Robinson, and would Scott be interested in officially joining in on the project?
Scott jumped at the chance. With Benjamin gone, Scott felt that this project was the closest he was ever going to get to collaborating with the artist who had basically taught Scott to sing. Not only that, but getting to work with Elliot and Greg – members of the band who had set the musical standard for Scott’s career – was a dream come true. Within a week he was on his way to Nashville to join a host of talented musicians united for a common cause.
“Elliot, Greg and I all stayed at this great house that was rented for us in Franklin, Tennessee, about 50km outside of Nashville, where we got to hang out and get to know each other before we recorded this new song. Both great guys, we hit it off right away. Had a cocktail or two and both of them were very open to any Cars-related questions that I threw at them. I’m sure they got the vibe that I was a bit of a superfan, but I thought I played it pretty cool.”
On a Friday morning, the guys got busy. They were driven to Dark Horse Studios, where they met up with JR and the rest of the recording team. Scott describes the day:
“Everyone had done their homework, so everything went very smooth. Elliot, Greg, and JR laid their parts down on the first day and then Greg started his keyboard overdubs early that evening. Watching them was truly awe-inducing. This was a level of professionalism I had never seen.”
Scott continues, “JR ripped through the song and I think the third take was THE one. Such power and precision. Elliot’s guitar parts were all done pretty quick as well, and watching him build the structure of the song is something that I’ll never forget. Hearing that signature tone come from the studio monitors as he was sitting next to me was a dream come true. Greg experimented with some of his overdubs and magically, The Cars were stamped all over this thing. When we listened back to the mix, it was pretty powerful and I remember Elliot saying to me, ‘This is the closest thing to a new Cars song they’re gonna get!’”
After wrapping up things at the studio for the day, everyone headed to downtown Nashville for dinner and drinks. The down-time spent together, just getting to know each other and establishing a relaxed vibe, was very important in the success of the project. “There was absolutely no pressure from anyone and the guys believed in me, so it was all done out of love: love for one another and love for the music. Of course, it was all done for charity, and if you can have a good time and make great music, that makes it even better!”
On Saturday morning, Scott met up with Cameron Browne, a terrific engineer and fellow Canadian, in the studio. They had the place to themselves. They made some coffee, relaxed and chatted a bit, and then got to work cutting Scott’s vocals. “We punched through the song in about an hour and we were very happy with it. Cameron was extremely supportive and made the recording process as easy as possible.”
(Scott was kind enough to put together a video of ‘behind the scenes’ footage of the recording process; I’ve included it at the end of this article after the video for “Open Your Eyes.” I also want to jump in here and say that Scott’s vocals are terrific. You definitely get the spirit of Benjamin coming through his delivery, but he adds his own flair and personality to the recording. I can’t help but think Benjamin would be honored and pleased with what Scott has done.)
Elliot, Greg and JR arrived at the studio in the afternoon. You might think that Scott would be shaky, having two of his rock-and-roll heroes critiquing his vocal work, but that wasn’t the case at all. “I wasn’t even really nervous or apprehensive about them hearing my vocals because we had already spent a lot of downtime together hanging out, and it was all very relaxed and comfortable.”
The next step was recording the background vocals. Elliot and Greg joined Scott in the booth. Because everything was friendly and natural, it was easy for Scott to take in the advice from these two seasoned professionals. “Elliot would give me little tidbits on how Benjamin used to sing with them, which harmonies to go for, and Greg was helping with my breathing and trying to get the most out of our takes.”
“They told me stories about how Mutt Lange used to drag them over glass cutting background vocals, take after take, and shared awesome stories about Roy Thomas Baker and his famous multi-layered background vocals.” Scott absorbed it all, learning from these artists he admired so much.
It was a very exciting and moving piece of the project for Scott. “That was a real highlight for me, singing between those two like Benjamin had done so many times before on Cars tracks.” But it went deeper than that. “There were a couple of moments while singing and my eyes would close and I could feel something go through me. Positively spiritual. I don’t know what it was but I definitely had Benjamin in mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in that room with us.”
By Saturday night the recording was finished, and the results were left to be mixed and mastered. Other musicians involved with the charity project began showing up, and Scott spent time hanging out and making new friends and musical connections; relationships that Scott knows will last a lifetime.
Since working on the “Open Your Eyes” project, Scott has joined a band called Mrs. Fox — kind of a funk-meets-rock sound. They just released their debut album, Make It Quick, in May of this year. They play around the Windsor, Ontario, area, and have some exciting festival shows coming up this summer. Check out their music here, or take a listen on youtube, and like them on Facebook to hear the latest news.
In addition to playing in Mrs. Fox, Scott is working on his next solo album and hopes to have it completed by the end of the summer. Send him a friend request on Facebook (he loves to meet Cars fans!) or keep an eye on my Facebook page for news of that upcoming release.
Looking back, Scott is grateful for his unique experience. “That was a very special project, and I hope that something comes of it one day. I am extremely fortunate to have worked with my childhood – and adult – heroes.” (As of the time of this writing, the status of this charity project is unknown.)
Even deeper is the satisfaction Scott carries of having honored Benjamin with his vocal performance. “More than anything, I wanted to have a performance that Benjamin would be proud of. I wanted to sing it in his style but still be myself… I feel that I achieved it and I am very proud of it.”
Here’s that awesome behind the scenes footage:
All photos courtesy of Scott Bell and used with permission.