Rush, Donna Halper, and Chaos Theory

Donna Halper might or might not have discovered Rush, but she did create chaos.

Donna Halper is often credited with discovering Rush because, while music director at WMMS in Cleveland in 1974, she heard something special in “Working Man” and “Finding My Way” and had one of her disc jockeys play the songs on the radio. Listeners made calls to the station to learn more about what they had just heard, and Donna called Rush’s management to get some of the debut Moon albums into local record stores. Then she fielded calls from concert promoters about bringing the band to Cleveland. So, she had a hand in getting them their first airplay in the U.S. and in arranging their first U.S. tour.

It’s an interesting question what would have happened had she not taken such a personal interest in them. As she’s said in her own essay on those early years and in interviews, she felt like their big sister, particularly to Alex and Geddy, so she leveraged her position in whatever way she could to get the ball rolling for them.

The real service she played, though, has to do with timing. A case could be made that eventually Rush would have found an audience outside of Toronto. After all, the talent was there and, just as they had succeeded on Yonge Street, they would have eventually succeeded elsewhere. But what Donna did was create a sense that the band was on the white hot tip of the now. She created a sense of excitement in Cleveland that something new was emerging. When listeners started calling the station, she called Rush’s management and asked them to send albums to Cleveland record stores—quick. and that’s when the record companies and concert promoters started calling.

Like Wall Street stock pickers, the music industry people were responding to a growing sense of urgency, that something new was happening and they had to get on board quickly or they would miss the moment. What she did was concentrate the industry’s mind.

One of the first labels to consider signing the band in the heat of the moment was Casablanca Records. They were a relatively new label, started by Neil Bogart, whose first big band was Kiss. Larry Harris, a junior partner at the label, flew to Toronto to watch the band in action but apparently didn’t share others’ excitement for them. As he wrote in his 2009 memoir, it might have been a combination of his bad flight, flu symptoms, and the bad acoustics in the Colonial Tavern, where they were playing the night he watched them. But he just wasn’t taken with their music. Plus, he didn’t think they were attractive enough.

“They were all gangly looking, and their front man, the bassist, had a huge hook nose that Barbara Streisand could only aspire to,” he says in And Party Every Day. “On a visual level, these three Canadians simply couldn’t compete.”

No matter. Mercury quickly stepped in, signed them, and slotted them into a U.S. tour as an opening act.

The urgency continued. They only had a few weeks before the start of the tour. That forced a resolution between Alex and Geddy and their growing artistic and strategic differences with John Rutsey. Had things carried on as they had, the band might have muddled along, but the sudden urgency of the tour forced their differences to a head. And the result was Neil. His coming on board greatly changed the dynamics of the band.

In a word, Rush was the beneficiary of a herd instinct that Donna helped create. You see this all the time in business. A company will be flying under the radar for years then someone with reach gives the company exposure and suddenly it’s white hot. If the company is a true performer, it grows under the spotlight. If it’s not, it withers.

Under Armour is a perfect example. It was a company operating out of a Maryland garage for years and then there was an article in USA Today about the “moisture-wicking fabric” the company uses to keep clothes dry, and then the rest is history. Suddenly there’s a sense of urgency around the company, investors take interest, and it becomes a kind of cultural trope.

Rush clearly thrived under the spotlight, even if its years until the release of 2112 were rocky.

Did Donna Halper really discover Rush? That’ll remain a question. But without a doubt she triggered a series of events that created a sense of urgency around the band, opening a window in which a lot happened in a compressed amount of time: their first U.S. exposure, their first U.S. record sales, their first U.S. tour, and their first record contract. And those events in turn brought the growing differences between the band members to a head.

That’s chaos theory at work. A butterfly that flaps its wings in Brazil can in fact set off a tornado in Texas.

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~ by rvkeeper on November 20, 2011.

2 Responses to “Rush, Donna Halper, and Chaos Theory”

  1. Can I just share something about Rush that I never see mentioned on any fansite? They might have first cracked the U.S. market in Cleveland, but they soon after became pretty big in San Antonio as well. KISS-FM played Rush albums before most of the rest of the country had heard of them. I can remember, on two different occasions, hearing “Before and After” on KISS. Rush was, as far as I could tell, the most popular rock band in San Antonio in 1975-77. When I moved to the Denver area in 1978, they hadn’t yet become known there. Check out the notes inside their 1976 live album for the names of two KISS DJs, Joe Anthony and Lou Roney. Notice how San Antonio is one of a few cities to receive special mention. And, by the way, KISS-FM was a rather special rock station back then that didn’t adhere to a rigid playlist like most others. I think today it probably does, though.

    • Thanks for bringing San Antonio up. Neil actually has a funny story about San Antonio in his book Roadshow. After they finished playing their first show in the city, in 1975, at Randy’s Rodeo, what Neil calls a roadhouse, there was a disagreement between their tour manager, Howard, and the roadhouse owner over how much the band was owed. “The owner expressed his disagreement by pulling out a gun and laying it on the desk,” Neil writes. The standoff was resolved with the help of some Air Force vets that had befriended the band and that were with Howard and the band in the owner’s office. They talked sense into the owner and everyone got what they were owed. The rest of the story is that one of the Air Force vets had taken such a liking to the band that whenever they were in town for a show, he could come backstage and—overstay his welcome. As Neil puts it, the vet earned the band’s undying gratitude but they also earned his “undying presence.” Thanks for your note.—Rob Freedman

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