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Ric Ocasek (1944–2019), lead singer of the Cars

by Linnea Crowther

Ric Ocasek was the lead singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist for The Cars, known for a string of hits in the 1970s and ‘80s including “Just What I Needed,” “Shake it Up,” and “Drive.” Ocasek’s solo career included the hit single “Emotion in Motion.” 

Ric Ocasek was the lead singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist of the Cars, who had a string of hits in the 1970s and ‘80s including “Drive,” “Just What I Needed,” and “Shake it Up.” A native of Baltimore, Ocasek formed the Cars in Boston, performing with longtime bandmate Benjamin Orr under various names before playing their first shows as the Cars in 1976. By 1978, they were stars, with hit singles from their debut album including “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll.” Their music blended new wave and power pop, forming a uniquely edgy sound perfect for the times as the 1970s waned. Ocasek penned most of the band’s songs himself and was their primary singer, though Orr sometimes sang lead vocals. Their popularity continued through the mid-1980s, with hits including “Since You’re Gone,” “Magic,” and “Tonight She Comes.” Their 1984 album “Heartbeat City” was a massive success, and the video for lead single “You Might Think” became the first Video of the Year at the first MTV Video Music Awards. Along with the other members of the Cars, Ocasek was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

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Died: September 15, 2019 (Who else died on September 15?)

Details of death: Died at home in New York City from heart disease at the age of 75.

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Solo career: Ocasek maintained a solo career both during and after the Cars’ years of success, beginning with the 1982 album “Beatitude.” On it, he gave himself more room to explore with the avant-garde sounds he loved than was typical of the music of the Cars. He had a modest hit single in “Emotion in Motion” from his 1986 follow-up solo record, and he released further solo albums in the 1990s and 2000s. Ocasek also published a book of poetry and had his mixed-media artwork displayed in a 2009 gallery show. He worked as a producer for other bands for years, producing bands including Weezer, No Doubt, Hole, and Bad Religion.

Confusion over age: It wasn’t entirely clear at the time of Ocasek’s death if he was 75 or 70. There’s general consensus that his birthday was March 23, but some sources and public records say he was born on that date in 1944, while others say it was 1949. A 1979 Rolling Stone article about Ocasek noted that he “…claims to be twenty-nine but looks a few years older.”

Ocasek on his early inspiration: “I loved Buddy Holly’s songs. I first heard ‘That’ll Be the Day’ when I was 13, in 1957. Holly’s guitar intro made me want to learn to play. I also loved Holly’s voice. It was quirkier than everyone else’s at the time and stood out. When I realized Holly wrote his own songs, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do, write songs.’” —from a 2018 interview with the Wall Street Journal

Ric Ocasek and the Cars: Their Best Songs

What people said about him: “Ric meant so much to us. He produced 3 key Weezer albums, Blue, Green and 2014’s ‘Everything…,’ and taught all of us so much about music, recording and songcraft. But more importantly he taught us that one can be in a respected position of great power and yet be absolutely humble and have the biggest sweetest heart in the industry.” —Weezer

“The Cars had it all: the looks, the hooks, Beat-romance lyrics, killer choruses, guitar solos that pissed off your parents, dazzling music videos.” —Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the Killers

“Ric Ocasek, the Cars set tone of ‘80s before ‘80s even started — Just What I Needed, Best Friend’s Girl, Good Times Roll, The Shake It Up & Heartbeat City LPs brought motorcade of hits to our decade. Dad to 6 sons. Rock Hall of Famer. Thank you for it all Ric.” —Original MTV VJ Martha Quinn

“Ahh man, say it ain’t so. I loved Ric Ocasek. What an interesting, smart, kind, funny man who made incredible records. I loved those Cars albums when I was a teenager. Perfect pop songs with those wicked Elliot Easton guitar solos. Absolute candy. Then he went and produced Rock for Light by the Bad Brains. As an adult I met him several times and he was gracious, funny and engaging. Ahh man. Ahh damn. Bless his soul.” —Flea, bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers

“So sad, Such a great writer, singer, player, producer. My thoughts are with his family. Rest in peace. #RicOcasek” —Peter Frampton

Full obituary: New York Times

Related lives:

  • Prince (1958–2016), musician whose hits included “Kiss,” “Raspberry Beret” and “Purple Rain”
  • Tom Petty (1950–2017), beloved American rock and roll singer
  • David Bowie (1947–2015), legendary British musician


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