Irene Cara, Grammy-winning triple threat, has died at age 63

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The news came as a shock to the music world and certainly to fans. On Nov. 25, 2022, it was announced by a number of media outlets that Irene Cara has died. Several days after, there is still no announced cause of death, although reportedly, she has been moved to a funeral home because the autopsy is complete. Even without all the details, the loss of Cara is deeply felt by all those who knew at least part of her body of work.

Remembering Irene Cara

For many audiences, their first introduction to Cara was through the movie “Sparkle” (1976). For even more people, the voice, physicality, and spirit of Cara shone through even more clearly a few years later in the movie “Fame” (1980). In it, Cara portrays Coco, a teenage girl who intends to take on the world after graduating from the prestigious School of the Performing Arts in New York City. Both the school’s location and Cara’s depiction of Coco informs audiences about New York City in 1980, and what life is like for teenagers who want to make a living as artists.

The vivacious toughness that Cara embodies seems a symbol of the city, where ultimately fragile lives populate the gritty streets. Coco is as spontaneous as she is talented. The movie’s first ensemble number, “Hot Lunch Jam” is sung by Coco. She puts a friendly hand on Bruno Martelli shoulder (he is one of the piano players) and audiences know that something cool is going to happen. Coco’s singing engages the lunch ladies, and an impromptu backing trio helps out on the chorus. The bedlam is made complete by the plethora of dancing teenagers.

The response to Coco singing happens again when Bruno’s father attaches megaphones to the top of his taxi and plays the electronic music and vocal creation by Bruno and Coco. The song is “Fame” and traffic is literally stopped as dancing students rush out onto 46th Street and perform over the tops and hoods of stuck vehicles. Coco can hardly believe its her; Bruno is dismayed that his father has played an unpolished product.

Coco (and by extension, Cara) inspires audiences with a can-do spirit. Even as a freshman, Coco is figuring out how to make it as a working singer, angling for how to get steady work.

Irene Cara: the sound of spirit

The song “Fame” seems to capture the spirit of both Cara and Coco, a feeling that resonated with audiences even 42 years later. As part of her remembrance of Cara, Grammy-winner Mariah Carey mentioned putting on “Fame” when she heard of the performer’s passing.

The vocals on “Fame,” the single, vibrate with determination. Even if a person doesn’t desire a career in the arts, the idea of making one’s mark on the world and being remembered because of having do so, could inspire people.

Cara as Coco also showed a vulnerable side. The song “Out Here on My Own” from the movie “Fame” allows Coco to show off her piano skills as she accompanies herself. In the process she wins accolades from Bruno and his father. Their awe at the performance mimics that of audience members.

Cara’s mezzo-soprano voice, lended to dance oriented music, created comparisons to another dance music mezzo, Donna Summer. Reportedly, Cara was initially concerned about such comparisons. Both use the power of their voices for swelling notes that get hearts pumping and bodies moving. Both, unfortunately, died at age 63.

Cara would continue her movie-theme hit making with “Flashdance” (1983). Her performance of the theme song would earn her a Grammy in 1984.

In terms of the singer’s personal life, Cara married stuntman Conrad Palmisano in 1986. They divorced in 1991. He survives the performer as well as one of her sisters.

Irene Cara: early days and saying goodbye to an icon

When she was still in grade school, Cara was winning over audiences with her stellar vocal stylings. She was part of the nationally broadcast “Electric Company” at age 11, and was playing the lead in “Sparkle” by age 16.

Cara’s ability to uplift listeners is part of her legacy. Her enormous voice emanating from a diminutive body is part of her of mystique, something that will never be duplicated. Her films and recordings will bring joy to those who appreciate her particular gift for expressing what so many feel.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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