"Let's Go" To Cleveland! Remembering The Cars' Benjamin Orr In His Hometown

CLEVELAND, OHIO – In celebration of releasing my first book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, I recently hosted a book launch event at the Music Box Supper Club in downtown Cleveland. It was a very special night for me because Cleveland also just so happens to be the late Mr. Orr’s hometown. We were also lucky enough to be joined by the amazing, Ohio-based Cars’ tribute band Moving In Stereo.
The book event was a long time coming, a culmination of 11 years of research, seemingly countless interviews, collecting photos and then finally, securing a book deal. Yes, the night had finally arrived to celebrate, with people attending who knew Ben personally, several Cars' fans who had flown in for the occasion, and even some former band mates from Orr's early years.

Article by Joe Milliken * Photos: lead photo by Joe Kurilec, remaining photos by Mike Kenny
1. Onstage with David Spero 2. Signing books 3. Discussing Ben and the book with David 4. John Gardina joins Moving In Stereo for "Drive" 5. Curtain call!

The weekend began on Friday as my Public Relations Coordinator, Donna Neale, and I had scheduled a “media day” to discuss the book and the upcoming author event. In the morning we met with Ray Carr of WCSB-FM for an interview, before traveling to Cleveland’s Fox 8 television station to meet with TV and radio personality, Todd Meany, to interview for a new podcast he is hosting called “Cleveland Time Machine.” Meany had also interviewed me back in April for a remote TV broadcast from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when The Cars were inducted.

We closed out the afternoon with a live radio interview with the aforementioned Ray Carr on WCSB. We discussed the book and Ben’s legacy in Cleveland and with The Cars, took call-in questions from listeners, and gave away a Let's Go! book on the air. Media day was busy and a lot of fun!

On Saturday, and realizing that the big day I had worked towards for so long had finally arrived, I spent the early afternoon simply trying to relax with my friends Diane and Neil Akins. Diane was a longtime friend of Benjamin and had helped me tremendously with the book over the years, and we had a good afternoon of reflection. We then met Donna at the Music Box a couple hours before the event to set up some promotional material in the foyer where I would be signing books. Then after exchanging pleasantries with the band, we had met and saw them perform previously in April, Donna and I met with the venue sound-man to watch the slide show presentation we had created (my photos, Donna’s technical expertise) for the show.

Then, we finally met David Spero for the first time. David was a longtime friend of Ben’s, wrote the foreword for the book, and was gracious enough to be the moderator for our event. David’s late father, Herman Spero, was the executive producer of the Upbeat television show based in Cleveland, where Ben’s early band, the Grasshoppers, had been one of the show’s regular house bands in the mid-60s.

David was a prominent Cleveland rock radio personality in the 80s, and would go on to manage several popular artists over the years including Joe Walsh, Michael Stanley Band, Raspberries, Dave Mason, Cat Stevens and currently, Bad Company, Styx and Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers Band. He had also been Senior Director of Programming at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is on the Rock Hall’s Board of Trustees. To say I was thrilled to have David contribute to my book and moderate my event would be an understatement. (Editor’s note: I am also planning a more in-depth article about David’s career in music.)

We sat in our spots onstage as people were mingling about, exchanged pleasantries and talked a little about what subjects we would touch upon during the discussion and the types of questions David wanted to ask me. It was good to create a little rapport with him beforehand, not to mention just being able to interact with, quite frankly, a Cleveland icon.

Before I knew it, however, it was time to set up shop in the foyer to sign (and sell) copies of the book and looking back now, I really had no idea what I was about to experience. The line formed with people wanting their book signed and then the stories kept coming and coming and are simply too many to mention here. One fan showed me a photo of her (as a kid) with Ben and his future wife, Kris, as the fan's grandmother was a friend of Ben’s mother. Another fan told me of how his dad, who had passed away a few years ago, had gone to school with Ben and that he was at the book event in honor of his late father, while another fan (an artist), with tears in her eyes, was simply there to thank me for “writing about her hero” and wanted my contact information so she could send me an artwork she was going to create.

Also impactful was having several of Ben’s former band mates from his Cleveland years coming to the event. I had interviewed all these gentlemen for the book, but to have them come out to meet me in person was a special treat. Overall the stories throughout the night were overwhelming, humbling, and I really had no idea of the impact my book had on some of these people. In fact, I was so taken aback, that I had forgotten all about the fact that I still had to go onstage, until Donna approached me to say “We have to go, you’re onstage in 10 minutes!” Yikes!

Admittedly, I was a little overwhelmed and rattled from all the "Ben" stories, and Donna must have sensed this because she led me into the “green room” backstage, so I could gather my composure before going onstage to greet the audience. I was then led behind the curtain to a spot on the stage, where David Spero was waiting for me. “Are you nervous, Joe?” he asked quietly. “Yeah, I’m a little nervous David,” I believe I muttered. “Don’t worry about a thing, we’re just going to celebrate and talk about Ben’s greatness and everything will be fine.”

Then, the moment of truth, as the lights went down and David walked onstage, introduced himself and welcomed the audience. He mentioned writing the book foreword and briefly talked of his relationship to Ben, before introducing the slideshow presentation. Of course, I couldn't see the slideshow from my vantage point, but I peered out from behind the curtain to see a wonderful reaction from the audience... all smiles and even some tears. Ben’s charm and charisma came through (in those pictures) once again!

After David introduced me, walking onstage to a loud applause was surreal and a proud moment that I will never forget. I had some points I knew I wanted to make during our discussion, but luckily, I realized early on that I needed to just “let David drive the boat,” and from there I was able to relax. We talked of Ben's legacy, how I came about choosing him to write about, and what I learned about his life and greatness along the journey.

My favorite moment of our talk? When we asked Ben’s former band mates in the audience – Wayne Weston, Joey Kurilec, Dante Rossi, John Gardina, and Harry Harwat - to stand up and be recognized. A special touch was having Ashton Kamburoff, son of Ben’s Mixed Emotions band mate, Chris Kamburoff, stand up for his dad who couldn’t be at the event because of health issues. I would visit Chris, his wife and Ashton at their home the following day, yet another truly meaningful moment.

We then took a few questions from the audience and after David wrapped it up, Donna escorted me back to the foyer through the audience and the positive response I received with hand shakes and pats on the back is something I will never forget. I once again felt truly grateful and humbled, seemingly not worthy of the attention. After returning to my table, I sat with Suzanne, the wonderful representative from Mac’s Backs Books, and continued to sign books and listen to more stories from Ben’s fans... one after another, after another.

If I had a regret, it was not being able to spend more time in the room rocking out to Moving In Stereo and visiting with guests, but I had a job to do and because of that, I hadn’t really gotten the opportunity to watch the night develop from my spot in the foyer. However, at one point towards the end of the band’s performance, my friend Diane came to the signing table and said “You need to come with me,” and as I followed her to the main room she said, "You need to see what is happening in here... what you have done for Ben.”

We walked into the main room and what I saw, honestly, amazed me and brought tears to my eyes. The band sounded incredible and was rocking to a near full house, and people were connecting, and re-connecting, and dancing and laughing and seemingly having a wonderful time. I felt the emotions at that moment while "looking up at Ben." Then, when the band had moved offstage to take a well-deserved breather before the encore, my friend, fellow "Cleveland Rock" author and mentor, Deanna Adams, encouraged me to go onstage and thank everyone. Another surreal moment to have people thanking and cheering me on. (Thanks for the tip, Deanna.)

When the band returned for the encore they noted having earlier invited John "Johnny Joe" Gardina, Ben's former Mixed Emotions band mate, onstage to play bass for "Drive," Orr's signature song with The Cars. I proceeded to find Johnny Joe in the back of the room and encouraged him to perform with the band. After a minute of chatting about it, he said "I'll do it for Benny," and followed me to the back of the stage and indeed, performed "Drive" with the band (for the second time in the set to accommodate the occasion, thank you, Matt Fuller, Bob Heazlit, Danny Ayala, Lars Altvater, Danny Ayala, Noah Patera, Bryan Beyer and Joshua Hartman!)

I ran around to the front of the stage and took a couple phone-pics of Johnny Joe and he had this meaningful, perhaps purposeful look on his face that I will never forget. When you've researched and then interviewed many people about a man's life for over a decade, you feel that you have a pretty good idea of what he is all about and I just know, that Johnny Joe playing bass on "Drive," would have been a highlight for Ben... along with having his friend and musical confidant, David Spero, leading our discussion.

Yes, it was truly a memorable night and from the moment when Diane had made me aware of the celebration, I realized that the book launch party was truly a success, and something that Donna had been telling me all along was true; that I shouldn’t have been nervous or worried at all leading up to the event, because I had already provided the gift (the book) and everyone was simply there to give thanks and celebrate with us. Let's Go!

Editor's Note: To learn more about the book, please visit www.benorrbook.com. I will also be posting more photos from the book launch event here on Standing Room Only and the the Orr Book Facebook page.