It’s time to pull on your leotard, strap on those legwarmers and find a yellow taxi to dance on top of, because forty years ago, Irene Cara was in the process of recording the second of two huge career-defining F-songs from films about American youth‘s dreams of glory in the post-disco years. Though it was a career slightly overshadowed by lazy, repeated comparisons to Donna Summer. Let’s just say she worked hard for the money, and even harder to receive it.
In the 1980 movie Fame, directed by Alan Parker straight after the harrowing Midnight Express, Irene Cara plays the lead role of Coco Hernandez, a multi-ethnic go-getter so shit-hot that she was accepted into all three departments (drama, music and dance) of her local performing arts school. Unobtrusively tucked away in the middle of a non-descript block on 46th Street, New York’s High School For The Performing Arts was, as Parker recalls, “appropriately just two minutes from Times Square and the great white way of Broadway.”
In real life, Bronx-based Puerto Rican Cara was something of a child star, blessed with a brilliantly expressive voice and an effervescent, confident screen presence. Not only did she sing the occasional back-up for the likes of Lou Reed but while still a teenager she played the lead role in Sparkle, a movie cult-favourite about a Supremes-style group that was remade in 2012 with Whitney Houston in her final role.
In a double-threat case of art imitating life, Irene Cara had also been a student of NYC’s feted academy, as was Manhattanite Erica Gimpel, four years behind Cara. Both girls performed the eponymous theme song to Fame because Irene Cara chose to not replicate the role when the film was made into a TV series in 1982.
That’s where the previously unknown Gimpel comes in. Said film and song did absolutely zilch in Britain, so when the television adaptation of Fame debuted on BBC 1 in June 1982 we were watching and listening through new eyes and ears, and the opening title song was sung by Gimpel, who also played the role of Coco that Cara had originated.
The programme — for its corny uplifting faults — had been much hyped in Britain and we were one of many families who tuned in religiously, at least for the first season or two.
Strangely, Gimpel’s version was never released on record, but oh-so-predictably, Cara’s record label RSO re-promoted the Oscar-winning Fame as a brand new single, corporate calculation of coke can logo approximation and all. It hadn’t charted in the UK first time around, but had reached No. 4 in the US. Clearly this was a cash-in they felt was owed to them.
On the UK singles chart announced by Radio 1 on 29 June 1982 (three days after I became a teenager, and four days after Erica Gimpel turned 18), Fame checked in at a lowly 51, though with all the chatter about the programme, it was No. 1 just two weeks later, where it stayed for three solid weeks and had the distinction of keeping not one but two mumbo jumbo titles — Abracadabra and Da Da Da — off the top.
Fame went on to become Britain’s third best-selling song of 1982 behind The Eye Of The Tiger and Come On Eileen, the latter of which dethroned the New Yorker from the top of the UK chart.
Admittedly, by the time it hit the top spot, we’d been so used to hearing the Gimpel telly take every time the show started that Cara’s vocals seemed like an imposter overdub, a meretricious takeover by an older woman compared to the sweetness of Erica’s teenage performance. Of course, as the popularity of the series waned, so Gimpel’s version became a distant memory.
Now, four decades on, apart from the Kids From Fame single tie-ins of the chirpy Hi Fidelity and the sick-making Starmaker, I remember nothing of any of Fame’s episodes except that Debbie Allen being formidable and the story where Carlo Imperato as Danny Amatullo has a wee problem with “uppers” and “downers”. Gosh, what could they be referring to, pop pickers?
For the record, even though the teacher Elizabeth Sherwood (Carol Mayo Jenkins) looked alarmingly like my drama teacher Miss Broadhurst, we’d certainly stopped tuning in by Janet Jackson’s debut in season 4 (the the soft-spoken Cleo Hewitt”, says CheatSheet), so had virtually no idea who she was until What Have You Done For Me Lately? exploded on to the charts.
Though recorded after the Disco Sucks holocaust, the Fame tune itself boasts a gloriously funky and scratchy disco riff that sounds like it was recorded at the peak of the genre: part Hot Stuff* and part Tragedy, you could say.
It already, in this respect, sounds a little dated. No, not dated – that sounds negative – nostalgic. Cara also sounds every inch the disco diva, especially belting out pumped up pleadingly egocentric lines like: “You ain’t seen the best of me yet, Give me time I’ll make you forget the rest… Don’t you know who I am? Remember my name!”
This could be an obnoxious-sounding song, all about how amazingly famous the singer is going to be: the soundtrack to every annoying drama-school wannabe. And the less said about the contradiction in terms that is “I’m gonna make it to heaven, light up the sky like a flame. I’m gonna live forever…” the better, right? For shame, stand up at the back Michael Pitchford Dean and, supplying the swirling music, Michael Gore (younger brother of Lesley “It’s My Party” Gore fame).
But, happily, there’s enough grit to it to save it; Cara selling it completely. Why the hell can’t she live forever? My advice: go for the 12” mix – five minutes long with lots more of the gnarly guitars. (And yes, I did just say ‘gnarly’.)
As a Famey footnote, the self-congratulatory “Remember, remember” refrain was conjured up and sang by the song’s backing vocalist, the-then yet-to-break-big Luther Vandross, who, weirdly, had got his start singing back-ups on virtually every song on David Bowie’s Young Americans album except for Fame, the hit that this song took its name from.* Anyway, it’s time to move on, just a bit, to 1983. Alan Parker again, not varnishing his words in the slightest:
“Irene Cara spent the following years endlessly singing the Fame song and its clone Got (sic) A Feeling from Flashdance on any show that would have her. Saturday Night Live did a great pastiche with their own lyrics to the Fame tune, called “SAME” — “Every time it’s the same song”. Mind you, we can’t entirely take the moral high ground. We did nick the final conclusive finale from Jeff Lynne and, arguably, my title from David Bowie.”
There’s a brand new myth, sorry, theory, doing the rounds in recent times. Apparently, the song that was Number 1 on your 14th birthday is the one that defines your entire life. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but someone on the internet said it does, so hey, let’s roll with it.
Well, that musical honour went to that limpid radio behemoth, the stalker’s very own “our tune”, Every Breath You Take by The Police, which was the year’s biggest seller in many counties including the USA. Hmm, the bitter sting of tears indeed. It’s decent, but how about I put through a quick call Down Under to my adopted homeland, Australia, to see if they have anything better?
I knew the Aussies wouldn’t let me down because reigning supreme on the incongruously titled Kent Music Report for a whopping six long weeks, from May through to July 1983, was a song I wrote about in 2021, the epic Total Eclipse Of The Heart by the queen of poodle perms, Bonnie Tyler.
And on the American Billboard Hot 100? Well, it was that other Irene Cara post-disco film tie-in thing, Flashdance…What A Feeling, co-written with Donna Summer’s chief cook and bottle-washer, Giorgio Moroder.
Moroder had been approached to score the film soundtrack to Fame but he was “busy on a new Donna Summer album,” remembers Alan Parker. (Going by the chronology it could have been The Wanderer or even the mixtape sequencing of On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II.)
However, having just completed the Cat People title track with David Bowie, the Teutonic tunesmith was available to soundtrack the Flashdance film, by Adrian Lyne, about a steel mill worker in Pittsburgh PA who’s a dancer by night, this time played on screen by Jennifer Beals. It’s essentially an MTV-style retelling of the Rocky fairytale that subs out Sylvester Stallone’s down-on-his-luck mob-enforcer boxer for Beals’ nervously striving steelworker and aspiring performer.
Moroder provided the album and the single, aided by arch disciple Keith Forsey as drummer, co-writer and co-producer. It’s a propulsive, rousing call to arms, and Cara’s warm and expressive vocal conveys yearning and humanity, which offsets the occasional chilliness of the synthesized backdrop.
The singer had a good, well, feeling about the song, though, by her own admission, had been somewhat reluctant to work with Moroder because she didn’t want to trigger comparisons to Moroder’s star client, Summer, admitting in a 1984 interview with Billboard:
“Giorgio approached me right after Fame. The only reason I didn’t go with him at the time was all the comparisons. But with Flashdance, we were thrown together by Paramount.”
“I knew when we were recording it that we had something special with the song,” Cara added, in an interview for BBC Radio 2’s Electric Dreams: The Giorgio Moroder Story. “Some things you just feel, you know? You can’t really dissect it or analyse it. It’s a spiritual thing that you sense, and I did sense that I had something special with this song.”
With Moroder taking care of the music, the wordage was a co-write between Cara and Forsey, who were shown the final scene of the film, so they could get a sense of what the lyrics should be. They both felt that the dancer’s ambition to succeed would work as a metaphor for anyone hoping to achieve any dream. Very Fame-like, then, as Parker had suggested. Flashdance…What a Feeling wasn’t the first or last motivational anthem to reach No. 1, but it’s one of the best of its time. The lyric “Take your passion and make it happen” is excellent career and life advice. Also, the line “in a world made of steel, made of stone” is an apt nod to the day job of Jennifer Beals’ butch welder character.
As far as the chorus lined up, Moroder felt that the oft-repeated lyric “what a feeling” was right for the story but tried to persuade Cara and Forsey to incorporate the title of the film into the lyrics. But that never hurt Space Oddity or Bohemian Rhapsody, so the word “flashdance” never appears in the song – it’s a tough word to rhyme – but the words “flash” and “dance” do appear separately. It was only after the song was completed with the intended title “What a Feeling” that the word “Flashdance…” was tacked onto the title, for its promotional value.
The song wound up being used over the climactic scene Forsey and Cara had previewed, as well as during the opening credits, where Beals rides her bike through the streets of Pittsburgh just after sunrise, as she starts her shift at the steel mill.
Released on Casablanca Records, the label responsible for Donna’s Summer’s 1970s hits, Flashdance…What a Feeling was a hit all over the world, number 1 in the United States, France, Italy, Spain, Australia and Japan. In a year not blessed with tons of great albums, the Flashdance LP was one of 1983’s spiffiest sellers, too — in direction completion with the sequel to the biggest soundtrack album of all time, though not even the yeoman efforts of Frank Stallone could redeem the treacle that was the Staying Alive soundtrack, issued at a time when the Bee Gees were locked out of the charts in the post-disco landscape.
On the American Billboard Hot 100, Flashdance reached No. 1 in its ninth week, dethroning David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, and stayed on top for six consecutive weeks (until it was in turn booted by The Police’s Every Breath You Take), becoming the longest-running No. 1 hit of 1983 by a female artist and the only 1983 single to log 14 weeks in the top 10.
At the end of the year — and this is almost too perfect — Cara’s single and the film achieved identical rankings on key year-end charts, with Flashdance…What a Feeling ranked No. 3 behind Every Breath You Take and Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. On boxofficemojo.com’s accounting of the top-grossing films of 1983, Flashdance ranked No. 3 behind Return Of The Jedi and a 1982 holdover, the transtastic Tootsie.
It’s easy to forget that the Flashdance soundtrack did spawn a host of other well-known tracks including Michael Sembello’s Maniac and, amusingly, Donna Summer’s Romeo, too. Somewhat freakily, Cara did a Donna by dying aged 63 in Florida, ten years after the so-called Queen of Disco.
Of course labels are reductive. In the wake of Flashdance, Cara landed just one more top 10 hit on the Hot 100. Breakdance, which she and Moroder co-authored to capitalise on the breakdancing phenomenon, reached No. 8 in June 1984, though flopped in Britain, where the only Top 40 entries remain Fame and Flashdance.
It’s hard to know why Cara didn’t sustain as a successful recording artist. Her two tentpole smashes were so ubiquitous and so defined by their attendant movies than her own star power, they may have simply been too hard to follow. Also, Donna Summer dominated the dance/pop space in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to the degree that it was hard for anyone else of a similar ilk to step out of her shadow.
1983-84 saw the emergence of a new, gutsier MTV class of visuals-forward pop artists, including Madonna, Prince, and Cyndi Lauper. That may have left Cara trailing a little behind. In the interview she did with Billboard’s Paul Grein the week after winning two Grammys, she cited sexism in the music industry as a source of frustration, even then, at the pinnacle of her career.
“It’s very hard being female in this business. They don’t want to know that you can play an instrument, which I do, or that you can write. They want you to look pretty and sing, and I’m not about just being a chick singer.
With her career downgraded to a part-time endeavour, Cara was still a bit miffed about a certain person‘s rise to the top of the pop charts. Or should that be tarts?
“Women in music can be about a lot more than the midriff, the belly-button, the bleached hair, the lip-synching…”
No prizes for guessing who Irene was referring to here:
Despite that catty comment about the lovely graceful Madge, there‘s another reason why Cara‘s career faltered. Her momentum was halted; blighted by a protracted legal wrangle with her record label, the Robert Stigwood Organisation (RSO).
The huge success of Flashdance made it clear to Cara that she was not the receiving royalties stipulated in her recording contract, and she boldly decided to sue RSO in order to be compensated.
The backlash she claimed she suffered in retaliation for filing a lawsuit left her feeling shut out of the entertainment industry as she struggled to find work. While the legal action raged on, label boss Robert Stigwood bad-mouthed her to anyone that would listen, causing David Geffen not to sign her as he‘d planned.
“It took eight years and it cost me my future as a recording artist, because no other label would sign me,” she said.
Although she began receiving royalties for the recordings she made for them, the label conveniently declared bankruptcy and claimed that they were unable to pay her the $1.5 million settlement she was awarded by a Los Angeles Superior Court
George Duke got her signed to Elektra but they had no real interest. They released her third album, Carasmatic, in 1987, but despite a formidable cast of supporting musicians it failed to chart, and the company quietly withdrew it. Cara protested that the label had failed to promote the album. In 1993, the singer won another legal ruling awarding her unpaid royalties, but she never got signed to another major record label again.
What a sad way to bow out of what could have been a glittering career. Only a few years earlier Irene Cara was literally on top of the world.
To hit that home, at the 26th Annual Grammy Awards on February 28, 1984 – the highest-rated Grammys in history, in large part because of Thriller – Cara won the female pop vocal award and shared in the award for original score.
The female pop vocal category was highlighted on the show, with performances from all five of the nominees – Cara, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Tyler, Sheena Easton and – you guessed it – Summer. Cara seemed genuinely shocked when Bob Seger and Fleetwood Mac’s also now departed Christine McVie announced her as the winner. “Are you sure?,” she charmingly asked, before saying, “Um, I can’t believe this.”
Five weeks later, on April 9, 1984, Cara performed the song at the Oscars, accompanied by 44 boys and girls from the National Dance Institute. When Flashdance star Beals and Matthew Broderick announced Flashdance…What A Feeling as the winner, Cara became only the second person of colour to win an Oscar for best original song – following Isaac Hayes for his 1971 classic Theme From Shaft – and the first black woman to do so.
In her acceptance speech, Cara was typically and genuinely humble, and graciously saluted a legendary lyricist/composer team that was also nominated with two songs from the Barbra Streisand vehicle Yentl: “Just to be nominated with the likes of Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Michel Legrand is an honour enough.”
Sadly, Irene Cara and Marilyn Bergman, like Christine McVie, Terry Hall and countless others, succumbed to the celebrity holocaust of 2022.
Let’s hope 2023 isn’t as grim.
Me? I’m gonna live forever.
*Alan Parker: “When the movie was being filmed, “the song Fame hadn’t been written at this point and the whole scene was shot to playback using Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff. Listening to [the Summer track] for three days had inspired Michael Gore to write a new song which would carry the film’s new title: Fame. It was three weeks into filming before I came up with the final title. David Bowie reminded me much later that I nicked it from a song he wrote with John Lennon, which could probably be true.”