It’s no secret that Jeff Carlisi was heavily influenced by The Cars when he co-wrote what may well be 38 Special’s most recognizable and beloved song, “Hold On Loosely.” He is unfailingly candid about it whenever he tells the story of its creation. But it wasn’t just that one song: The Cars and Benjamin Orr would play a pivotal role in Jeff’s musical career long after he fiddled around with those first chugging 8th notes.
38 Special was a popular 80s band out of Jacksonville, Florida. Well, I guess I should say they still are, since they just announced a new tour for 2020, though I believe Don Barnes is the only original member remaining. Anyway, the group of high school pals started churning out Southern rock songs in 1974 but, in Jeff’s words to me, “the first couple of albums were garbage and got no play.” Jeff felt the band was stuck trying to imitate the genre’s icons of the day, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, and The Marshall Tucker Band. In doing so, they were failing to set themselves apart from the rest of the swamp.
In 1979 they got an infusion of fresh water (see what I did there?) when Jim Peterik, co-founder of the band Survivor, joined their songwriting sessions. Their third album, Rockin’ Into the Night, finally put the band on the charts when the title track peaked at #43 on the Billboard Hot 100. 38 Special was finally getting some national attention, but they were still sputtering a bit to find their signature sound.
Jeff clearly remembers the first time he heard “Just What I Needed.” He told me, “I was driving in my car and JWIN came on the radio. I thought I was going to throw up. I thought it was terrible; I couldn’t switch the radio station fast enough.” But within two weeks he couldn’t get enough of it, drawn in by the simplicity and genius of the riffs and the infectious chorus.
As Jeff explains in this video excerpt from iVideosongs, he started messing around with that beginning riff and it morphed into the backbone of “Hold On Loosely.” Don Barnes and Jim Peterik loved it, adding lyrics and fleshing out the music. It was a huge hit, and all of a sudden 38 Special was a staple on both rock and pop radio. Over the next decade the band released “Caught Up In You,” “If I’d Been the One,” “Back Where You Belong,” “Like No Other Night,” and on and on… They now had a sound all their own, featuring, as Jeff aptly calls it, “the ever present 8th note.”
Because of that little opening riff in “Just What I Needed,” Jeff believes that The Cars helped boost them out of the mire 38 Special was stuck in and put them on the road to success.
“I think the one band that I owe the most credit to as far as really hitting my stride as a songwriter, especially when 38 Special started becoming successful in the early 80’s, was the Cars…I really owe Ric Ocasek (the Cars’ leader) a lot of credit as far as enlightening me into how you can create something different, very original and unique – that when you hear it on the radio for the first time it’s like ‘whoa, it’s that band.’ Some people say ‘as soon as I hear your songs on the radio I know that it is 38 Special because nobody else does it that way.’” — Jeff Carlisi, American Songwriter interview, July 1992.
When Jeff left 38 Special in 1996, he could not have predicted that The Cars — or at least, one member of The Cars — would have an even deeper impact on his life.
38 Special and The Cars were both at their most popular in the 80s, though the two groups didn’t really cross paths. Jeff never met any members of the band until 1999, when he and Ben ended up together in the supergroup Big People. Jeff recalled in the book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, “Derek picked Ben up at the airport, and I was in awe of this guy. I’ll never forget the first time he walked through the door for rehearsal and I said, ‘Hey, you’re Ben Orr!’ and he just said with a smile, ‘So, that’s what I’ve been told.'”
When they were pulling together each individual member’s contribution to the setlist, Ben made it clear that he would only perform Cars’ songs that originally featured his vocals. Jeff was surprised to learn that Ben actually sang many of the band’s hits; like so many others, he assumed it was all Ric on the albums. Learning the songs for Big People elevated the music to a whole new level for Jeff. “I was always a casual fan, but I became a much bigger fan of The Cars after playing those songs with Ben.”
One day Jeff tried to explain to Ben how “Hold On Loosely” came from “Just What I Needed.” He even went as far as playing the two riffs side by side to illustrate the influence for Ben. Remembering, Jeff laughs, “Ben just looked at me, and he had that dry wit, you know. He said, ‘Sorry, pardner. I just don’t hear it.'”
The friendship between Jeff and Ben was immediate and permanent; they were as close as brothers. They had so much in common: the music in their blood, their deep love for kids, and the desire for copious amounts of hot sauce. They were even near the same size physically, though Jeff told me with a laugh, “His feet were much smaller than mine. I couldn’t figure out how he could walk around on such tiny feet!”
While Julie Snider, Ben’s fiancée, was tirelessly and tenderly caring for Ben’s every need throughout his illness, Jeff with right there with her. Together they saw to it that Ben’s last weeks were as active and comfortable as Ben wanted them to be.
Jeff finally met the other members of The Cars when he attended the video shoot for the band’s last interview in August of 2000. Ben emphasized that he really wanted Jeff to be there, and that he was looking forward to introducing Jeff to the other guys. Jeff remembers Ric as being rather stoic and aloof, but overall everyone was friendly.
After Ben’s memorial service in Cleveland, Jeff went to lunch with Greg Hawkes and David Robinson and enjoyed swapping stories with them about Ben and their respective bands. It was good to connect; it was good to bond through Ben.
After Ben passed away, Julie gifted Jeff with an incredible treasure: Ben’s Gibson EB-6. Jeff had long admired it, and Julie assured him that Ben would want him to have it. It remains one of Jeff’s most cherished possessions to this day, a tangible reminder of the love of a best friend, gone too soon.
Isn’t it so incredible that 20 years after Jeff was repulsed and then inspired by “Just What I Needed,” Ben would come along and rock Jeff’s world once again? It’s a beautiful thing. ❤
A couple of additional factoids (because how can I not include a number list?):
“Hold On Loosely” was the 13th video played on the first broadcast of MTV. Jeff vividly remembers a cameraman from MTV coming out to film their live show, back when ‘music television’ was an untried concept. He recounts the memory at about the 17 minute mark in the Youtube video from iVideoSongs.
Jeff has always had a huge desire to connect kids and music. In 2003 he founded Camp Jam Co., an organization that hosts a variety of music experience programs for learners of all ages and skill levels, in cities all across the nation.
Wanting to also come alongside adults, in 2009 he co-wrote a book called Jam: Amp Your Team, Rock Your Business. He weaves his personal rock-and-roll success story with sage advice for business executives looking to rise to the top of their game. (True to form, he gives full inspirational credit to The Cars.)
Jeff will be a guest on Madame Perry’s Salon on January 27, 2020. Listeners can call in and ask questions during this interview. The studio number is 646-716-9922. Tune in!
I’ve included a few more videos below, including another example of Jeff talking about how “Just What I Needed” influenced 38 Special, as well as some original performances by 38 Special, The Cars, and Big People.
On his bass rig: “I’m a big fan of Fender Precision basses. It’s got the brightness I need and the active electronics. I’ve used the Steinberger, but it’s a bit brassy for me. I don’t really pay attention to strings. My bass roadie does all that.” — from “Benjamin Orr: The Cars’ Mr. Casual Steps Out” by Rob Tannenbaum, Musician Magazine, March 1987
“Ben was a good friend, and we played a lot of great music together in just a few short years. We were pals. I’ve only known a few great singers who were pure ‘naturals’ like Ben. He just opened his mouth to sing and sounded perfect—like a hit record.
“His musicianship was stellar, and he was just a very fun guy to know and hang out with. He was consistently a good and kind fellow, and I’ll always miss him and remember fondly all the good times we spent together.” — Danny Louis of Gov’t Mule, formerly with Cap’n Swing and founding member of The Cars, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars by Joe Milliken, p. 65