Irene Cara, Oscar winner acclaimed for ‘Fame’ and ‘Flashdance,’ died at Florida home at 63

Irene Cara reportedly once expressed concern about working with producer and songwriter Giorgio Moroder on what became her biggest hit and one of her three signature songs, “Flashdance ... What a Feeling.”

The Bronx-born singer, songwriter and actress, who died at her New Port Richey home in suburban Tampa, her publicist Judith Moose said Saturday, worried she’d continue to be compared with Moroder’s most famous collaborator, Donna Summer.

Cara, a singer-actress who had earlier roles in films like “Sparkle,” in 1976, with co-star Philip Michael Thomas, eight years before he found fame on “Miami Vice,” and the 1970s educational TV series, “The Electric Company,” was not without cause for wanting to make it big on her own talents.

True, both Summer and Cara were emotionally expressive singers, lyric mezzo-sopranos, who were steeped in theater before finding fame on dance floors. One could easily trace a through-line from Summer’s agile fluidity that slipped seamlessly from balladry intros to propulsive disco tempos on her Oscar-winning “Last Dance” in 1978, or her 1979 film song, “On the Radio” from “Foxes,” with Cara’s 1980 breakthrough hits “Fame” from the movie of the same name and “Flashdance” in 1983.

Michael Gore, who co-wrote the title song “Fame” with lyricist Dean Pitchford, said he wrote it under the influence of “Hot Stuff” era Donna Summer.

Cara would stamp the ebullient song as her own, including a crossover performance on late-night TV musical series, “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.”

Both singers also excelled at more intimate vocal expressions, too, as Cara did movingly on “Out Here on My Own” from “Fame” and Summer, who did so with “On My Honor” from the ballad side of her “Bad Girls” album.

Cara’s inspiration

Baltimore Banner columnist Leslie Gray Streeter, a former pop culture reporter for The Palm Beach Post, wrote on Twitter Saturday how Cara inspired her.

“Irene Cara embodied the voice of yearning, youth and motion to me and the little girls I grew up with,” Streeter wrote.

Like many would do after Cara’s inspiring “Fame” ballad “Out Here on My Own” crested in the Top 20 in the summer of 1980, Streeter says she sang the song “in every talent show I could and closed my eyes like she said in the chorus, hoping for connection.”

Both artists, too, died at age 63 — Summer in 2012 from cancer. Cara’s cause of death and its exact date are pending the results of an autopsy, Moose told the Miami Herald in an email.

“It is with profound sadness that on behalf of her family I announce the passing of Irene Cara,” Moose said in a statement issued early Saturday on Twitter and later shared with the Herald. “She was a beautifully gifted soul whose legacy will live forever through her music and films.”

Harry Wayne Casey, the Miami songwriter and performer namesake of KC and the Sunshine Band who scored five Billboard No. 1 singles from “Get Down Tonight” in 1975 to “Please Don’t Go” in 1980, remembers Cara rehearsing at his South Florida studios for her shows a few times.

“She was always kind and gracious,” Casey told the Herald Saturday. “She lit up the room with her presence and was always humble. A true talent.”

Early musical talent

Irene Cara Escalara, was born in the Bronx, New York, on March 18, 1959. She was the youngest of five children born to a Puerto Rican father, Gaspar Escalera, and Cuban-American mother, Louise. Both of Cara’s parents brought music and the arts into their home. Gaspar, a factory worker, reportedly played saxophone professionally, and her mother worked as a movie theater usher.

Cara was able to play the piano by ear at 5, according to a biography released by Moose, and at 3 was already being feted at award shows. She was reportedly a Top 5 finalist at a Little Miss America pageant as a toddler but she’d have the world’s stage at bigger award shows when she won an Oscar for helping compose the Academy’s 1983 best song winner, “Flashdance ... What a Feeling,” with fellow songwriters Moroder and Keith Forsey.

“Flashdance” also would score Cara a Grammy in 1984 as best female pop vocal performance over formidable competition that included Summer, for “She Works Hard for the Money,” Linda Ronstadt for her standards set, “What’s New” and Bonnie Tyler’s pop culture classic, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Irene Cara with her Grammy for best female pop vocal performance for “Flashdance ... What a Feeling” at the 26th annual awards presentation in 1984.
Irene Cara with her Grammy for best female pop vocal performance for “Flashdance ... What a Feeling” at the 26th annual awards presentation in 1984.

‘Fame’ and beyond

Cara, who played drama, music and dance student Coco Hernandez in “Fame,” the fictional story of the real life High School of Performing Arts in New York City, was nominated for a best actress Golden Globe award in 1981. She gave voice to the 1980 film’s title song and “Out Here on My Own,” both of which would earn Oscar nominations for the songs’ composers Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford on the former and Gore and his sister Lesley Gore (of “It’s My Party” fame) for the latter.

Cara’s parents recognized her talents early and enrolled her in music, acting, and dance classes in New York. The training led a young Cara to record a Latin-market Spanish album and to appearances on a Spanish-language television show in the 1960s.

As a child, she performed on Ted Mack’s “The Original Amateur Hour” — a precursor to “American Idol” — and landed her first acting role, as Daisy Allen, on the daytime soap, “Love of Life,” in 1970-71. She showcased her musical talents on “The Electric Company” alongside Rita Moreno, Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby on 130 episodes of the landmark PBS series from 1971 to 1972.

Cara had Broadway and Off Broadway credits in the Obie Award-winning musical “The Me Nobody Knows” in 1970 and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Maggie Flynn” with Shirley Jones, and “Via Galactica” opposite Raul Julia.

“She was a theater girl,” her friend, director and producer Richard Jay-Alexander said. “Ever since I first laid eyes on her in ‘The Me Nobody Knows’ on Broadway, I was in love. ... So much more great work would follow.”

On television, she had guest parts on “Kojak” and “What’s Happening!!” in 1976 and 1977 and was in three episodes of the “Roots” sequel, “Roots: The Next Generations” in 1979.

Then “Fame” happened.

As a character in a story about a group of students auditioning for acceptance into New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, Cara’s solo vocals on the two standout songs led to “Fame” becoming the first film to place two songs sung by the same artist in competition for the Best Song Oscar.

The exposure led Cara to earn a 1982 NAACP Image Award for her acting on the NBC movie-of-the-week, “Sister, Sister” and a subsequent 1983 Image Award nomination for playing Myrlie Evers in the PBS “American Masters” film, “For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story.”

Moroder, who passed on “Fame,” called on Cara when he became the lead composer for the MTV-era “Flashdance” film that was released in 1983 with Jennifer Beals in the lead role. Cara co-wrote the title song’s lyrics in the car with Keith Forsey, while on the way to a recording studio to cut the song.

Oscar winner

“There aren’t enough words to express my love and my gratitude,” a 24-year-old Cara said in her Oscar acceptance speech, where she also credited “Fame” director Alan Parker for his role in boosting her musical career. “A very special gentlemen who I guess started it all for me many years ago. To Alan Parker, wherever you may be tonight, I thank him,” The Washington Post reported.

Cara’s aerobics-staple, “Breakdance,” capitalized on the dance trend of the early 1980s to become her last American Top 10 single in 1984.

Irene Cara earned a Golden Globe best actress nomination for her role as Coco Hernandez in the 1980 movie, “Fame.” Cara sang the musical drama’s Oscar-nominated hits “Fame” and “Out Here on My Own.” Her other hits included “Breakdance” and “Flashdance...What a Feeling.”
Irene Cara earned a Golden Globe best actress nomination for her role as Coco Hernandez in the 1980 movie, “Fame.” Cara sang the musical drama’s Oscar-nominated hits “Fame” and “Out Here on My Own.” Her other hits included “Breakdance” and “Flashdance...What a Feeling.”

Regional honors

A decade later, Cara toured as Mary Magdalene in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s enduring “Jesus Christ Superstar” and she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in her adopted Florida from the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in 2005.

In 2006, Cara was awarded the Honorary Lifetime Achievement for outstanding contribution to the African American community by the Columbus Times of Georgia.

Bronx didn’t forget its star, either. In 2011, Cara’s name went on a placard in the Grand Concourse of the Bronx Walk of Fame, City Limits reported.

Cara could not embody the “Fame” song’s hook “I’m gonna live forever” — no one will, of course — but the song’s other signature line, “Baby, remember my name?”

Cara can rest assured. She’s remembered.

Funeral services are pending and a memorial for her fans will be planned at a future date, Moose said. Information about Cara’s survivors was not immediately available.