Leo Yorkell: “Play ball, Ben!”

Leo Yorkell: “Play ball, Ben!”

How many times have you seen those cool pictures of Benjamin Orr in a softball uniform and wished you knew the backstory? Well, I am SO excited to tell you that I have recently had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Leo Yorkell (pronounced yor-KELL), the man who organized many of those ball games with Ben, and he has been more than generous in shedding light on that lesser known piece of history for us!

The groundwork was laid back in 1992, when Leo’s brother Michael started Admit One Productions, an event planning group for charity foundations in the New England area like Big Brothers, police drug abuse awareness programs, and others. The company used a variety of athletes and celebrities to participate in sports competitions and indoor and outdoor concerts to raise money for these worthy causes.

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1996 program signed by Ben. Photo courtesy of Leo Yorkell.

The brothers were always looking for new ideas; ways to keep things fresh. Toward the mid-nineties the idea of high-exposure ‘rock and jock’ charity events was really picking up momentum. Leo’s two favorite fixations had always been music and baseball, and it seemed to him that pairing the two pastimes made perfect sense. He got to thinking… his company was well-versed in organizing softball events, and Michael already had a connection with John Cafferty and the members of the Beaver Brown Band. If the guys could expand their roster to include more musical artists they could establish a mixed team (athletes and musicians) that would play a circuit with enough guys to be able to swap players out and have the means to offer their clients exciting possibilities for future fundraisers.

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1996 roster listing Ben. Photo courtesy of Leo Yorkell.

Move now to the summer of 1995. Boston radio station WBOS 92.9 was doing a “rock n’ jock” softball game and concert in Cleveland Circle for The Genesis Foundation. Leo and Michael went to check it out and see who was involved. The game was fun and well-received, and afterward they decided to mingle and make connections. They saw a lot of familiar faces, as several athletes involved that day had participated in their own shows. They also caught sight of some of their favorite musicians. Leo was making mental notes of who was there: he saw Boston drummer Sib Hashian with his excellent afro, Randy Guss, the drummer from Toad the Wet Sprocket (a favorite of Leo’s), and legendary J. Geils singer Peter Wolf in the ranks. And then he saw Ben Orr.

Leo had been cool as a cucumber rubbing elbows with these other celebrities, but it was all different seeing Benjamin Orr in the crowd. Leo was star struck.

You see,  Leo was (and is, and always will be) a HUGE fan of The Cars. Back in the day, he and his buddies would hang around Syncro Sound Studio on Newbury Street, walking back and forth in front of the building, hoping to run into the band members. A drummer himself, Leo saw David Robinson as a bit of a hero and role model, so much so that Leo bought all of his drum equipment at Jack’s Drum Shop because that’s where David got his stuff. He even went so far as to slip a fan letter under the studio door for David. “It was awful,” Leo laughs about it now. “I was young and such a huge fan, and David was just so cool. Of course, I never heard back from him.” Leo saw The Cars play live on every album tour, and was, like thousands of fans, hugely disappointed when they broke up.

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Ben Orr, 1995. Photo credit unknown.

And now here was Benjamin Orr, standing within spitting distance. Sure, he was sporting  platinum blonde hair, and he was a little older and a little heavier, but it was definitely Ben. Leo was thrilled. He had to go talk to him; had to take this opportunity to meet this rock icon. Leo’s brother Michael was less impressed but supported Leo’s willingness to strike up a conversation in the hopes that Leo could recruit Ben to work with them in the future.

Leo crossed the parking lot to where Ben had his head in the back of a huge white van with Vermont plates. “It was like a shaggin’ wagon, you know what I mean? And it had this ladder on it up top and very little windows. It looked like it was from the early nineties.” Ben was putting his glove away and getting his gear situated when Leo approached.

“I walked up to him, pretty nervous, and I go, ‘Excuse me, are you Ben Orr?’ and he said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And inside I was like, ‘Ooooh! Coooool!’” Leo introduced himself and couldn’t help but go into fanboy mode over the band, confessing to the antics of his early years on Newbury Street. “I’m gushing like a little girl, you know? And I’m telling him all this stuff and he’s just listening to me,” Leo laughs. He went on to explain to Ben that he and his brother did similar softball events, about eight to ten games a year in the New England area, and he mentioned that they were always looking for new guys to get involved. “I said to Ben, ‘I saw you play; you play pretty well. Would you be interested in coming and playing in some of our games?  If you come and join us we’ll give you first crack, and if you need a hotel room we’ll get you a hotel room, whatever you need. Just let me know.’

“Ben was so cool.  He said, ‘Thank you very much. I appreciate all the kind words about the band and me. I would definitely be interested in playing if you want me to, but you can’t go through me. I need you to go through my road manager.’”

That manager was Dave Tedeschi. Dave was there at the game but since everyone was getting ready to leave, Ben gave Leo Dave’s contact information and the arrangements were hammered out later over the phone. Leo’s original offer was, “We’re paying $300. Your guy comes, he signs some autographs, he plays some softball, he talks to some fans and he leaves. It’s like three hours, tops.” Dave was being a typical manager and trying to get more money so they haggled back a forth a bit, and ended up settling on about $400. “I understand the whole business end of things; that’s just the way it goes,” Leo said.

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Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken, used with permission.

And so began a working relationship between Leo and Ben that bloomed into a sincere friendship, with lots of cool little stories along the way. “Before he came to play with us Ben wanted to meet with us and talk to us and make sure that we were good people,” Leo remembers. Ben was playing a solo concert in Boston with Dale Bozzio from Missing Persons, who was opening up for him. Dave Tedeschi put Leo and his brother on the guest list and they headed down there early in order to spend time with Ben before the show. He was staying at the hotel next door, and Leo remembers meeting the band, with John Kalishes and Tom Hambridge, and Ben mentioning that his dogs had their own room.

The group hung out and chatted, and when it was time for Ben to head over to the venue, Leo and Michael went along. They bumped into Dale Bozzio in passing. Ben introduced them to her and they all laughed over a harmless flirty exchange between Ben and Dale. Dale’s young son was with her dressed in his Catholic school outfit, his little green pants and plaid shirt in amusing contrast to Dale’s teased blonde-and-red streaked hair and sexy 80s outfit. These crazy memories are still cemented in Leo’s mind.

Leo isn’t sure of all of the specifics of the first game that Ben played in, but he remembers that they had some ex-Patriots and some ex-Boston Bruins guys, and John Cafferty was there, too. The lineup also included two members of the Beaver Brown band: saxophone player Michael Antunes (‘Tunes’) and drummer Jackie Santos. The team was called the Legends League, and on this day they were playing against a local police department all-star team. Leo recalls, “We introduced each player and gave some stats about them as they walked onto the field. We played music samples during the introductions, too, which was fun.” Ben, in jersey number 21 (later Leo would give him number 1), took his place in left field, smiling and waving to the crowd.

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Benjamin Orr, Leo Yorkell, and John Cafferty, September 15, 1997. Photo courtesy of Leo Yorkell.

John Cafferty himself remembered this game fondly and the team’s surprise over their victory against the police department (read his quote about it here). Leo recalls that Ben hadn’t met Cafferty before this game. We know now, of course, that Ben would go on to play with John and other Beaver Brown members in the Voices of Classic Rock a few years later, at John’s invitation.  How great it is to make those little connections in Ben’s history!

After the game, Leo observed Ben’s behavior with the fans. The last thing they wanted was a star who was standoffish and picky about autographs but that definitely wasn’t Ben.

“He was freaking awesome! He talked to everybody. I’d been doing this for a few years… I had never seen anybody who was so nice, so kind, so engaging with people, and kids especially. I asked my brother, ‘are you watching this guy?’ He signed everything for everybody. He was just amicable, kind, gentle. He would kneel down to talk to a kid… He actually cared about people, you know?”

In fact, Ben was always the last one to collect his check after the game because he spent so much time with the fans; invariably, Leo would have to walk it over to him.

The summer continued and Ben (and John Cafferty) played often. Dave Tedeschi came to one or two of the early games, too. In fact, Leo remembers one time when their event was scheduled on the same weekend as an annual local Renaissance Fair, where Dave and Ben had apparently stopped. “They showed up with those big-ass giant turkey legs that you get, you know?  They’re gnawing away on these things,” Leo chuckles. “I was like, ‘What the hell? You’re going to get greasy fingers before the game? C’mon, man!’ It was hilarious.”

Soon enough Leo was able to deal with Ben directly when it came to scheduling. It was an important milestone for Leo. “When he gave me his phone number I knew that meant he trusted me, that we were friends. I did not take that lightly.” Leo would call him up and give him the details for the next event, and their phone conversations would sometimes turn into chats about everyday life. “As he played more I got to know him a whole lot better,” Leo reflects. “He is one of the top three greatest people I have ever met in my entire life, and I’ve met a LOT of people.”

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Ben and Leo Yorkell, 1996. Photo courtesy of Leo Yorkell.
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Ben and Leo Yorkell, 1996. Photo courtesy of Leo Yorkell.

The games continued over the next two years. Leo has so many great memories of those halcyon summer days. “Ben brought Edita and his son with him a bunch of times. They would pull up in that white van with two big ol’ Doberman pinschers in the back. Ben was so proud of his boy, introducing him as ‘Little Ben’ and pointing out often that he wasn’t a junior. He was the cutest little guy, with his blonde mop-top Beatles haircut.

“At one point we played a weekend series, with a Saturday game in Massachusetts and a Sunday game in Rhode Island. After Saturday’s game Ben was looking for a motel recommendation for himself and his family. I booked the room for him at a place I knew in Rhode Island, and I told him about a drive-in movie theater about a half a mile up the road. The next day when he arrived at the game Ben told me about how they went to the drive-in and had such a great time, and that the motel staff was so friendly. Ben was just so appreciative of me setting it up, and it was such a little thing, you know? But that’s just the way he was.

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The day after the drive-in. From bottom right: Ben and Leo, September 13, 1998. Photo courtesy of Leo Yorkell.

“There was never any pretense, no ‘rock star’ attitude or expectations. Sometimes athletes would give Ben shit for blowing a play or whatever, saying things like, ‘I hope you don’t play bass like you play softball’ and teasing like that, just good-hearted comradery. Ben had a great attitude.”

[Intermission: Leo’s willingness to share his video footage with me was above and beyond! He allowed me to put together a little montage of one of Ben’s games to publish with this article. Click to watch, and then scroll down to read more of Leo’s adventures with Ben!]

In addition to softball, Leo and Michael would organize charity football games. In the fall of 1997 they were putting together a game to benefit the Easton Firefighters and they asked Ben if he wanted to play. He was all in. Leo recalls, “These guys were firefighters, right? They were some pretty tough dudes. Ben was a lineman next to the center, and I was playing as a wide receiver since we were short a player. We had an ex-Patriot guy as the quarterback.”

With about two yards to go to score, the quarterback set up the play in the huddle and the team executed it perfectly. “I catch this touchdown pass and as I’m celebrating I look and Ben is on his ass, just laid out flat, right? He got plowed by a guy on the field… run over like nobody’s business. I immediately ran over there to see if he was alright and he was like, ‘yeah, yeah, I’m good, it’s all part of the game.’

“Now, in all this time I never lost sight of who Ben was, you know? And I know it sounds funny, but I was looking at him down there on the ground and out of nowhere I thought, ‘Jeez! This guy played at Live Aid! And there he is, like a turtle on his back!’ But really, I felt awful. He took a huge hit and he was walking pretty gingerly; it was bad. He had a great attitude about it but I could tell he was hurting. After the game we ended up sitting in his van for a long time, just talking – with those big Dobermans in the back!”

And then there was the music. Ben would let Leo know when he was going to be playing a gig nearby and invite him to come watch and hang out. One of those shows was in August of 1997 in Cleveland Circle. Ben told Leo about it and encouraged him to come. Leo had a connection that allowed him to use some public access TV equipment, so he offered to shoot some of the performance for Ben.

“I said, ‘Cool. I’ll get a camera, I’ll get a tripod, and I’ll film the concert.’ So he came, I saw him pre-show. Edita was there with Little Ben. Ben told me, ‘You know, our keyboard player didn’t show up so I don’t know how the hell we’re going to pull this off, but we’re going to go out there anyway.’ I ended up shooting the whole concert.”

[Another video intermission: here is an excerpt from that show in Cleveland Circle, featuring my all-time favorite, “Bye Bye Love”. It’s SO rockin’! Thank you, thank you, thank you, Leo!]

“Now, my mom’s favorite song is ‘Drive,'” Leo continued. “I shot the show in August and I had Ben in a game in early September. My mom’s birthday is September 7. So I cut the footage of ‘Drive’ and put it on a brand new tape. I took the camera to the game and asked Ben if he would shoot a little video for me that I could add to ‘Drive’ of Ben wishing my mom a happy birthday. He was immediately excited and responded, ‘Oh, I got this man! Just roll it!’ And he recorded the coolest message just for my mom. She wasn’t expecting it at all and it just blew her away!”

Ben played ball for Leo and Michael from 1996 through the summer of 1998. Michael sold the company in November of 1998, and Leo lost contact with Ben at that point. Time passed as Leo immersed himself in working and traveling for his new job. He thought about Ben often and considered calling him, but life just seemed so busy and the time slipped by. He heard through John Cafferty that Ben was with Big People, and that he was engaged and based in Atlanta, but that was about all Leo knew.

Then one day he was in a hotel in Dallas, Texas, in October of 2000 when he came across a small obituary of Ben in USA Today. It was a terrible blow. “My whole heart sunk. I was pissed at myself for not staying in touch with Ben after the company was sold because he was a good guy. He was my friend. I was devastated.”

Leo had had no idea that Ben had even been ill. Later he saw the final interview where Ben was so sick, and it was awful. “I know this sounds rotten to say, but I was kind of glad that I had cut off ties with him in a way. Seeing him like that, I think I would have lost my shit. It would have been hard to get past; I would have wanted to support him, not feel sorry for him.” Still, his regret over not connecting with Ben before his unexpected passing has changed the way Leo lives today: he makes sure to keep in close contact with those people who are most important to him.

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Ben and Leo Yorkell, 1996. Photo courtesy of Leo Yorkell.

It took a long time for the shock to lessen, though it will never entirely be gone. And now, nearly twenty years later, Leo looks back on those videos he has, the autographed memorabilia that adorns his wall, and sorts through his internal memories with laughter and gratitude.

“Thank you for encouraging me to find the pictures and videos for this article. If it weren’t for you I would have never gone to look for them and see how great those times were. I’m grateful for that. I feel very privileged that I was able to get to know Ben and to share a part of our lives, you know?”

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Ben, September 1997. Video screenshot from Leo Yorkell footage, used with permission.

I am so appreciative that Leo took the time to reminisce with all of us! When I thanked him for contacting me and for being willing to tell his stories through my blog, he replied simply, “I love Ben, and I think everybody should know what a great guy he is. I’m so glad to share the joy that is Ben.”

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Candy-O… Candy? No.

Exciting news! Well, at least for me. You know how I always have this nerdy little list of Ben mysteries that I am trying to solve, kind of like cold case files in the detective world? Well, thanks to the sleuthing skills of one of my good friends, “The Case of the Candy-O Lollipop” has been cracked!

candy oWe are all familiar with the now-iconic photo of Ben loving on a lollipop on the backside of the Candy-O album cover (if you’re not, just look to your right). Early in my obsession I had read lollipop pensomewhere that the lucky candy treat was actually not candy at all, but a type of writing pen that was popular in the sixties and seventies, with a little skinny handle and a large round lid over a ballpoint tip. As I recall, the story was that a secretary or an assistant on location at the photoshoot offered it to Ben as a prop. Of course, I haven’t been able to find that source since, and it has long been one of those things that I just wanted to be able to verify once and for all. Does it affect the government shutdown? Of course not. But there are those of us that just have to know every little thing…

So here you go: definitive proof! Zooming in on this outtake from the Candy-O photoshoot clearly shows that it IS a pen. Ah… another thing crossed off my list!

Candy-O photos by Jeff Albertson.

Benjamin: Lead Vocal List

C’mon, do I even need to say it? Benjamin’s voice is… everything.

Beautiful to the ears. Wonderful in vocal range. He opens his mouth and easily creates those lilting harmonies, or those deep warm tones.  Dramatic, melodic, seductive. Full of disdain or smoldering with emotion. Exuding confidence. Descending and weaving and pressing close…

I could go on and on, gushing about the mellifluous sounds that come out of that man, but I promised myself I wouldn’t. This is supposed to be just straightforward research. As you know, I love to have my little rows of facts and dates and figures; they make me so happy. Pulling data together and organizing it into a meaningful, structured presentation gives me a geeky thrill.

I’m a nerd… I know this.

So I decided I wanted to see a list of all of the songs Benjamin sang in his far-too-short career. Typing it into a single column in chronological order triggered a bout of pinball-machine-analysis and deep, varied speculations, but I’ll keep those to myself for now. And as satisfying as it was for me to see the list in a simple Word doc, I decided to stretch myself into the world of designing ‘infographics’ with this article. Bear with me, they are a little basic, but I wanted to add some color.

(And did you like my title? “Vocal List”… “vocalist”… see what I did there? Haha. Okay, okay… moving on…)

Before we dive in… some little disclaimers:

  1. This blog post is a work in progress.
  2. During the Milkwood and Ocasek & Orr years with Ric, the two harmonized and shared vocals so often that I decided not to list every single song they recorded, but instead only listed the ones where Benjamin handles the lion’s share of the vocals.
  3. I believe Ocasek & Orr recorded a version of “Start It All Again,” and I have always assumed that Benjamin sang the lead on it (as he did with Cap’n Swing), but I didn’t list it under O&O since I’ve not actually heard that version (but boy, would I love to!).
  4. I understand that Benjamin did some background vocals for other artists, but I haven’t been diligent about making notes when I come across that information. I’ll start a file to collect those notes, so hit me up with links, please and thank you.
  5. And again, I am only listing songs where he sang lead or the majority of the vocals…
  6. …except for “Since I Held You” and “You Are The Girl.” Wikipedia gave Benjamin a shared vocal credit on those, so I added them, too.
  7. I’ve only addressed songs that I’ve actually heard or can otherwise verify the existence of, but as always, I obviously don’t know everything. If I’m missing information PLEASE let me know!

And we’re off!

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** Update July 26, 2018: Added two songs to The Grasshoppers and the songs recorded by The Mixed Emotions (recently discovered through ebay). Also updated The Cars’ demos column to include “Midnight Dancer” and the demo recording of “Shake It Up” from the expanded edition of Shake It Up, released in 2018.

**Update August 18, 2018: Added “When You Gonna Lay Me Down” to The Cars — a song I somehow forgot to list. Thanks so much to my dear research-nerd-twin, JMW, for the catch!

**Update October 5, 2018: Added “I Know I’ve Had My Chance” to Cap’n Swing. Made available for sale by Glenn Evans in April, 2018; apparently recorded on August 28, 1975.

**Update June 17, 2019: Added “You Wanna Man” (written by John Gardina, sung by Ben) and “Julie Ann” (written and sung by Ben) to The Mixed Emotions. “Julie Ann” was performed and recorded with The Mixed Emotions at some point, and then apparently recorded again at Cleveland Recording Studio in November of 1969 while Ben and Ric were playing as Leatherwood.

Behind the Scenes at Viele’s Planet

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Screenshot courtesy of Tracey L.

It’s not often that we get to hear what goes on before and after a concert. I’m thrilled and grateful that I had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of this special show, thanks to David Curry, Chuck Nolan, and Jeff Viele.

Viele’s Planet was a popular adult bar and concert venue in Springfield, Illinois, from July of 1994 to October of 2006. The owner, Jeff Viele, specialized in booking original music acts, and also sometimes catered to younger music enthusiasts by hosting non-alcoholic, all-ages shows for the local community. The location accommodated about 400 people, and featured a stage and a long dance floor area as well as patron seating. Through the years, artists such as AFI, Mojo Nixon, and Metal Church played there. And guess who else? That’s right, our favorite guy!

Jeff Viele contacted Orr’s management when his good friend, Chuck Nolan, began campaigning to get Benjamin to come for a show. Chuck was (and is) a huge Cars fan, and he had met Benjamin during a show in Quincy, Illinois, in 1997. Chuck invested a lot of time and energy in getting to see one of his rock heroes play live in Springfield. Between Jeff and Chuck, arrangements were made for Benjamin to perform at Viele’s Planet on August 16, 1998.

Preparations leading up to the day of the event involved collecting the supplies and equipment required on Benjamin’s professional rider. Included on this list was a drum set. Benjamin’s management was very detailed about the specifications they wanted. Chuck contacted a local music store, brought in the faxed specs, and was assured that the owner would have it all available on the day of the show. Chuck stayed on top of things, phoning the store the week of the performance to make sure everything was coming along.

“We show up the day of the show, and the owner is acting like he hadn’t thought about any of this since the first time we spoke!  He’s like, ‘Uh, uh… oh! Here’s some sub-Kmart-level drum kit you guys can have tonight.’ Unbelievable!” Chuck groans.  “Here I am greeting rock royalty, my childhood hero with my tail between my legs! It was obvious this substandard drum kit wasn’t going to work.” He’s able to laugh about it now. “Thankfully, I had made some calls, and my friends in a band called The Love Hogs (who were scheduled to open) were in possession of a great drum kit and they came through for us. Heart attack averted!”

August 16th arrived. Around 3 pm, Benjamin walked into Viele’s, looking like a classic biker dude, with his sleeveless black t-shirt and his shaggy blonde hair flowing from under the bandana tied around his head. He and his tour manager, David Tedeschi, took a seat at the bar while Jeff bustled about getting ready for the night. Chuck soon joined them. They made small talk about where Benjamin lived, his kids, and his motorcycles. Chuck had designed some huge subway flyers to promote the show, and they caught Benjamin’s eye in the bar. He was so impressed that he asked if he could have a couple to take home to frame and put in his children’s rooms. Of course, they let him.

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Benjamin and Chuck Nolan (photo courtesy of Chuck Nolan)

While Benjamin’s road crew was getting things set up on the stage, Chuck had plenty of time to chat with Benjamin. They got to talking about Benjamin’s set list, and Chuck mentioned some of the deeper cuts that he’d enjoy hearing Ben perform, like “Down Boys” and “Think It Over.” Ben responded that he’d love to play other Cars’ songs, but he only had permission to do certain numbers.

They also talked quite a bit about The Cars and the possibility of a reunion. Chuck tried delicately to approach the subject of the band’s break up, but “like a true gentleman, Benjamin would not go into specifics.” Chuck does remember that after a few moments of quiet contemplation, Benjamin said something along the lines of, “You know, I want you to know something. I was never mad at any of the other guys. Ric is the only one I had a beef with at the time, and honestly, I’m not even mad at him anymore.” (Please remember that Chuck is paraphrasing to the best of his memory; it’s not gospel.)

With the band and the soundman finished setting up, Benjamin did his vocal sound check as well as the sound check for the drums. Click here to see RARE and amazing footage of Benjamin playing the drums for “Just What I Needed” — shared by Chuck Nolan and uploaded by Dave Curry. (Thank you SO much, Chuck!) Once they got the technicalities squared away Benjamin and his team headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner.

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Promotional flier designed by Chuck Nolan (photo courtesy of Jeff Viele)

In addition to the bar’s own advertising, Viele’s had teamed up with local classic rock station WYMG to heavily publicize Benjamin’s performance. The radio station invited Ben out to the Illinois State Fair where they were promoting him and the show. After dinner, Jeff and Chuck drove Benjamin out to the fairgrounds. The parking was terrible and they had bit of a walk ahead of them. Jeff was worried that they wouldn’t get Benjamin to his location on time, but luckily Jeff recognized a guy zipping around in a golf cart. The friend gladly agreed to let the guys hitch a ride to the Miller beer tent, where Benjamin arrived for his interview as scheduled.

In the meantime, Dave Curry and his good friend Tom arrived at Viele’s around 7 pm. (Both men had also met Benjamin in 1997 at the Quincy show.) Tom had made arrangements to hand off a copy of the book Frozen Fire  to David Tedeschi. The two spent the next several hours with Tedeschi and some of the other crew members, thumbing through the book and chatting easily about the early days of The Cars. Dave remembers, “Tom and I had recently found a warehouse online that had copies of the book very cheap, so we had purchased multiple copies. Well, all of the crew guys wanted one. I had more than a dozen at my apartment (which was five minutes away) so I went back home and got them. I even got a copy for Benjamin.”

Before long, folks started arriving for the show. “Regarding the turnout, I’m sorry to say it wasn’t good,” Chuck laments. “We had booked it on the last night of the Illinois State Fair.  Springfield’s music scene is, for the most part, apathetic but on a State Fair night, your average middle-aged Cars’ fan was probably home passed out, with a belly full of corn dogs!” Estimates for the show range from 50 to 100 people. “I never heard Jeff Viele complain, either,” Chuck continues. “I think the memories were priceless to him.”

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View from the Viele’s Planet stage (photo courtesy of Jeff Viele)

It was nearly 11:00 pm when Benjamin and his band took the stage at Viele’s Planet. The ORR band was made up of Rich Bartlett on lead guitar, Tom Hambridge on drums, Chris Lannon on bass, Tommy West on keyboards, and Benjamin on rhythm guitar.

Chuck describes the experience. “The band members were top-notch professionals, and to hear that voice in your local watering hole was very surreal! Rich Bartlett was particularly impressive, hitting all of Elliot’s signature phrasings, but adding his individual sense of flair. I thought Ben picked great songs from The Lace, and the live delivery had even more heart than the LP.” In spite of the small turnout, Chuck says, “Overall it was like seeing an arena level show with a private party vibe. Everyone there was a true fan.”

The entire show is available on Youtube (link below); it was filmed by the late Pat Egizi. Here is the set list:

  1. Too Hot To Stop
  2. Just What I Needed
  3. I’m Coming Home Tonight
  4. Funtime
  5. Candy O
  6. Let’s Go
  7. Drive
  8. Spinning
  9. Even Angels Fall
  10. Moving In Stereo
  11. Bye Bye Love
  12. Encore: Stay The Night, I Am

As we often see with his late 1990s shows, Benjamin played it ‘fast and loose’ with the lyrics. You can tell he is having fun with it, bantering with the audience. During his performance of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime” he sings, “Last night Chuck was down in the lab talking to Dracula and his crew…” Chuck got a kick out of that, of course!

After the show Benjamin and the crew headed downstairs, which served as a kind of ‘dressing room’ for the band. Dave, Tom and Chuck all hung out there, too. Benjamin sat on the couch with a beer, signing autographs and chatting with people. Dave was able to talk with him for a while. Ben’s pleasure was obvious when Dave offered him the copy of Frozen Fire, in which Dave had written, “Benjamin — Thanks for coming our way. Dave Curry, Springfield, IL.” Benjamin carefully tucked into his black leather shoulder bag nearby.

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Photo courtesy of Dave Curry

He signed Dave’s copy of The Lace, and Dave also asked if he would autograph a couple of the promo fliers for his nieces. Ben signed the first one using a black pen, which didn’t show up very well. He apologized and was going to switch to a pen with silver ink instead, but Dave explained with good humor that his nieces were eight-year-old twins, and that it would be near-pandemonium if Dave brought two fliers that were not identical. Benjamin kind of laughed and shook his head, and he happily obliged. (Dave recently discovered that his niece Melissa still has hers, pictured right. Isn’t that so sweet?)

Both Dave and Chuck remember that Benjamin enjoyed talking about his son. “He was a proud father, showing everyone a picture of his son,” Chuck recalls. Dave confirms with a laugh, “He had pictures of Ben Jr. that he took out and showed me. Lots of Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles on that kid, as I remember.”

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Benjamin and Dave Curry (photo courtesy of Dave Curry)

They both also recognized the sincere kindness and humility in Benjamin’s character. Dave had acted as a guest DJ on a local radio show earlier in the year, and he related to Benjamin that as part of his set he played a few songs from The Lace. Benjamin’s surprise was genuine, and his “thank you” was both humble and sincere.

Chuck remembers that at the end of the night “Ben shook my hand and said ‘ciao’ in that deep, resonate voice… Not an iota of rock star attitude in him, a good guy.”

It was after 3am when Jeff Viele finally locked up and left his bar. He headed over to a local late-night diner called Mr. Ted’s. Now this place was a little rough, as you can imagine… it was the catch-all eatery for everyone leaving the bars and trying to sober up before heading home. There was one particular fry cook that was a bit surly and would engage in yelling matches with the clientele.

For whatever reason, it turned out that this night was Jeff’s turn to bump heads with the cook, and as they were exchanging loud insults with one another the door to the restaurant opened and low and behold, who should be standing there? That’s right: “It was Benjamin and his manager. They took one look around the place and you could tell by their expressions they were NOT impressed… they turned right back around and walked out,” Jeff laughs. “That was embarrassing!”

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Rich Bartlett, Benjamin Orr, and David Tedeschi high-tailing it out of Mr. Ted’s. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Nolan)

View the entire show here:

 

 

Candy-O and the Monitor Mix-Up

Candy-O and the Monitor Mix-Up

Released on June 13, 1979, The Cars’ sophomore effort, Candy-O, would be certified platinum in less than two months, and would soar as high as #3 on the Billboard 200 chart and #4 on RPM Canada. Its first single, “Let’s Go,” would jump to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the follow up release, “It’s All I Can Do,” would peak at #41. Candy-O‘s iconic album cover, painted by Alberto Vargas, would be talked about for years. And all this while The Cars’ self-titled debut album, released almost exactly one year prior, was still riding high: Billboard Magazine’s chart for the “Top Pop Albums of 1979” lists The Cars at #4 and Candy-O at #82. Needless to say, this band was on fire.

But this Candy-O story begins at the very beginning, and doesn’t end until more than three decades later…

(Quick disclaimer: I am fairly confident that these next four photos I am including of Cherokee Studios and the mixing equipment are indeed of Cherokee, but are likely NOT how the studio looked when The Cars recorded there in 1979.)

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David Bowie outside Cherokee Studios, 1975

In February of 1979, The Cars packed up their gear and headed to Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles, California, to record their second album. Originally started as the venture of three brothers on a ranch, by 1979 Cherokee Studios had moved to Fairfax Avenue and was a hot spot for many of the world’s top recording artists. By the time The Cars arrived, Cherokee had already turned out albums for Steely Dan, David Bowie, Art Garfunkel, ELO, Jeff Beck, Olivia Newton-John, Rod Stewart, Hall & Oates, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Journey, Neil Diamond, The Jacksons… the list goes on and on.

Cherokee was an unusual studio at the time because it operated independently of any record label. Additionally, the years the Robb brothers had spent as struggling musicians prior to opening their studio made them keenly aware of the importance of an ‘artist-friendly atmosphere.’ They also outfitted their Fairfax location with state-of-the-art equipment and acoustics. It’s no wonder that in his autobiography, Beatles producer Sir George Martin dubbed Cherokee Studios the best studio in America.

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Believed to be Studio 1 @ Cherokee

Generally when a band gets ready to record an album the first thing they do is create a monitor mix. I do not know what The Cars’ actual setup was at Cherokee, or which of the three studios the band worked in, but it’s likely that their work day looked something like this: the band goes into the big room and sets up their instruments. A series of microphones are positioned all around the studio to capture the sounds from each individual band member. David’s drums (which might be enclosed in some kind of clear paneling to avoid sound from the other instruments “bleeding” into his mics) would have 6 to 8 mics around his kit at each of the various drum pieces (kick, snare, high hat, etc). Each of the other guys would have a mic for their instrument and a mic for their vocals.

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Trident A-Range-24

At one end of the studio there is another little room (the control room) separated from the band by a big window, and in that little room sit the producer and sound engineer. In front of them is a huge board with all sorts of slider switches and dials and lights — this is called a monitor console, or a mixing table. Each microphone near the band feeds the sounds it captures into a specialized channel where it is recorded in isolation from the other sounds. Those channels are then accessed and arranged by the producer and sound engineer on the monitor console. Nerd fact: at Cherokee Studios they used the legendary Trident A-Range 24-channel monitor (only 13 of the original models were ever manufactured), and they were the first studio in America to do so. BUT Greg Hawkes indicates that this album was recorded on Roy Thomas Baker’s personal 40-track machine, which was an unusual recorder in the industry at the time.

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Believed to be Studio 3c at Cherokee

Once everything is set up and ready to record, the band plays their song and the music is captured as described above. The producer and sound engineer adjust levels on the console to get the desired balance from the mics and to construct the basic foundation of the song, listening to the music through the large monitor speakers in the control room (pictured above, on top of the console). The resulting track is called a ‘monitor mix.’ This recorded mix is then used by the band to perfect the production of the individual parts of the song. Wearing headphones and listening to a customized playback of the monitor mix, each band member can re-record their part, locking into the pieces of the composition they need to hear to bring out the best in their own performance.

For example, in order to really nail his guitar solo, Elliot may need to zero in on the drums and bass parts. The sound engineer can fiddle with the sliders on his console and make it so that what Elliot hears in his headphones is largely the rhythm section, while the synth and vocals are toned way down or not audible. This gives him the reference points he needs to play to. At the same time, maybe Benjamin needs to hear David’s kick drum pumped up a bit to keep his tempo on track, and the rhythm of Greg’s riffs to sing along to. The sound engineer can make that happen.While the band plays on, the guys in the control room continue to finesse and adjust the mix on the console, moving closer to the final product.

So The Cars spent February of 1979 at Cherokee, recording, mixing and preparing the entire Candy-O album; getting it just how they liked it. When it was finally ‘in the can’ they packed up and headed back to Boston with their completed master tapes, leaving the monitor mix tapes stored in the Cherokee tape vault.

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The Candy-O Monitor Mix Tapes

Fast forward to sometime in 2001. A listing shows up on ebay for two reel-to-reel tapes of “The Cars’ Candy-O Demos” for auction. It appears that a former employee of Cherokee Studios, now residing in California, has some authentic vintage recordings to offer. (Interesting side note: the same seller had also listed similar items from Led Zeppelin and Elvis). A longtime Cars  fan — we’ll call him Phil — triumphantly wins the auction and, thrilled to have these alternate recordings of some of his favorite songs, has a local recording studio transfer the tracks to CDs. He shares a few copies with his trusted friends. He sees nothing wrong with this since he owns the sound recordings now.

Fast forward again, this time to 2014. By now these alternate recordings have been out for over ten years. They have been shared and shared again among the Fanorama, and eventually uploaded onto youtube. Toward the end of the year, our very own David Curry (the genius behind @Night_Spots) decides to feature one of the songs on his tumblr page. Low and behold, Les Steinberg (Elliot Easton’s brother), comes across Dave’s post and hears this version of “It’s All I Can Do” that he’s never heard before.

10882267_953263848018021_7631285565900893425_nSince he already had a working relationship with Dave, Les contacts him and asked him where the recording came from. Dave, surprised that Les has no idea about the mix tapes, explains their history. Les enthusiastically encourages Dave to contact his friend from whom he originally received the recordings to see if the tapes are still around. He indicates that he is sure The Cars’ management would be thrilled to buy back the tapes for their own collection. Dave agrees to contact Phil, and in the meantime, Dave mails his personal CD copy of the mixes to Les for the Steinberg family to keep.

It is the end of November, 2014, when Dave contacts Phil. As fate would have it, after holding on to the tapes for 13 years, Phil finally had a need to sell them and had just completed an ebay transaction less than a month prior to Dave’s message, sending them off to the next happy owner. Though he would have very eagerly just GIVEN the tapes to The Cars, they are out of his hands.

Unfortunately, now that the word is out that the original reel-to-reels have surfaced, it becomes important to The Cars’ camp to track them down. It turns out that those mixes had been stolen from Cherokee’s tape vault and sold illegally (unbeknownst to any of the Fanorama). This makes Phil understandably nervous — to be somehow connected to stolen intellectual property (even though he is innocent of any wrongdoing) — and so Dave offers to act as a mediator between Phil and The Cars; a natural role since he is already openly connected to both parties.

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David Curry, 2014

Now the task falls on Dave to facilitate the tracking down of the reels. Luckily the new owner (who is also eager to avoid a legal hassle) agrees to let them be repurchased. A flurry of emails zips back and forth across the country over the early weeks of December as arrangements are made to have them shipped to Dave’s place of work. After he signs for them he is a little stunned, realizing that he is holding a piece of precious Cars history. “When I got the tapes home, I told my wife about their significance and snapped a few photos. I was in Cars heaven! That lasted about 20 minutes… It suddenly occurred to me that I was now responsible for their care. At that point, I wanted them out of my house as soon as possible.”

After a couple of back and forth emails from Cars management, David is told that Jeff Kramer, the owner of OK Management, will be giving him a call on a specified date. The working hours come and go without a call. An email at the end of the day explains that Kramer was “meeting all day with Dylan.” Dave is asked to contact Brian Higgins. On December 18th Brian arranges for FedEx to pick up the reels and expedite them to their rightful owners, where they are received in California on December 19, 2014.

dave3[Dave’s involvement in this was truly motivated by kindness and his love for The Cars, and he expected nothing in return. It is still pretty cool, though, that he received a copy of Move Like This, signed by all of the band members, as a ‘thank you.’]

Wow, what a history! How exciting for the Cars group to get those original recordings back! And wouldn’t it be great if Rhino Records compiled them along with the Candy-O album and made a deluxe version, like they did with the debut? We can only keep our fingers crossed… In the meantime, you can hear the monitor mix tracks for yourself by exploring this playlist on youtube. Enjoy!

Miami Vice: Missed Opportunity

Miami Vice: Missed Opportunity

I love the way he says this:

Caller: “Have you ever considered going into acting, and if so, what kind of roles would you like to take part in?”  Benjamin: “I considered it… but nothing’s come my way…” (laughing) — Rockline interview, 1987

Well, we know of at least one opportunity he had, but it didn’t work out — dang it!

Miami Vice was a hugely popular television show from 1984 to 1989. It starred Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as undercover detectives whose job was to rid Miami of drug lords, sleazeballs, and other bad dudes. Unlike the normal fare in the ‘cops and robbers’ genre, Miami Vice skillfully threaded their episodes with cool clothing (starting a whole new fashion trend!) and cutting edge music.  The show often featured popular rock-and-rollers of the day, like Glenn Frey, Phil Collins, Ted Nugent, Gene Simmons, Sheena Easton, Power Station (and plenty of great actors, too)… the list goes on and on. It is a great tragedy that Benjamin Orr’s name is not on that list.

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Apparently Benjamin was scheduled for a cameo appearance on Miami Vice in 1985, but the day set aside for him to film his part was the same day The Cars were to appear on stage at Live Aid. Since he later mentions Live Aid as his most memorable experience with the band, I’m SO glad they did it. And their performance there is EPIC, one of the best… but , oh, how I would have loved to see him act! Could you imagine? His incredible looks, that low voice, his stony facial expressions; maybe even featuring a song with his vocals (a la Glenn Frey and Smuggler’s Blues)… it all seems so perfect for him! It’s a shame he never got a second chance.

Benjamin was asked a few times what he thought about acting. Here are a couple of other clips of his responses…

 

What do you think? What kind of roles would have liked to see him play — leading man, action hero, villain? Comment below or find me on Facebook!

The Cars and the RRHOF: Who Cares?

The Cars and the RRHOF: Who Cares?

Quite a few people (translation: Cars fans) are pretty upset about The Cars not getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) this year. I’ve been asked my thoughts about it a couple of times, and personally, I swing back and forth between frustration and apathy. Since I am SO crazy about this band, it is hard for me to be objective about what they ‘deserve’ with relation to achieving induction; I am completely driven by my love for those five guys and their incredible music. Even so, I am able to form an opinion based on concrete evidence. But before stating my honest (and hopefully, rational) thoughts on the subject, let me try to give a basic factual framework to build on.

First I had to understand just how the Rock Hall worked. I am very grateful to the posts on the Iconic Rock Talk Show blog for giving me the rundown in concise, humorous, educational articles.

In a nutshell, the artists that make the official ballot are chosen by a nominating czwsxtpwiaacrlocommittee made up of 28 members from the music industry (musicians, executives, managers, journalists, etc.). Once the nominees are chosen the ballot goes out for votes in two ways: first, 800+ ballots are mailed out to more music industry professionals, including the living members already inducted into the Rock Hall. They get to vote for their top five artists to get in.

Secondly, a fan poll is set up where any Tom, Dick and Harry can vote for their faves to be inducted. The top five vote-getters in the fan poll get ONE additional ballot vote, to be counted with the other 800+ ballots from the industry. Does that make sense? It’s important that it does, because as fans we need to understand that placing in the top five of the fan poll does NOT mean our band will earn automatic induction into the Hall of Fame.

Historically (since the fan poll was instituted in 2012) the band that finishes FIRST in the fan poll has been inducted, but finishing first is NOT a guarantee, nor is it inherently stated in the induction criteria.

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The next question I had to tackle was: do The Cars deserve to be in? Now, things might get muddy here emotionally but I’m going to try to stay on track. For the record, here is what the Rock Hall website puts forth as the criteria for eligibility for the Hall of Fame:

“Artists—a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians—become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.”

Okay, the first one is easy: “25 years after the release of their first record.” Since The Cars released their debut album in 1978, they were eligible for induction in 2003. Whew.

Next up: “…demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent…” I understand that this is a matter of opinion for each person casting a ballot. Of course, there is NO question in my book.

  1. Ric was an amazing lyricist and visionary, and his vocal styling was unique and well-suited to the songs he sang.
  2. Benjamin’s vocals were unfailingly beautiful and varying in range and delivery, and his bass playing was both melodic and powerful.
  3. Elliot’s lead guitar contributions were non-egocentric, masterful and relevant to each song.
  4. Greg was an incredible multi-instrumentalist, and his synthesizer sounds were bursting with creativity and style.
  5. The edgy and intelligent rhythms that David maintained, in addition to his artistic and architectural contributions to the band, formed the scaffolding that all of the other elements relied on.
  6. These five men consistently interlocked in live performances, recreating their studio sound with near perfection, often coming across better live than on vinyl.

Musical excellence and talent? Yeah, they’ve got that.

Third criteria: “…had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll…” I do think this can be a tricky one to measure, especially for the layman (namely ME) who doesn’t have a bunch of statistics to lean on (shocking, I know). But with all that I’ve read, I DO know that The Cars qualify in these ways:

EVOLUTION: The Cars are widely credited with a) infusing new sound into a stagnant roster of late seventies music — a fancy way of saying that no one sounded like they did; b) bridging the gap between traditional rock-and-roll and pop music; and c) paving the road for a whole new genre of music: New Wave. [Side note here: One afternoon my 17 year-old son, who is heavily into dubstep, was turning his nose up at my Cars music, and I sternly told him that he should send Greg Hawkes a thank you card for all that he did in pioneering the use of synthesizers and electronics in the music world! Of course, my son didn’t appreciate that very much. Haha!] They were also on the cutting edge of music video production and promotion.

DEVELOPMENT: Additionally, ALL of the members of the band have worked on numerous projects outside of The Cars, supporting and growing other artists in a wide variety of genres and through many methods (production, promotion, writing, background vocals, session instrumentation, etc.), not to mention their own solo work.

PRESERVATION: Further, music by The Cars shows up just about everywhere: in movies, children’s programs, commercials, and in 2016 as a constant presence in a new CBS television series called BrainDead. Their sound is as addictive, influential, and necessary to today’s culture as it ever was.

I know I painted with some broad strokes there — just trying to keep it simple when I could go on and on and ON… but that’s my case for eligibility and I’m standing firm on it.

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So how have The Cars done so far? They were nominated for the first time in 2015 (for induction in 2016), finished third in the fan poll (less than a tenth of a percentage point behind second place) and failed to get inducted. There was some amount of controversy surrounding the voting process. Under poor management by the Rock Hall, the poll appeared to have been hacked allowing computer ‘bots’ to submit millions of votes unchecked. Though no one was accused outright, a shadow was cast on the five bands that benefited from the suspected activity (including The Cars) and the reputation of the RRHOF Fan Poll took a major blow.

The Cars made the nomination ballot again in 2016 (for induction in 2017), and again, questionable management and murky communication by the RRHOF threw the whole fan poll into chaos. This time the Rock Hall apparently held back a slew of votes while they were verifying the integrity of those votes, and then dumped them all into the poll in one day. This made the overall totals for a bunch of the nominees go crazy and changed the order of the leaders. While no band was knocked out of the top five, The Cars were the only ones negatively affected, dropping from #3 to #5 in the rankings. They were not chosen for induction. Which brings us to where we are today…

The question I can’t help but ask now is: how much do The Cars themselves really want it? The fan poll voting was open from October 18 through December 15, 2016. The official Cars’ Twitter and Facebook pages were largely silent, doing almost nothing to encourage the fans to vote. Even “The Cars Nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum” Facebook page (which is run by Les Steinberg, Elliot Easton’s brother, but not officially endorsed by The Cars) stopped promoting daily activity in the fan poll ten days before the voting closed. Is this indicative of the band members’ desire to get into the Rock Hall?

In 2011 Ric Ocasek was asked by Stephen Colbert, “Why aren’t you guys in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” and Ric answered, “You know I really don’t know. I don’t know if I want to be in it.” (The Colbert Report) When the 2015 ballot was announced David Robinson said, “It is what it is, but actually I don’t pay any attention to that whatsoever. It isn’t anything we’ve strived for, let’s put it that way.” (The Boston Globe); and Elliot indicates in this 2014 RockSolid interview excerpt below that he’s not losing any sleep over whether The Cars are in the Rock Hall.

And all of those votes for The Cars in the fan poll this year? With little encouragement coming from the band’s official pages, the “Fanorama” stepped up and led a grassroots campaign that held The Cars solidly in the top 5 (in spite of the RRHOF’s voting mess). Twitter pages like @Night_Spots, @Tracey2063, and @JWINZombieGirl, along with Facebook fan groups like “The Cars” and “Benjamin Orr Remembered,” all contributed DAILY reminders and links to vote, which were shared and retweeted time and again, reminding people to make their voice heard. I am so proud of our dedicated fan base — how we love our boys!

So if it’s no big deal to them, why should I care one way or the other? Here are MY reasons I want The Cars inducted (in no particular order):

  1. They are deserving of it (see paragraphs above) and I want their contribution to rock 14993335_593020314240592_8536782637626328485_nand roll history to be acknowledged and recognized by their peers.
  2. I want Benjamin’s memory brought into the spotlight and honored all over the world.
  3. I love them! Their music moves me in every mood and brings me joy daily.
  4. I want an excuse to see the four remaining members together on stage again.
  5. I want to be able to say “BOOYAH!” to those naysayers that look down on my love for The Cars.

My final thoughts? I’m disappointed but not devastated. They have proven their relevance over the years, influenced countless bands that came after them, and wrote a soundtrack for my life that will never change. Whether they ever get into the RRHOF or not, The Cars will always be number one with me!

[All Cars graphics courtesy of @Night_Spots; image of the RRHOF ballot from Twitter]