Rush to Judgement
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.
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.
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.
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 WIXY, WGCL, 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.
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