Miami Herald (Sunday)
Oscar winner acclaimed for ‘Fame’ and ‘Flashdance’
Irene Cara reportedly once expressed concern about working with producer and songwriter Giorgio Moroder on what became her biggest hit and one of her three signature songs, “Flashdance ... What a Feeling.”
The Bronx-born singer, songwriter and actress, who died at her New Port Richey, Florida, home in the Tampa area according to her publicist Judith
Moose, worried that she’d continue to be compared with Moroder’s most famous collaborator, Donna Summer.
Cara, a singer-actress who had earlier roles in films like “Sparkle,” in 1976, with co-star Philip Michael Thomas, eight years before he found fame on “Miami Vice,” and the 1970s educational TV series, “The Electric Company,” was not without cause for wanting to make it on her own without baggage.
Both Summer and Cara were emotionally expressive singers, lyric mezzo-sopranos, who were steeped in theater before finding fame on dance floors. One could easily trace a through-line from Summer’s agile fluidity that slipped seamlessly from balladry intros to propulsive disco tempos on her Oscar-winning “Last Dance” in 1978 or her 1979 film song, “On the Radio,” with Cara’s 1980 breakthrough hits “Fame” from the movie of the same name and, of course, “Flashdance” in 1983.
Michael Gore, who cowrote the title song “Fame” with lyricist Dean Pitchford, said he wrote it under the influence of Donna Summer.
Cara would stamp the ebullient song as her own.
Both also excelled at more intimate vocal expressions, too, as on Cara’s “Out Here on My Own” from “Fame” and Summer’s “On My Honor” from the ballad side of her “Bad Girls” album.
Baltimore Banner columnist Leslie Gray Streeter, a former pop culture reporter for The Palm Beach Post, wrote on Twitter Saturday on how Cara inspired her.
“Irene Cara embodied the voice of yearning, youth and motion to me and the little girls I grew up with,” Streeter wrote.
Like many would do after Cara’s inspiring “Fame” ballad “Out Here on My Own” crested in the Top 20 in the summer of 1980, Streeter says she sang the song “in every talent show I could and closed my eyes like she said in the chorus, hoping for connection.”
Both, too, died at 63 — Summer in 2012 from cancer. Cara’s cause of death and its exact date are pending the results of an autopsy, Moose told the Miami Herald in an email. Several reports, including Rolling Stone, note Friday as the day she died.
“It is with profound sadness that on behalf of her family I announce the passing of Irene Cara,” Moose said in a statement issued early Saturday on Twitter and later shared with the Herald. “She was a beautifully gifted soul whose legacy will live forever through her music and films.”
Harry Wayne Casey, the Miami songwriter and performer namesake of KC and the Sunshine Band who scored five Billboard No. 1 singles from “Get Down Tonight” in 1975 to “Please Don’t Go” in 1980, remembers Cara rehearsing at his South Florida studios for her shows a few times.
“She was always kind and gracious,” Casey told the Herald on Saturday. “She lit up the room with her presence and was always humble. A true talent.”
Irene Cara Escalara, was born in the Bronx, New York, on March 18, 1959, as the youngest of five children born to a Puerto Rican father, Gaspar Escalera, and Cuban-American mother, Louise. Both of Cara’s parents brought music and the arts into their home. Gaspar, a factory worker, reportedly played saxophone professionally, and her mother worked as a movie theater usher.
Cara able to play the piano by ear at 5, according to a bio released by Moose, and by 3 was already being feted at award shows. She was reportedly a Top 5 finalist at a Little Miss America pageant as a toddler but she’d have the world’s stage at bigger award shows when she won an Oscar for composing the Academy’s 1983 best song winner, “Flashdance ... What a Feeling,” with Moroder and Keith Forsey.
“Flashdance” would also score Cara a Grammy in 1984 as best female pop vocal performance over formidable competition that included Summer, for “She Works Hard for the Money,” Linda Ronstadt for her standards set, “What’s New” and Bonnie Tyler’s pop culture classic, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Cara, who played drama, music and dance student Coco Hernandez in “Fame,” the fictional story of the real life High School of Performing Arts in New York City, was nominated for a best actress Golden Globe award in 1981. She gave voice to the 1980 film’s title song and “Out Here on My Own,” both of which would earn Oscar nominations for the songs’ composers Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford on the former and Gore and his sister Lesley Gore (“It’s My Party” singer) for the latter.
Cara’s parents recognized her talents early and enrolled her in music, acting, and dance classes in New York that would lead her to record a Latin-market Spanish album as a child and appearances on a Spanish-language television show in the 1960s. As a child she also performed on Ted Mack’s “The Original Amateur Hour” — a precursor to “American Idol” — and landed her first acting role, as Daisy Allen, on the daytime soap, “Love of Life,” in 1970-71, before showcasing her musical talents on “The Electric Company” alongside Rita Moreno, Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby.
Cara had Broadway and Off Broadway credits in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “The Me Nobody
Knows,” “Maggie Flynn” with Shirley Jones and “Via Galactica” opposite Raul Julia.
On TV, she had guest parts on “Kojak” and “What’s Happenning!!” in 1976 and 1977 and was in three episodes of the “Roots” sequel, “Roots: The Next Generations” in 1979.
Then “Fame” happened.
As a character in a story about a group of students auditioning for acceptance into New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, Cara’s solo vocals on the two standout songs led to “Fame” becoming the first film to place two songs sung by the same artist in competition for the Best Song Oscar.
The exposure led Cara to earn a 1982 NAACP Image Award for her acting on the NBC movieof-the-week “Sister, Sister” and a subsequent 1983 Image Award nomination for playing Myrlie Evers in the PBS “American Masters” film, “For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story.”
Moroder, who passed on “Fame,” called on Cara when he became the lead composer for the MTV-era “Flashdance” film that was released in 1983. Cara co-wrote the title song’s lyrics in the car with Keith Forsey in a car on the way to a recording studio to cut the song.
“There aren’t enough words to express my love and my gratitude,” a 24-year-old Cara said in Oscar acceptance speech, where she also credited the “Fame” director Alan Parker for his role in her musical career. “A very special gentlemen who I guess started it all for me many years ago. To Alan Parker, wherever you may be tonight, I thank him,” The Washington Post reported.
Nomination for the title role in the PBS film For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers StoryIn 1984/85, Irene was back on the big screen in the film City Heat opposite Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. She co-wrote the theme as well as performed the classic standards Embraceable
You and Get Happy. Irene also starred opposite Tatum O’Neal in the film Certain Fury, voiced Snow White in the animated film Happily Ever After, and toured as Mary Magdalene in the Andrew Lloyd Webber production Jesus Christ Superstar.
Not having sat on her laurels, in between winning Oscars, Grammys, and touring, she released the albums Anyone
Can See and What a Feeling in 1982 and 1983 respectively which spawned the additional hits Breakdance, The Dream, You Were Made for Me, and Why Me, and in 1985 collaborated and sang with Placido Domingo. In 1987, she released the album Carasmatic.
Still feeling the love of audiences everywhere, the 90s were spent living out of a suitcase on multiple concert tours. After finally getting a little breathing space, Irene formed the group Hot Caramel in 1999 and returned to performing to the delight of eager audiences clamoring to hear her unmistakable voice.
In 2004, Irene was awarded the Prestige Award for Lifetime Achievement. She was given the
Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in 2005, and in 2006, was awarded the Honorary Lifetime Achievement for outstanding contribution in the AfricanAmerican community by the Columbus Times of Georgia, the country’s oldest black newspaper.
In 2007, the Reel Sisters of the Disapora Film Festival presented her with the Trailblazer Award, and the Council of the City of New York honored her for her outstanding contributions as a performer. Perhaps one her most pleasurable moments was the 2011 unveiling of her name on a street sign in the Grand Concourse of the Bronx Walk of Fame. That same year, she released a new album titled Irene Cara Presents Hot Caramel. Now semi-retired from the industry that filled every corner of her life for decades, Irene is now enjoying entertaining audiences via her YouTube podcast The Irene Cara Music Show.
The two most memorable lines from the title song Fame are “I’m gonna live forever,” and “Baby, remember my name”. From the 5-year-old piano player to The Electric Company to Flashdance and beyond, Irene Cara’s legacy is guaranteed. Everyone will remember her name.
Funeral services are pending and a memorial for her fans will be planned at a future date, Moose said.
Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen