Why Casablanca Took a Pass on Signing Rush

Casablanca Records co-founder Larry Harris in his memoir talks about his first big decision as a record company executive in the 1970s—saying no to signing Rush to his new label. “I cringe just looking at these words,” he writes in And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records (Backbeat, 2009). “The band I chose not to sign was Rush.”

At the time, Casablanca was a new label, known mainly for the first act it signed: Kiss. Given the synergy that later developed between Kiss and Rush as touring partners in the late 1970s, it would have made sense for the label to sign them when Ira Blacker, then of American Talent International (ATI) and later Rush’s co-manager under his own agency, gave them the opportunity right after Rush’s debut album came out on their own Moon label.

But Harris says his young company didn’t have the financial strength to take a chance on a band that he said had energy but whose songs didn’t impress him that much. What’s more, the band was ugly, he said.

“Ira’s group just didn’t cut it visually,” he writes. “They were all gangly looking, and their front man, the bassist, had a huge hook nose that Barbra Streisand could only aspire to. On a visual level, these three Canadians simply couldn’t compete.”

Blacker immediately turned around and persuaded Mercury to sign the band and the rest is history. Here’s Harris’ take on what happened [credit to Rush is a Band, who credits What-A-Rush, for finding this nugget]:

At Ira [Blacker]’s behest, I traveled to Canada to see them perform live.

The trip was doomed from the beginning. The flight from LA to Toronto should have taken five hours, but it took close to ten. The plane had mechanical difficulties at the gate at LAX, the weather during the flight was terrible, and I was developing a nasty case of the flu. To compound matters, the club where the performance was happening was a dark, dingy place called the Colonial Tavern, which had a threadbare sound system that couldn’t come close to keeping up with the band.

Despite the venue and the flu I was fighting, I could appreciate the fact that the trio gave the high-energy type of performance that Ira had promised. Their downfall in my eyes was their look. They were ugly. I say this with a great sense of amusement, because the members of Kiss (behind the makeup) were some of the worst looking guys I’d ever seen. Nonetheless, Ira’s group just didn’t cut it visually. They were all gangly looking, and their front man, the bassist, had a huge hook nose that Barbara Streisand could only aspire to. On a visual level, these three Canadians simply couldn’t compete.

I flew back to LA and gave Neil [Bogart, co-founder of Casablanca Records] my impressions. Neil was always so positive about everything that I almost felt compelled to sell him on this band, but something held me back. I told him, “I thought they were decent. They have energy, but their songs are only OK. I just don’t think they’re the band for us, at least not right now.” Had we been a little less cash poor, I would have taken a flier on them, but there wasn’t enough money in the Casablanca coffers to afford a ham sandwich, to say nothing of another recording artist.

After hearing my spiel, Neil said, “Look, you’ve seen them and I haven’t. I have faith in your judgment, Larry, so whatever you decide, we’ll do it. I was deeply grateful that Neil held my opinions and abilities in such respect, but my practical side couldn’t ignore the tenuous position Casablanca was in. We couldn’t afford to fail. I decided not to make an offer.

I called Ira to let him know that we were passing on his band. He took the news well, and, like the pro he was, he had them signed to Mercury Records in an instant. He did a masterful job pulling the wool over Mercury’s eyes, too, calling in favors with a distributor in New Jersey, [telling] Mercury that the trio’s first album was the most requested import he handled. A nice bit of fabrication on Ira’s part, but it worked.

This was my first big decision on which act to sign, and as the years went on, the wrongness of my choice just grew and grew. Even now I cringe just looking at these words: The band I chose not to sign was Rush.

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~ by rvkeeper on November 19, 2011.

2 Responses to “Why Casablanca Took a Pass on Signing Rush”

  1. I actually was not a friend, but the personal manager in partnership with
    Ray.

    • Ira, thanks for pointing that out. I remember that you were their c0-manager from Bill Banasiewicz’s book but was writing the post from memory. In any case, I changed the passage to read ” . . . Ira Blacker, then of American Talent International (ATI) and later Rush’s co-manager under his own agency, gave them the opportunity right after Rush’s debut album came out on their own Moon label.” Hope everything’s going well. Best, Rob Freedman

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