The music world was devastated to hear the news of Irene Cara passing on Saturday at the young age of 63. Her publicist announced her passing on Twitter.
Her humble beginnings began as a child living in the Bronx, New York. Her music career started with an appearance on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour in 1967.
From there, she made appearances in Broadway musicals and on local television. In 1971, she starred as one of the original “Short Circus” on the PBS children’s show, ‘The Electric Company’. The show also starred Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, Lee Chamberlain and Bill Cosby. She left the show after the first season.
From there, she starred in two films which had moderate success with audiences. 1975’s “Aaron Loves Angela” was about a Romeo & Juliet-style romance between a black teen and a Puerto Rican girl. 1976’s “Sparkle” was a film about three sisters from Harlem who battle success and drugs as a singing group. (A remake of the film was made in 2012.)
It was in 1980 that Cara would begin to find international success with the release of film, “Fame” a movie that chronicles of the lives of several teenagers who attend a New York high school for students gifted in the performing arts. Cara played one of those teens, ‘Coco Hernandez’ a student who was accepted in the Drama, Music, and Dance departments.
But the rigors of school life, relationships, and the entertainment world lead to a crushing conclusion for her. The film featured Cara’s signature voice on the title track, which would win the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Two years later, Cara would put her own stamp of approval on music she co-created with the film, ‘Flashdance’, the story about a steel worker who moonlights as a dancer, and dreams of joining a Pittsburgh ballet troupe.
The title track would go on to win Cara the Oscar for Best Original Song and a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
With all of the success for Cara, you think it would lead to even more opportunities for her. But very soon, she would question the music industry’s ‘standards and practices’ in business. In 1985, she sued Al Coury, a record company executive for $10 million dollars in unpaid royalties, claiming he exploited her trust in him by inducing her to sign contracts that cost her more than $2 million dollars.
According to her suit, ‘agreements between Coury and Paramount in 1983 for Cara’s appearance in ‘Flashdance’ and with Universal the same year for her role in the film ‘D.C. Cab’ were designed to benefit Coury and did not give Cara her fair share of profits.’
It took years for Cara to reach a settlement, and during that time, she spent all of the money she had on lawyer fees, eventually leaving her broke. The suit also slowed down her music career to a halt, since she wasn’t recording any new material. Though she ultimately won $1.5 million from the lawsuit, she may have lost more than she gained from overall opportunity cost.
During interviews, Cara claimed that she was ‘blacklisted’ by the music industry. The word around town was that she was “difficult to work with”, so nobody wanted to hire or collaborate with her. She also claimed that this was related to the lawsuit. She never found the same level of success, and progressively took smaller and smaller roles, and eventually only got work as a voice actor. Her acting career also faltered, and she also didn’t get any soundtrack songs to advance her career.
Cara also failed to leverage her success on movie soundtracks into her own personal songs and albums. Her main studio albums, ‘Anyone Can See’ (1982) and What a Feeling (1983) didn’t give fans much of what they wanted to hear. So, despite having massive commercial success for soundtrack songs “Flashdance… What A Feeling,” “Fame” and “Out Here on My Own,” they didn’t translate commercial success for her two studio album projects. Her third album, ‘Carasmatic’, was shelved by Elektra Records. When it was finally released, it was a critical and commercial failure and it arrived years after it her peak time, so it already faced an uphill battle.
Though she downplayed it during her life, it had said that she’d been a known user of cocaine, which was possibly connected to the stress of her case. She also divorced her husband at an already tumultuous time in her life.
The lawsuit and circumstances afterward did not completely ruin Cara’s career. After her personal and professional downfall in Hollywood, she started recording and performing overseas, and found some success. She also did some stage work. But music artists sympathized with her plight, as was displayed on Saturday once the news of her passing was announced.
Despite the prestige of winning the Oscar and a Grammy, we will never know Irene Cara’s true potential, which could had been on the level of Madonna or Beyoncé.
Her music and entertainment career will forever be the classic, “What If?”