Are there any local bands you really like now? “Like I said, I’ve been out of the country for a while now and in New York so it’s very seldom that I get out to clubs these days. We just popped over The Opera House the other night but it’s the farthest I’ve gone in quite a while. Bowie the other day. Usually the big acts, and even that’s a chore to get to these days. I just don’t have the time.” ~ interview with A.J. Wachtel of The Beat, October 1987
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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?”
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.”
I’m groggy, lying in my bed Sunday morning. I have to check out of my hotel in half an hour but I don’t want to start a new day. How could Saturday night have flown by so quickly? Images keep flooding my mind, little snippets of conversations to replay, impressions to sort and kind words to tuck away in my heart… elements of a gift. And Ben… so much Ben in the air!
If I could just turn back the clock and experience the night of January 12 all over again.
Admittedly, I almost get off on the wrong foot. I take a few wrong turns trying to get to the venue and I’m about 15 minutes late; it is a relief to finally see the shining logo of the Music Box Supper Club beckoning me in the dusk. I whisper, “Okay Ben, here we go,” as I give a little tug on my memorial pendant.
From the minute I pull into the valet lot my mind is going over the to-do list: scope out the concert hall, find the production team, preview the slideshow, time cues, guest list adjustments… Heading up the stairs and ah, there’s Joe! Yay, Neil and Diane are here! Hugs all around. Wait, where is David Spero? On his way? Got it.
The guys from Moving In Stereo are here, too! I make sure to give Matt Fuller, the bassist and co-vocalist for the band, an extra-tight hug. I am so grateful for all he did to connect us with Colleen, the owner of the venue, and to secure the gig for tonight. He’s been on board since the first hint of the event and was invaluable in my planning. I am introduced to drummer Bryan Beyer and keyboardist Joshua Hartman who are both filling in tonight. Noah Patera is unable to be here on his drums, but it turns out that Lars Altvater’s prior commitment has been cancelled. Rather than pull Josh off the keys, though, Lars chooses to spend the evening taking photographs and mingling. Like the other members of the band, Lars is the definition of class and professionalism. Rhythm guitarist and co-vocalist Danny Ayala and lead guitarist Bob Heazlit greet us with huge smiles and hearty hugs, too. I am so happy to see these talented men again!
Leaving the band to finish their dinners, Joe and I go check out the concert hall. The space is terrific: a nice-sized stage with plenty of room for the video to be shown on both the left and right of it. Tables fan out into the large seating area, and a well-equipped bar is conveniently off to the right. The servers are bustling around getting ready for their night as we preview the video setup — it’s excellent!
Ah, here’s David Spero. Okay, up on the stage, figuring out logistics. I see people are starting to trickle in. Do I know them? Are they from the Fanorama? But I don’t want to be awkward and stare, and oh yes, I need to grab drinks for Joe and David, find a portable mike for the Q&A session, and figure out where the Mac’s Backs Books rep is going to set up — oh hey, she’s here and has it all under control. I should have known. Suzanne from Mac’s Backs Books has these events down to a science and is a joy to work with. Perfect!
Before I know it the place is filling up. I’m so giddy to greet my beloved friends and to make connections with others I’ve only known in text. Lots of hugs and happiness everywhere; the place is crackling with energy. And it’s already time to pull Joe from the foyer where he’s been signing books and get him to his position on the stage. But first… the green room. We need to refocus. I give Joe a minute of quiet to breathe, to settle down and plant his feet. We both need it, actually.
Now I cue the production guys, the house lights go down, and David Spero welcomes the guests. The video plays off perfectly and Ben’s presence fills the room. We see him grow from infant to teen to rock star, moving through the success and difficulty in his life, his unmistakable charisma intact. I can’t help but seek out the faces of those who knew Ben best to catch their reactions; my heart swells as I see their approval and happiness. I feel like creating this tribute with photos and music is one of the gifts I offer for the event and I am thankful it seems well received.
People continue to arrive as David introduces Joe and the two begin their talk like old buddies. All eyes are on them. The first of two of ‘the most beautiful moments of the night’ happens when David asks Ben’s former bandmates to stand and be recognized. A handful of men rise from around the room, and the crowd answers with hearty applause. Joe makes sure to mention Chris Kamburoff (Mixed Emotions) by name, who couldn’t be here because of health issues, and encourages Chris’s son, Ashton, to stand in his father’s place. More applause… and tears, too. Precious.
We take a few questions from the audience but the time has evaporated and I give David Spero the ‘five minutes’ signal. He wraps it up like a pro, and it’s time for me to escort Joe back out to the foyer. As we wind our way through the crowd people are shaking Joe’s hand, clapping him on the back, congratulating him. His smile is huge. Moving In Stereo is taking command of the stage and the slideshow is playing again for those who missed it as we make our way out to the table, where a line of people are already waiting for a signature.
I wish I could be in two places at once, both sitting beside Joe hearing all of the amazing Benjamin stories people are sharing with him as he signs their books and poses for pictures, and simultaneously rocking out near the stage to the pulsing sounds of the greatest Cars tribute band ever. Instead I go back and forth between Joe in the foyer and the guests in the concert hall, trying to greet everyone without being a creeper… I just want to hug each one and tell them how grateful I am that they came and that they have made my night so special just by showing up.
Throughout the evening I witness so many ways that this show has brought people together. I overhear happy exclamations of, “Hey man! It’s so great to see you again!”, observe pockets of social media friends meeting and hugging, am asked to take group photos of tablemates. Two Cleveland radio legends carve out time for a chat and an interview together. Fans stop me to ask about my Benjamin Orr t-shirt, and I am able to lead them right to the artist in the audience. The grandson of one of Ben’s early friends is a fledgling guitar player, and after the show I take him to meet the members of Moving In Stereo, where they talk about Les Pauls and check out the view from the stage. And I have the privilege of meeting people who read my blog or listen to the podcast and hear their words of encouragement. It is all so dear to me!
I am also fortunate to encounter people who are important bricks in the tower of Cleveland rock history: Harry Harwat, Dante Rossi, Wayne Weston, Joe Kurilec, John Gardina, David Spero… ordinary looking people that you might pass on the street, but who played such foundational roles in Benjamin’s success, and I know that this night is also for them; it is about their legacy, too. I’m honored to have them sign my copy of the book.
And the band… THE BAND! I catch snippets of songs as I’m moving about, enjoying my favorites like “Let’s Go.” “Gimme Some Slack,” and “It’s All I Can Do.” From time to time I stop at the table where my dear friends Kurt, Nat, and Dave are, and we look at each other and gush, “these guys ROCK!” but I don’t really get a chance to focus on the show until a bit later when Joe has a break in the autograph action and he’s able to come join the party. We rock out to “Good Times Roll” and “Just What I Needed” and people are dancing and singing along and the room is packed… it’s so awesome! Even with two stand-ins the music is so tight and true and my adrenaline soars even higher.
Toward the end of the band’s hour-and-a-half set, the second of ‘the two most beautiful moments of the night’ takes place. One of Ben’s former bandmates, Mixed Emotions bassist John “Johnny Joe” Gardina, has come to the event. It takes some persuading, but he is finally convinced to join Moving In Stereo onstage for an encore performance of “Drive.” It’s so touching to see the smile on the face of this talented and humble man as he picks out the bassline to one of the most memorable songs Benjamin Orr ever sang. The way he stands toward the back like Ben used to, and how he adds his own flair to the melody, and shyly accepts the cheers of the crowd… All these little things reflect how much Johnny Joe loves and honors Ben. It is both tender and badass at once, and a highly fitting way to end the night.
Now maybe you already know this about me: I’m not a professional publicist. I am a homeschooling mom with four kids and I’m a bit of an organizational freak, so while I know how to boss people around and get things done, I’ve never put together a shindig this big. Joe took quite a gamble, placing the responsibility of this event in my hands. And I know this night is not about me, not in the slightest. But I gotta tell you, as I look around at about 300 people partying over Ben and the book, I feel pretty proud of myself. No catastrophes, no resorting to Plan Bs, no disappointments, and Joe is rosy-cheeked with happiness. A definite success.
The cherry on top? One of my writing heroes, accomplished Cleveland author Deanna Adams, is in attendance, and when I meet her she praises me loudly for all the work I’ve done promoting Let’s Go!, and she announces that she wants me to be the public relations coordinator for her next book. I won’t hold her to that second part of it, but I take it as a very sweet and meaningful compliment, and I feel it deeply.
The lights come up but the connections continue. More introductions are made, hellos and goodbyes, group photos. My voice is a bit hoarse, but I can’t stop smiling. It’s all been so lovely! As Joe and I prepared for this night, I kept telling him, “Don’t be nervous. These people just want to party with you. You’ve already given them your gift.” And now I realize, as I run my fingers over my Benjamin Orr memorial pendant (as I’ve done so often this evening), that this party itself was full of gifts, too, that every attendee generously gave to us.
“On the road there’s not much chance to just sit and talk. But with Ric and I, there isn’t much need. I know everything there is to know about Ric and vice versa. It’s pretty much a non-verbal communication at this point. I know he’s watching out for me and the other way around.” ~ Herald & Review, September 24, 1980
On writing songs with Benjamin for The Lace: “I kept hearing this song coming upstairs from the studio and one day he said, ‘Hey, do you want to try writing lyrics with this song?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ And I said, ‘How will you know whether it’s going to work or not?’ and he said, ‘I’ll know immediately. If it works, it works.’ So we wrote ‘Stay The Night’ and it came very easily, and it was smooth, and he seemed to like my work, so we continued on from there and we wrote eleven songs.” — Diane Grey Page, “Rock Of The World” interview with host Phil Harvey, 1986
This is an excerpt from an interview with Brandon Flowers of The Killers with Q on CBC. I can’t help but see two parallels here to the personality of Benjamin Orr: how both were different people on stage, and how both may have been motivated by an internal drive for acceptance.
“I have some weird desire to be accepted and to be acknowledged… I make you notice when I go on stage.” ~ Brandon Flowers, January 10, 2018