Rush to Judgement

 

L to R: Matt the Cat, Neil Purt, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Donna Halper, John Gorman, Don George (Mercury Records)

L to R: Matt the Cat, Neil Peart, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Donna Halper, John Gorman, Don George (Mercury Records)

When Denny Sanders turned the WMMS program director reigns over to me, my first order of business was to hire my replacement as music director.   It was September, 1973.  We were going into a four-week ARB ratings survey period from mid-October to mid-November and we needed someone in that position fast. 

It went to Donna Halper.   I hired her over the phone, without a face-to-face meeting. Though Donna worked in Boston at the same time Denny and I did at various stations, we had never met.

Donna had been music director of a daytime folk-rock oriented format (a precursor to the Adult Album Alternative format) on WCAS-AM, a station licensed to Cambridge, Mass.  We heard that she had good and somewhat eclectic – outside the norm – connections in the music industry.

Among her assets were the Canadian contacts she made while at WCAS, which was the first station in the U.S. to play singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.  Other Canadian labels also started sending Donna material, hoping the exposure might to lead to deals with U.S. labels when she moved to WMMS, and to broaden it to rock and pop. 

rush5

One of those contacts, Bob Roper of A&M Records Canada, which was run independent of the U.S. label, sent her the debut album of a young band named Rush, recorded for a small independent Canadian label, Moon Records.   Donna brought it up in one of our music meetings, where she’d weed through the week’s new releases and resubmit previously released material that, for one reason or another, we had held off on adding. 

rush-original-band-w-john-rutsey

The Rush album proved to be fresh power-rock our nighttime audience couldn’t get enough of. And since we were building WMMS from the evenings up (whereas most stations secure their morning drive show first).   Donna wanted to do Bob Roper a favor.  A&M Canada had passed on signing Rush, but Roper was hoping to establish a stronger relationship with the band’s Canadian managers, knowing they would eventually deliver an artist his superiors admired. 

We added the album and decided to concentrate on a track called “Working Man,”  instead of the preferred priority track, “In the Mood.”  “Working Man” was fist-punching blue-collar rock and roll.  It went into our new release bin that night.  When Denny played it on his show, the phones went wild with immediate and unexpected reaction.  Surprisingly, some listeners were convinced that it was a new Led Zeppelin track though I never heard the similitude.

Denny called me at home, amazed at the size of the reaction and that most callers were convinced Rush was Zeppelin.   I had a flashback to spring, 1967 when Mel Phillips, program director of Boston’s WRKO convinced listeners that the Bee Gees “New York Mining Disaster” could be the Beatles under a pseudonym. WRKO never said they were the Beatles, they just didn’t say they weren’t.

Now, we had to ride Rush out.  I briefed Donna the next morning on her success in unearthing the kind of album and artist we were looking for, one the top 40 stations like WIXYWGCL, WNCR and WLYT couldn’t deal with.   We were beginning to build our “exclusive to WMMS” arsenal.

“Well, of course,” Donna said. “Why should you be surprised?  Isn’t that why you hired me? I would have done the same exact thing you did anyway.” 

Despite her nonchalance, Donna was thrilled.  She immediately phoned Roper, who insisted she call Rush’s management.  They needed to hear the report from the source, and to know they needed to ship Canadian stock to the Cleveland record stores immediately.  Within two weeks, the Rush album became the city’s fastest selling import – and even outsold many current hit rock U.S. albums that were out at the time.  Soon afterward, the band played a date at the Allen. In the liner notes on the American version,  which was released on Mercury Records, they thanked Donna and WMMS.

rush-with-donna-halper

A few months later Donna resigned as WMMS music director to join Mercury Records.

For more on Rush and WMMS see Chapter 4 in The Buzzard

Bootleg of WMMS broadcast of Rush from the Agora, 5/15/75

Bootleg album of WMMS broadcast of Rush from the Agora, 5/15/75

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10 Responses to “Rush to Judgement”

  1. I have always admired Donna Halper for the vision she had and the drive to get RUSH some airplay, knowing that they were destined for greatness. It is these type of people who still love the music of RUSH – the small towners, the “geeks” of the world, the outsiders.

    Without Donna’s persistance, I am sure RUSH would have still found their audience, but it may not have come until years later and who only knows what impact this would have had on their careers.

    Just imagine the years 1974-1976 – just TWO SHORT YEARS, but imagine it without RUSH getting the exposure it did…imagine that instead of making 3 studio albums, playing to sold out crowds and releasing it’s first LIVE album, they would have only released a single album and toured as a just another 3-piece solo band from Canada and only began to find their audience then.

    That would have changed everything as we know it, no?

    Sure, no doubt about it, RUSH would have still become great, but at a much lesser level I’m sure. It took that great boost of confidence Donna was able to give to the band to keep them going through their next tour, which they would tongue-in-cheek call the “Down The Tubes” Tour due to such a disappointing lack of crowd support.

    Thank goodness RUSH did not give up and I can’t help but think that due to Donna’s ability to gain the band early confidence with American airplay that this was always in the back of their minds – that in spite of a seemingly small crowd turn out, the truth was that there was indeed an audience out there that liked their music and maybe just weren’t ready enough to commit to being at a live show just yet.

    It was very nice to see what Donna actually looks like after all these years and if Donna is actually reading this, on behalf of millions of RUSH fans world-wide, I say a huge THANK YOU!!!

    Troy E. Primeaux
    Houston, Texas, USA

  2. What an awesome story! From my perspective, it’s because I am convinced that Rush is one of the most talented bands of my lifetime. Neil Peart alone has inspired more kids to pick up sticks and learn how to play drums than any other 20th century drummer. I find it both sad and maddening that they have not been inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.

  3. [...] John Gorman’s Buzzard Blog has a great piece online now detailing the infamous early history between WMMS and Rush that played a big part in launching the now-legendary Canadian trio. People always want to know [...]

  4. What makes me really happy is that after 35 years, the members of Rush and I are still friends and success hasn’t spoiled them at all.

    • Donna! That is a great story. I am a Cleveland, OH boy and I remember hearing my first Rush song _ it was in 1976, “2112″ (Yeah, I know but I was only 14 years old at the time!). From the opening winds to the close of the song, I was hooked. My parents thought I had lost my mind because I was just staring at the record player (er, the speakers, actually) thinking, “What have I just found here?” I have been huge fan ever since (I wanted to name our son Bytor but my wife would have none of it!!).

      Thanks for your vision, your appreciation and perception that Rush had that special something to offer.

      jvb

    • David Lisle Says:

      Love this story. My favourite band since I was little. Coming from Kelowna Canada just to see them in concert where it all started. Kind of hoping to see the station when I’m there. Love to meet Rush, but that’s a lot to ask. Not the fanatical type, I’d probably just give them a handshake and say a thank you.
      They were such a good influence on a young impressionable child. Its not that often you find ‘Rockstars’ who are down to earth and not involved the hijinx and antics that invariably seem to go with living in the Limelight. They’re just humble Canadians.
      Anyone know if there will be any gathering at the rock ‘n roll hall of fame around that date to get Rush inducted? That’s way overdue.
      Thanks Donna
      a fan since ’78 (at 7 years old)

  5. [...] Rush to Judgement « The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio — A Memoi… via @addictedtovinyl: how WMMS helped propel Rush to success [...]

  6. Tony Tomaselli Says:

    Wow, I remember very well when Rush was receiving airplay thanks to WMMS radio. I played the first album so much I had to purchase a second copy. There was not a day went by when I did not Air Guitar “Working Man ” and “Finding my way”. By far my best memory was seeing Rush live at Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio. Tickets were $2.00 they had just released “Fly by Night” album. WHAT A CONCERT!!! Anyone remember that?

  7. Although I am primarily a Sirius listener and iPod aficionado these days, when I was a runt back in the mid-70′s, WMMS molded and shaped me and my musical tastes. Rush was one of those bands that as soon as I heard them, it was impossible to get enough of them. I would have my mom take me to Kent to pick up the newest vinyl they’d put out, year after year. For what it’s worth, seeing that Rush got their true start in Cleveland, why are bands like Metallica, who was INFLUENCED by Rush, and Run-DMC (not even a band!!) being inducted into the RNRHOF? It lessens their credibility, in my opinion, and it’s embarrassing for Cleveland to have a gem like the RNRHOF and not have pioneers like Rush enshrined.

    Rock radio was so amazing in the 1970′s…who could have ever predicted that it would become the soulless, sold-out conglomeration of mediocrity that it has today? It all fell apart in the mid-90′s with “grunge”…yeah, that’ll last, I said then…Pete Townsend (I beleieve) said it best: “Rock ‘n Roll will always, always, always overcome…eventually.”

    The John Gorman book is incredible. The days of a WMMS 101 FM, an M-105, a WSRD, “The Wizard” (out of Youngstown) are sadly over. Thanks to Mr. Gorman for all the nostalgia and taking us all back.

  8. OMG!…Matt the Cat…haven’t heard that name in a looooong time…brings back some super memories!!..;)

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