Ric Ocasek, The Cars Frontman, Dies at 75

Ric Ocasek Rock & Roll Hall
Andrew H Walker/Shutterstock

UPDATED: Ric Ocasek, frontman of the popular late 1970s and 1980s band the Cars, was found dead in his New York home on Sunday. He was 75.

The NYPD confirmed that Ocasek’s body was discovered after police received a call regarding an unconscious male at his townhouse. Emergency services pronounced him dead at the scene.

The cause of death was revealed Monday by the New York Medical Examiner, which found he suffered from hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, with emphysema as a complication.

The Cars, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, were one of the most significant and influential bands of the late ’70s-early ’80s era. With a sound that melded pop, new wave and classic rock, the Cars had 13 top-40 singles, including “Just What I Needed,” “Best Friend’s Girl,” “Let’s Go,” “Shake It Up,” “You Might Think” and the ballad “Drive.” Their 1978 self-titled first album is among the all-time best debuts of the rock era, and was the first experience of anything resembling “new wave” for a huge percentage of America’s youth at the time. The group split in 1988 but reunited decades later for an album in 2011 and an appearance at their Rock Hall induction last year.

Ocasek also produced albums and songs for artists including Bad Brains, Weezer, Guided by Voices, No Doubt, Suicide, Bad Religion and Nada Surf. He released seven solo albums, and although none had the impact or success of the Cars’ material, his influence is vast. To cite just one example, in March 1994 Nirvana opened its final concert with a jokey medley of the Cars’ “Best Friend’s Girl” and “Moving in Stereo,” the latter of which was featured in the generation-defining 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Ocasek — born Richard Theodore Otcasek — was raised in Baltimore but moved to Cleveland at the age of 16. (There is some confusion about his year of birth, but 1944 is most frequently cited.) He briefly attended college but dropped out to pursue music, and in 1965 met future Cars bassist-singer Benjamin Orr. The two spent many years struggling before they found success, forming a succession of bands in Ohio and Michigan before relocating to Boston in the early 1970s. There they performed as a duo and eventually formed a folk-rock band called Milkwood that released one commercially unsuccessful album on Paramount Records. They eventually united with future Cars lead guitarist Elliot Easton in a band called Cap’n Swing that received airplay on Boston rock powerhouse WBCN, but rebooted as the Cars late in 1976, bringing in keyboardist Greg Hawkes and former Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers drummer David Robinson.

From there things moved quickly. In 1977 a nine-song demo, including the band’s future breakout hit “Just What I Needed,” received heavy airplay on Boston stations and led to a deal with Elektra. Their self-titled debut, released in June 1978, featured an unusual but remarkably commercial mixture of styles that ranged from new wave to what is now called classic rock, with flashes of glam, punk, rockabilly and more. The album reached No. 18 on the Billboard 200, spawning hits with “Just What I Needed,” “Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Times Roll.”

While Ocasek was the group’s primary songwriter and frontman — singing in a pouty drawl, like a cross between Lou Reed and Television’s Tom Verlaine — the Cars were very much a band, with Orr’s softer voice and rock-star swagger, Hawkes’ quirky keyboard flourishes, Easton’s snarling guitar and Robinson’s rock-solid, imaginative drumming elevating the songs with a distinctive and often-imitated sound. Several excellent early songs that were not included on the group’s debut, particularly “Take What You Want” and “They Won’t See You,” are featured on the expanded edition of “The Cars”; those recordings also demonstrate how much the group’s sound benefited from producers Roy Thomas Baker (on the first four albums) and Robert John “Mutt” Lange (the blockbuster fifth, “Heartbeat City”).

Their 1979 sophomore effort “Candy O” continued in a similar vein, spawning the hit single “Let’s Go,” but “Panorama” the following year was more synthesizer-heavy and experimental, and less commercially successful. The band took a break and Ocasek produced the “Rock for Light” album by hardcore legends the Bad Brains and also worked with synth-punk icons Suicide and San Francisco band Romeo Void, and released a solo album called “Beatitude.”

The Cars returned in force in 1982 with the “Shake It Up” album, which dovetailed with the rise of MTV and, driven by eye-catching videos — several of which starred models, including Ocasek’s future wife, Czech-born Paulina Porizkova — the group became more commercially successful than ever. The title track became their biggest hit single to date, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and spawned another hit song and video with “Since You’re Gone.”

The group’s commercial peak came with their next album, 1984’s “Heartbeat City,” which produced two Top 10 singles with “You Might Think” (driven by another eye-grabbing video, this one with Ocasek’s head on a fly’s body) and the ballad “Drive,” which came in for some criticism (that had nothing to do with the band) the following year during the Live Aid broadcast when MTV awkwardly aired the song while showing footage of the famine in Ethiopia; the group also performed at the Philadelphia segment of the concert.

The group took another break, with Ocasek releasing a second solo album, “This Side of Paradise,” but by the time the Cars regrouped for 1987’s “Door to Door,” times had changed. The album only reached No. 26 and the group broke up, amid some acrimony, early the following year.

Ocasek’s solo career continued at an unhurried pace in the years after the group’s split, and he became better known as a producer. His biggest success in that role was Weezer’s debut in 1994; he also produced that group’s “Green Album” as well as albums or songs by No Doubt, Hole, Nada Surf, Bad Religion, Guided by Voices and many others. He was even briefly a senior vice president of A&R at Elektra Records, beginning in 2003, where he pursued but did not manage to sign Death Cab for Cutie and Devendra Banhart.

He released five solo albums between 1991 and 2005, with 1997’s “Troublizing” produced by Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan. The albums generally received positive reviews but Ocasek’s distaste for touring — The Cars had a reputation as a solid but dull live act for their entire career — effected their visibility. After Orr’s death from cancer in 2000, Ocasek approved of a touring version of the band dubbed the New Cars that featured Todd Rundgren essentially filling his role, although he reunited with the group in 2011 for an album called “Move Like This” that found him writing and singing all of the songs. He told Rolling Stone at the time, “I was aware that on half of the new songs, Ben would have done better than I did. But we never wanted anybody from the outside.” The album’s liner notes include a tribute to Orr; when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Weezer’s Scott Shriner filled in on bass.

Ocasek was married three times and left his second wife, Suzanne, after meeting Porizkova in 1984. He is also survived by six sons, two of whom he had with Porizkova; in 2018 she confirmed that the two had separated the previous year after 28 years of marriage.