Benjamin Orzechowski (known as Ben Orr) played in numerous bands before finding fame in the late Seventies and Eighties with the Cars. Orr, who died Oct. 3 of pancreatic cancer, never forgot his old bandmates, and they never forgot him. At a gathering at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Nov. 10, about 150 friends and relatives came together to remember him. Almost all of them spoke of how Orr treated them as family, whether they were blood relatives or not. The Rock Hall was an appropriate locale for the tribute, as Orr, who was fifty-three when he passed away, started his musical career in Cleveland in the mid-Sixties, when he played with the Grasshoppers. Members of that band, as well as many others, were present at the private event, which was held in the Hall’s small fourth-floor theater. A live feed was broadcast in the main lobby so that museum visitors could watch the proceedings.
The memorial commenced with an introduction by Michael Stanley, who recalled the various occasions on which he had met Orr and described him as a “cross between Elvis and Paul McCartney.” Throughout the course of the evening, Stanley would introduce speakers with a certain levity (he made numerous jokes about their deteriorating eyesight) and continually expressed his admiration for Orr.
The first speaker, Chris Kamburoff, had played with Orr in Mixed Emotions, a band that preceded the Cars by several years, and he led the audience through the “Our Father” prayer after saying, “Benjamin will live on.”
Diane Akins, a Clevelander who was branch president of the Grasshoppers fan club, first met Orr at a concert in 1964 when the group was opening for the Beach Boys. “From that day on, he was like a brother to me,” she said, adding that Ben loved her mother’s cheesecake and spaghetti.
Ex-Grasshoppers Dante Rossi and John Matuska also testified to the way Orr affected them. Rossi, who currently plays in a Cleveland-based band called the Baskerville Hounds, dedicated a poem to Orr that his mother left behind before she died last year. Matuska described Orr as a “brother” and then went to praise his geniality. “In all that time I knew Ben, he and I never had an angry word for each other,” he said. “When I was younger, I took it for granted. Now that I’m older and have interacted with a lot of people, I can see what a rare thing that is. Ben was what I call a feel-good person. When you were around him, you couldn’t help but feel good.”
Steve Dudas, who worked with the Grasshoppers as a roadie, remembered Orr as “extremely talented, often funny, sometimes serious, and introspective. . . . Ben seemed very much at peace with the world,” Dudas said about his last conversation with Orr, about a year ago.
Cars keyboardist Greg Hawke recalled meeting Orr in 1973 when Orr and Cars singer/guitarist Ric Ocasek were recording their first album as Milkwood (Hawke played keyboards on the band’s debut). He recalled the different events that led up to his joining the Cars in 1977. “Ben was the real rock star of the band,” Hawke said. “He had the look, and he had the attitude. On the morning I heard Ben died, I put on a couple of Cars albums — which I hadn’t done in some time — just to hear his voice.”
Jeff Carlisi, formerly .38 Special, played with Orr in a band called Big People, who toured until Orr became too sick to go on the road. He said that Orr was “his hot sauce partner” and related how they became close friends the time they played together.
The final speaker was Orr’s fiancé, Julie Snider, who had organized the memorial. She thanked everyone who assisted her and talked mostly about her love for Orr, whom she had met just over a year ago. “When I think of Ben and all that he meant to me, language is just inadequate,” she said. “Ben, I wanted you to stay the night but that wasn’t God’s plan.”
Other speakers included Rock & Roll Hall of Fame programming director David Spero, who recalled seeing the Grasshoppers play at his bar mitzvah; Tom Hambridge, who played in the Ben Orr Band; Cars drummer David Robinson; Orr’s niece Lisa Danowski; and representatives from the National Pancreas Foundation.
The memorial concluded with a moving slide show, which featured pictures of Orr from infancy through his various bands, to the musical accompaniment of the Orr-sung Cars song “Drive” and Orr’s own “Stay the Night.”