Benjamin Orr Before the Cars
Before Benjamin Orr found fame with the Cars, he was just another Cleveland-area musician inspired by the Beatles' U.S. popularity to find success with his own band. That group, the Grasshoppers, was a fresh-faced quartet with heavy local radio support that was frequently and positively compared to the Fab Four.
Back then, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Orr was known as Benjamin Orzechowski -- or, colloquially, Benny "11 Letters," due to his last name. He was also a talented drummer: In a mid-'80s interview with Cleveland's The Plain Dealer, Orr said, "I had a lot of encouragement from my parents. They started me with drum lessons. I had 13 years of formal lessons."
References to the Grasshoppers started popping up in spring 1964 in The Plain Dealer, as the band began to play live shows and appear on local TV stations. The group even spent 13 weeks as the house band on the musically driven TV show The Big 5 Show, which premiered in August 1964 and was later rechristened Upbeat once it was syndicated nationwide.
On Nov. 27, 1964, the Grasshoppers had a high-profile gig as one of the openers for the Beach Boys, the Shangri-Las and Jay and the Americans at the Cleveland Arena, and the following month, the Grasshoppers opened for the Dave Clark Five.
"We call ourselves the Grasshoppers because we leap around a lot when we play," drummer Sid Turner told The Plain Dealer in a Jan. 30, 1965, article titled "Meet the Men With Green Feet" -- titled so because the piece revealed the band members dyed their boots green.
Listen to the Grasshoppers' 'Mod Socks'
As the year progressed, the Grasshoppers' profile increased around town. The band reportedly received haircuts for the benefit of a Life magazine photographer, while an argument about Orzechowski's long hair played out in the letters section. (One teen said his long hair made her "sick.") In July, a Grasshoppers fan from the U.K. arrived in Cleveland to great fanfare. Her favorite member? Orzechowski, who was characterized as "lik[ing] shrimp cocktails and sweaters, but not snow."
This increased attention coincided with the popularity of two 1965 singles, "Pink Champagne (And Red Roses)" and "Mod Socks." The Grasshoppers recorded the former tune for local label Sunburst Records, while the latter was scooped up by Warner Bros., and reached No. 104 on the Billboard chart.
The Grasshoppers' career was cut short when Turner was drafted. Even though a 1966 show listing touted the reactivated band, the group couldn't sustain momentum.
Orzechowski, meanwhile, played in a band called Mixed Emotions immediately post-Grasshoppers, and also later joined a band called Colours. He was also drafted "a little later, but luckily I didn't go to Vietnam," he told The Plain Dealer in 1978. "But when I came back I had mixed emotions about music for awhile and was a little disoriented about what I wanted to do."
Interestingly enough, however, the seeds for the Cars had already been planted several years before. Though both Orr and Ric Ocasek told variations on their meeting story through the years, the former revealed in a Nov. 20, 1987, Plain Dealer interview that he and Ocasek actually met each other because of the Grasshoppers.
Listen to Milkwood's 'With You and Me'
In the mid-'60s, Ocasek was living in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights because his dad worked for NASA. According to Orr, his future Cars bandmate rang him up after seeing the Grasshoppers perform their last gig as the house band on Upbeat. "And after that, we began writing songs together," Orr said.
But it took a while for the Cars to coalesce. Orr and Ocasek bounced around for a few years, and at first lived in Columbus, Ohio, where they founded a booking agency and played originals to disinterested crowds. Later, the friends lived in Michigan and then moved to Greenwich Village.
The pair kept plugging away at music, and released one little-heard LP, 1972's How's the Weather, as Milkwood. Later, the duo played together in a group called Richard & the Rabbits with future Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes; performed in Cambridge, Mass., coffee shops under the name Ocasek and Orr; and then teamed up in Cap'n Swing -- a group that eventually evolved into the Cars.
But even after settling in Boston, Orr never forgot the city where he grew up and cut his musical teeth. In 1985, he appeared on the Cleveland area's U.S.A. for Africa benefit song alongside other classic rockers-gone-national such as Michael Stanley and Donnie Iris.
Watch a 1985 TV Interview With Benjamin Orr
When the Cars were on the verge of releasing their self-titled debut LP -- featuring the Orr-fronted single "Just What I Needed" -- he was even more complimentary.
"I'm anxious to see Cleveland friends again," he said in a June 9, 1978, Plain Dealer article, which ran the week The Cars hit stores. "I've always dreamed of having a record on Cleveland radio stations, so it's a dream come true. I have high hopes that our band will really take off."
Top 100 '70s Rock Albums