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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AJ Wachtel: Friend first, fan second

As we know, Benjamin Orr was always rather reticent when it came to giving interviews, so I always feel like I’ve found a treasure when I come across an article or footage where he shares his thoughts. I love to highlight them in my regular blog feature, “Quoting Benjamin,” but as time has gone on it has been harder and harder to fill that spot.

Earlier this summer my research nerd-twin, Judi, posted a link to an article that quoted Benjamin from an old issue of The Beat magazine that I hadn’t seen before. I noticed that the author of the link and the author of the 1987 interview were one and the same, and I decided to be bold and try to make a connection to see if I could get my eyes on the entire interview. What I ended up with is so much better!

the cars beat magAJ Wachtel is a long-time entertainment journalist who has rubbed elbows with the best and worst of Boston’s famed music scene, and chronicled it all for posterity. When he heard I was trying to get in touch he responded immediately; I was a bit blown away by his eagerness to help. He offered to scan and send the original article, and ended up finding a vintage issue of The Beat magazine for me in his files. On top of that, he sent me photos of Benjamin that I hadn’t seen before! And when I asked, he was more than willing to tell me of his friendship with Ben, and give me permission to share his stories here.

AJ grew up in New Jersey but headed to Boston University in 1974. He was studying for his MBA when his father passed away and he had to drop out of grad school. He lived in Allston and started hanging out at Bunratty’s, an Irish bar that was teeming with the hottest Boston bands of the day, and it was there that he became friends with legendary entrepreneur Mickey O’ Halloran. The Mick (as he was affectionately known) was a scrappy kid with street smarts who grew up to be one of Beantown’s busiest businessmen.

In addition to managing Bunratty’s (one among many clubs over the years), Mickey and his business partner David Gee (Giammatteo) started up a weekly fanzine called The Beat Magazine – “Best Entertainment Around Town” – in 1984. Seeing AJ’s intelligence and passion for music, Mickey recruited AJ to help document the loud and lively club culture in the greater Boston area. It wasn’t long until he was going to three or four nightclubs a night to see bands play and translating those shows into cover stories, live reviews and tasty tidbits for the magazine’s gossip column, Insignifica.

Mickey O and Dave Gee were good friends with Steve Berkowitz, who had been road manager for The Cars for a decade. By the late 1980s, Berkowitz was involved in supporting another local band, Push Push, featuring the very talented Dennis Brennan playing guitar and fronting the group. Berkowitz had convinced Mickey and Dave to do a cover story on his new band for The Beat. It was first assigned to another writer who did a terrible job; bad enough that Steve complained to the publishers. Who would bail them out? The task fell on AJ.

He was pretty unfamiliar with the band and with Berkowitz, but he agreed to meet with them at a small club in The Fens for an interview.

“The first thing on my agenda to do was to impress them right away to be reassured that I would write a killer story. I was certain that this would greatly please everyone. We sit down at a table and Steve buys us beers. I ordered two drafts and when the beers came I guzzled the big 16 ouncers in a row in five seconds and then burped and told them ‘I was ready for the interview.’ I was sure that guzzling 32 ounces in five seconds would scare the shit out of them and I was surely glad when I saw the looks of horror on all of their faces. Of course, I wrote a fine story that they used for promotion.”

In a ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ world, AJ knew he had earned a gimme. He had an idea to ask Berkowitz to repay the favor by connecting him with The Cars for an interview and Berkowitz came through. “I was introduced to Ben Orr over the phone and I made him laugh with a few of my more offhand and off-color comments. We hit it off and kept in touch and hung out from then until just before he died.”

That phone interview with Ben in early October of 1987 resulted in an article published in issue 90 of The Beat later that month, and to backstage passes to a show at the Boston Garden in November during The Cars’ Door to Door tour.  “Ben wanted me to be there and he put me on the guest list. Let me tell you, backstage at The Garden is many rooms and is pretty huge. The show was great and I didn’t really bother anyone after it ended. But I DID grab a few band beers!

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AJ and Ben in the late 80s. Photo courtesy of AJ Wachtel.

“We got along from the beginning. I think he liked our shared passion for music and New Wave music. I think he liked my writing style. I know he appreciated my sense of humor. I think he was amused that I was very opinionated and was a typical loud Type A New Yorker, too. He invited me a few times to his nice home in Weston but I just never made it.”

When a journalist and a celebrity develop a bond, a special kind of trust must be established to move from ‘acquaintance’ to genuine friendship. Ben and AJ had a lot in common, but it was AJ’s discretion and sincerity that allowed Ben to relax and enjoy their time together.

“I was a friend AND a fan of Ben’s and always made sure I didn’t overstep my relationship by getting involved in his business world unless he brought it up. Even in his private life, I wouldn’t pepper him with questions about things he didn’t really want to talk about. I think that’s one reason Ben and I got along. He knew that if something was mentioned privately between us it wasn’t gonna end up at the top of my gossip column, Insignifica.”

AJ and Benjamin saw each other often through the 90s. In the same way that AJ’s respect for Ben’s privacy created an easy vibe, Ben’s humble personality made it natural for AJ to forget he was hanging out with a star.

“For a very complex individual, Ben to me was pretty laid back and easy going. He was a very serious person who often smiled and laughed a lot when he was in my presence. I sensed he didn’t feel the need to be the center of attention everywhere he went. He didn’t let his stardom go to his head. He didn’t have five big bodyguards protecting him and keeping fans away whenever he showed up around town. Ben was very approachable and accessible in a way that Ric Ocasek isn’t.

“I remember when his solo album The Lace came out about a year before I originally interviewed him, and we talked privately about his new music. When I told him my favorite song on the release was the rocker ‘Too Hot To Stop’ and then went into a five minute lecture on why I thought it was a great song, I could really tell he was genuinely very happy that I dug it so much. It’s a small thing, but I remember the big smile on his face as I talked.”

AJ remembers Ben as being very personable, and that “he had a small stable of good friends he’d go and socialize with on his time off from his busy schedule recording and touring.” The guys always had a lot of fun when they were together, whether it was knocking back beers at a club or visiting backstage.

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Benjamin and John Kalishes, South Station, 1995. Photo courtesy of AJ Wachtel.

“I saw Ben and John [Kalishes] play a gig with Muzz (John Muzzy from Farrenheit- Charlie Farren’s band) behind the kit. Bassist Ben played acoustic guitar and Kalishes played electric guitar. It was at the South Station T stop and I came to the show with my son who was a toddler; so it must have been around 1995. As soon as they finished their set, the guys couldn’t wait to show me ‘backstage’ at South Station and took me downstairs below the station to show me the many rooms and old tunnels with train tracks still on the floor. All three of them acted as tour guides to me and my son and I laughed when I thought how funny it was that Ben, John and Muzzy were showing me around and had so much enthusiasm after playing an hour set. The dressing room dungeon in this generally unknown and rarely seen basement is a place I have never been to again.

“I always felt like I was an equal part of the moment with them and that they enjoyed me being there. Again I was both a friend and a fan of these great musicians. A friend first. A fan second. And that’s the way it worked in our circle.

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Tina, Gerard, Ben, and AJ at the Four Seasons circa 1994. Photo courtesy of AJ Wachtel.

“I don’t remember why, but once Ben and his friend Gerard met me and my son’s mother, Tina, at the really ritzy Four Seasons. All four of us were dressed up. I had my top hat and was wearing tails, Tina had a mink stole, and Ben and Gerard were in casual nouveau riche;  dark suits with no ties and sneakers. We sat around and had drinks and hors d’oeuvres for a few hours before we parted ways.

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Ben with AJ and AJ’s young son, Harrison, circa 1996. Photo courtesy of AJ Wachtel.

“Probably the last time I hung with Ben was when I ran into him backstage at The Hatch Shell for a show we had  come to see separately with our kids in tow. The kids had met before and his young son and my young son, Harrison, were about the same age Both had very, very blonde hair. I remember watching them playing together, then glancing at Ben’s dyed blonde hair and my very brown locks, and joking that ‘it took the Wachtel family generations to breed the Jewish looks out….’ as Ben grinned and shook his head at me.”

Though their busy schedules didn’t allow Ben and AJ to hang out constantly, AJ treasures the time and the closeness the two shared, and feels Ben’s loss keenly.

“Ben Orr died just way too young. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, his early death and it’s resulting denial of potentiality is both saddening and inconsolable. But we still have his voice and the songs.”

And AJ has his memories, too. I’m honored that he shared them with us!

AJ currently writes for Blues Music Magazineread his latest CD reviews on pages 65 and 71 in the October issue. You can also follow him on Facebook. I hope you’ll let him know how much we appreciate him keeping Ben’s legacy alive!