(November 26, 2022). Irene Cara, singer of the theme songs to two of the early 1980s’ most iconic performing arts-related films, passed away on Friday (November 25) of undisclosed causes at her home in Florida.
Since the news of her death, fond memories and tributes have been coming fast and furious in both traditional and social media all over the internet, and deservedly so.
Cara, born Irene Escalera in New York in 1959, had not been in the spotlight for nearly four decades, but her passing is one that hit fans hard as no one expected it and the news immediately conjured up memories of her two biggest hits and a stellar career that blossomed when she was barely a teenager (on PBS-TV’s educational program “The Electric Company”) and which exploded in film and music less than a decade later.
A gifted singer and Oscar-winning songwriter, Irene Cara, who was 63, came to major fame in 1976 as a star of the original version of the musical film Sparkle, in which she played the titular character.
That movie—about three sisters aspiring to break out of the Harlem ghetto to achieve music superstardom—skirted the edges of blaxploitation but saw a 17-year-old Cara (of Black Puerto Rican and Cuban-American descent) stand out as the most promising new actor in a cast of many.
Sparkle was a box-office flop but led to more prominent roles for Cara including being cast as noted author Alex Haley’s mother Bertha in the 1979 ABC-TV miniseries “Roots: The Next Generations,” which was a sequel to the network’s highly successful “Roots” miniseries (based on Haley’s early African-American ancestry) two years earlier.
But neither of those high-profile roles—nor her earlier time as a member of the band The Short Circus on TV’s “The Electric Company”—came close to bringing Cara the levels of fame she would achieve by singing the iconic theme songs to two of the biggest musical films of the early 1980s: Fame (1980) and Flashdance (1983).
Fame, which was set in New York’s High School of Performing Arts and in which Cara starred as Coco Hernandez (the only main character to master in all three of the school’s key curricula—dance, music, and theatre), seemingly mirrored Cara’s blossoming career, as the highly talented entertainer was on the cusp of blowing up in ways that would embrace all three fields.
The movie’s title track, “Fame,” which Cara sang, raced up the charts in summer 1980, peaking at No. 4 on the pop chart (the Hot 100) and, just as importantly, No. 1 on the Billboard Disco Top 100 chart.
In one shot, the then-21-year-old phenom had created a smash record that showed off her singing talents, that blew up America’s dance floors, and was from a movie in which she starred—the worlds of singing/dancing/acting seemingly hers to conquer.
Except one part of that three-legged confluence—particularly dance music and especially that of the disco variety—was experiencing a serious downturn in popularity by then. Cara’s “Fame” had caught the last wave of disco’s popularity in a year when that genre’s share of the consumer market was becoming increasingly smaller.
Indeed, “Fame” was a loud and fast dance tune at a time when softer pop rock singers like Air Supply and Christopher Cross were on their come-ups, when country-pop (thanks to the simultaneous popularity of Urban Cowboy) was everywhere, and when new wave was beginning to take over as the latest mainstream form of popular dance music.
But Cara was undaunted. With the film’s soundtrack on RSO Records—the same label that masterminded Saturday Night Fever and Grease just two-and-a-half years earlier—the cards were seemingly stacked in the young singer’s favor, despite the label’s only other top-five hit that year coming six months earlier (Andy Gibb’s “Desire”).
Out there on her own…
Still “Fame” flew high, as did Cara’s follow-up single, the acoustic piano-only accompanied “Out Here On My Own.”
That ballad was also from Fame but more fitting for the times. It was slow, plodding, and introspective (“sentimental shit” as Cara’s character Coco Hernandez deemed it after nailing the tune in the movie). “Out Here” fell right in line with simultaneously charting ballads like Air Supply’s “All Out of Love,” Boz Scaggs’ “Look What You’ve Done To Me” and Chris Cross’ “Sailing,” to name a few.
In fact, nothing could have been more metaphorical to Cara’s place in music in late 1980 than “Out Here On My Own.” After all, the rollicking “Fame” had just helped keep disco’s flickering flame lit long enough to give Cara an unlikely top-five smash hit during a time when most dance-oriented acts’ pop crossover careers were in the rear view mirror.
When that dance flame was extinguished, Cara and others like her were seemingly left out there on their own—an ominous sign that anyone attempting to build a career on a heavy diet of dance and disco music in the coming years would be in for a rude awakening.
Even as her profile had significantly increased by virtue of the Fame movie and its two hit singles—both of which were nominated for Best Song Oscars (a first for two songs from the same motion picture!) and both of which Cara sang at the 1981 Academy Awards—she couldn’t get another top-40 hit for more than two years after “Out Here” ran its course.
Her debut album, Anyone Can See, released on Al Coury’s newly founded Network Records in 1982, contained the title track—a ballad that fell short of the top 40 that year (peaking at No. 42 on the Hot 100). Coury, the record mogul who had helped build the careers of so many superstars on RSO Records—including Cara’s, could no longer work his magic for the young Irene, who seemed destined for two-hit-wonder status.
…What a Feeling!
That all changed with Flashdance and its title track, “Flashdance…What A Feeling,” the earnest but irresistibly optimistic anthem belted by Cara in 1983 for the film starring young actress Jennifer Beals as a steel worker and (what else?) an aspiring dancer.
Just as the exuberant “Fame” had rode dance music’s last wave of mainstream popularity out of the public’s consciousness in late 1980, Cara’s equally over-the-top comeback smash was making a splash during a dance music renaissance that would see the genre experiencing highs like it hadn’t since the late 1970s.
“What A Feeling” happened in a flash, just as a wave of so-called “new music”—essentially the second British Invasion (artists like Duran Duran, Men Without Hats, A Flock of Seagulls, Human League, ABC, etc.)—was changing the face of dance music here in America.
Would she fit in?
The influx of those new British acts plus some American dance-rock counterparts like Greg Kihn Band and The Romantics meant that traditional, R&B-leaning disco was no longer dominating US dance floors, but new wave and rock-oriented dance music was alive and well.
Yet thanks to the movie’s wild popularity, everything associated with Flashdance—including the soundtrack and its title song—benefitted tremendously. At one point the Flashdance album was second only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the best-selling LP in the country, reportedly moving 1.5 million copies in May 1983 alone (it eventually displaced Thriller from No. 1 that June)…thanks in large part to “What A Feeling,” which was the closest thing to traditional disco in the pop top ten and which, itself, was on the way to a gold certification for a million copies sold.
Despite how much it stood out from the Eurocentric dance pop tunes dominating the airwaves that year, “Flashdance…What A Feeling” rose above them all and became an across-the-board crossover smash, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard adult contemporary list, No. 2 on its R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and No. 1 on its dance/disco chart.
More importantly, it spent six long weeks at No. 1 on the pop list, longer than any other song from the legendary Casablanca Records on which it was recorded (including all of Donna Summer’s No. 1 hits on the label from the ‘70s).
“What A Feeling” also became the biggest hit co-written and produced by Georgio Moroder, the Italian disco mastermind whose biggest hits before then were by superstars Blondie (“Call Me”) and Summer (“Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “MacArthur Park).
“Flashdance…What A Feeling” was a symbolic victory for dance music in other ways too.
Notably, it completed a No. 1 pop trifecta for songs that had also topped the dance/disco chart by replacing David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” at the top of the Hot 100, which in turn had replaced Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
Those three songs marked the first time since 1979 (and only the second time overall) that three No. 1 dance/disco songs had successively topped the Hot 100 (previously Chic’s “Le Freak” was followed in immediate succession at the top of the chart by Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”).
Also, just as the Fame soundtrack had done for RSO Records in 1980, Flashdance gave Casablanca Records one last gasp of pop glory in 1983, each happening coincidentally just years before both labels folded. “Fame” and “Flashdance…What A Feeling” were the last two songs by a female singer (and the next-to-last overall) to reach the top ten on RSO and Casablanca Records, respectively.
Given how instrumental both of those labels had been in creating disco’s meteoric explosion in the late 1970s, it seemed fitting that Cara’s ‘80s dance triumphs would become exclamation points in the closing chapters for each company—one happening during disco’s demise, the other as part of dance music’s amazing resurgence.
She can have it all…
Just like its two top-40 predecessors from Fame, “Flashdance…What A Feeling” would also be nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song from a Motion Picture, making Cara the first and still only artist to have her first three top-40 singles all nominated for Academy Awards.
“Fame” won the Best Original Song award during the 1981 ceremony for its songwriters (Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore, brother of Lesley “It’s My Party” Gore). Lesley had done the writing honors with her brother on losing song “Out Here On My Own.”
“Flashdance…What A Feeling” won the same award in 1984, which earned its songwriters—Moroder, Keith Forsey and Cara trophies.
And just like that, along with two Grammy wins that year, Cara had become a No. 1 sensation, a Grammy and Oscar-winning singer/songwriter, and an actress whose best days still seemed to be ahead of her.
She would return to the top 40 a few more times, most notably with the hard-charging synth-pop number “Why Me?,” which peaked at No. 13 in late 1983, the rock-tinged “The Dream (Hold On To Your Dream),” which hailed from the movie D.C. Cab and reached No. 37 in 1984, and her biggest post-Flashdance hit, “Breakdance,” which reached the top 10…also in 1984.
Unfortunately, that’s where her successful pop music career came to an abrupt halt. The immensely popular Irene Cara fell out of the spotlight at the decade’s halfway point, just as the dance music she had helped resurrect was surging.
Cara blamed her sudden disappearance from the pop scene on label honcho Al Coury, to whose companies—first RSO and then Network Records—she was signed and whom she had sued for back payment of royalties she never received for her earlier recordings, including the hugely successful “What A Feeling.”
That million-seller was the third-biggest hit of 1983 (behind The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Jackson’s “Billie Jean”), yet Cara reportedly only received $183 in payments from Coury, whose Network Records apparently had rights to the song in an arrangement with Casablanca.
Cara believed until the end that Coury, who died in 2013, had blackballed her from the industry after her successful lawsuit. Cara had been awarded $1.5 million by a Los Angeles Superior Court, a sum Coury and Network Records never paid her after declaring bankruptcy.
It’s a sad, dark footnote to the story of Irene Cara whose career was highlighted by two of the most optimistic, shoot-for-the-stars, power anthems in pop and dance music history.
Cara’s “Fame” and “Flashdance…What A Feeling” both gave license for young people to take their passion and make it happen…and to dance for their lives!
R.I.P. Irene Cara (March 18, 1959 – November 25, 2022).
And thanks for giving us songs that will live forever…we will remember your name!
Eighties pop enthusiast DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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