Donna Halper: I Probably Couldn’t Help Rush Today
The radio industry has changed so much since the 1970s, when Donna Halper was a rock radio program manager, that if Rush came along today there is little she could do to help them like she did in 1974, she says in a German radio interview she gave a few weeks ago to Jorg Reiche of Rock Bottom.
“People have asked me, ‘If you had discovered Rush today, would you be able to get them on the air?’ and, no, probably not,” says Halper, 67, “because there isn’t as much freedom on radio today. It’s much more corporate. The big companies tell you what to play. We didn’t have that problem; nobody told us what to play, so we could play whatever songs we believed in and when I first heard Rush, I had the freedom to bring it down to the disc jockey and say, ‘This song is a great song, “Working Man.” You’ve got to hear it. People are going to like it.’ And he had the freedom to play it.”
The disc jockey was Denny Sanders, and Halper, program manager at Cleveland rock radio station WMMS at the time, had been sent Rush’s self-produced debut album by Al Roper of A&M in Canada, a friend of hers. “The company decided that they did not want to sign Rush, but he heard the record and he thought it had potential,” Halper says. “So, he sent it down to me, because he knew I played a lot of Canadian bands. I opened it up and put the needle down on a couple of the long songs, and I listened to ‘Working Man,’ and I knew immediately, because of the lyrics: ‘I get up at seven, I go to work at nine, got no time for livin’, I’m working all the time.’ That was Cleveland. Cleveland was a factory town. I knew the moment they heard that song that it would resonate with them and that is absolutely what happened.”
Because of the interest among Cleveland listeners, Halper got in touch with Rush’s two managers, Vic Wilson and Ray Danniels, and they sent down a box of records, which Halper helped get placed in a local record store. “They sold out in a day and that led to a recording contract on an American label.”
Harper says she recommended to Rush’s managers that they go with Mercury because she was impressed with Mercury’s rep at the time, Cliff Burnstein, who had promised to treat Rush as a priority.
Rush played in Cleveland a few months after Halper had first played their record on the air and she says they were nervous and that Geddy was genuinely surprised when people in the audience knew their songs. “They were young, they were scared, they had never been to Cleveland, and at that time, I became like a big sister,” she says, “encouraging them, telling them it was going to be okay. It was just kind of nice.”
The hall they played in was small and they were the third band on the bill. “But people knew them. People were shouting out to them. I remember Geddy looking surprised. He was wearing these big platform shoes, I was afraid he was going to fall over, but that was the fashion back then. I remember Geddy being surprised when someone called out, ‘Play “Working Man!” I think that kind of gave the band the idea that maybe they were going to become popular after all.”
Halper touches on the transition from John Rutsey to Neil on drums, which occurred at the time all of this was happening. Rumors circulated later that John Rutsey had a drug problem but Halper says those were just rumors fueled by John’s diabetes. Today, drugs are available for diabetics to take any time, anywhere, but back then, diabetics had to schedule appointments with doctors to get insulin, making it all but impossible for someone like Rutsey to go on the road for a long tour.
As it happened, Geddy and Alex were wanting to move in a new musical direction, so they saw John’s leaving as an opportunity. Halper says she doubts Alex and Geddy would have kicked John out of the band. “I don’t think they would have done that,” she says. “They’re good guys. But I think when Rutsey had to leave because of his health, I think they saw it like, ‘This is a blessing.'”
Halper describes how she and two of her friends, upset that Rush was being passed over at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, led the effort to get the band recognized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010. “It was wrong, it was outrageous,” she said of the annual snub by the Rock Hall. “And so about three of us got together, business people who love Rush as much as I do, and we put our heads together and thought, ‘What can we do?’ and we decided we would submit an application to the Hollywood Walk of Fame Committee, and in the end, they got a star. I hoped that it would say something to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: ‘Look at these millions of fans, why don’t you induct this band?’ and finally Rush was inducted.”
Halper, assistant professor of communication at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., has just come out with a revised edition of her book on the pioneering role of women in broadcasting called Invisible Stars (M.E. Sharpe).
Thanks to RushIsABand for posting the Rock Bottom interview.