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Rush Discovery: An Interview With Donna Halper
Without Donna Halper, Rush may have never been anything more than a Toronto bar band. In 1974, Donna was the Music Director of WMMS in Cleveland, Ohio. After receiving a copy of Rush's first album from a Canadian record promoter, Donna got "Working Man" on the airwaves, the phones lit up with curiosity, and the rest is history. It was the first Rush song to ever hit American ears and got the ball rolling for the band's now legendary 30 year plus career. To put it bluntly, Donna discovered Rush. She published her fond memories of these early days with the band and I highly recommend it to fans interested in this era. I was eager to interview Donna not only for her recollections of Rush's origins, but also to get her opinion on the band now and of the music industry in general. Donna currently lives in Boston, is a radio consultant, broadcast historian, and an instructor at several colleges. She has been feeling a bit unhealthy lately and I appreciate her taking time to answer some questions.
Donna, being a collector of rare, live Rush shows,
I know some of the more popular performances among traders are the ones
from The Agora in Cleveland, 1974 (recently rebroadcast on WMMS). I
discovered some photos from that time. What memories do these pictures
evoke of those performances?
Donna: I remember being asked to introduce the band and I also remember the band acknowledging me and thanking me for believing in them. I have a tape of the 1974 concert and it still brings tears to my eyes to listen to it. I had a very contentious relationship with most of the upper management at WMMS so it was really nice to be thanked and acknowledged-- at the time, some of the staff at WMMS seemed somewhat jealous that I was getting all this attention, but I gotta tell you, it felt good. You have to understand what I was going through at the time -- I was not the most popular person at the radio station.
was a non-smoker, a non-drinker and a non-drug user in a city where the
"album rock lifestyle" included all three and where most of
the people with whom I worked had a very hard time accepting my being
what today would be called 'clean and sober'-- but Rush, who I must tell
you enjoyed partying (although not to any extremes that I ever saw),
totally accepted and respected me and never had a problem with my
avoidance of substances. I became their mentor and big sister, and
they became my friends. And at the Agora, suddenly I wasn't an
outcast or somebody weird-- I was important, and I was appreciated.
There is another story I wrote that you might be able to find on line, about my friendship with the late Alex Harvey of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Very similar-- Alex was by all accounts an alcoholic, but around me, he was a totally different person and we had some wonderful conversations... Those are the moments I miss even today-- being able to help a deserving artist or group become popular and having the opportunity to make a new friend in the process. I never took any of it for granted and to this day, I am grateful for the experiences I've had, even when they were difficult (I encountered sexism, anti-Semitism, and various other -isms, but somehow I managed to overcome it and carve out a career that nobody in my neighborhood every expected I would have. I was raised in a lower middle class part of Boston, in a family that was hard-working but would probably be considered "poor" based on my father's income. My late father only had an 8th grade education (his immigrant father and mother struggled in America, and when things got especially tough for them, he was expected to drop out of school and go to work to help support his brothers and sisters); his life was not easy. My late mother loved to read and loved to learn new things; she was not allowed to go to college because back when she was growing up, women were not expected and often not allowed to get education beyond high school. My parents thought I'd be a teacher or a secretary, which was what women were supposed to be, but that just was not what I wanted. Nobody in my family ever expected I would have a career in media, and they were not happy about my moving away to pursue my dream of being in radio. And to this day, I am sometimes amazed thinking back on some of the celebrities I had the chance to hang out with and some of the great concerts I saw.
It seems like Rush's career got legs because there
was someone in radio willing to take a chance and play something they
felt was good. Can this type of thing happen in radio today or has radio
airplay become too scientific? I was a Music Director and DJ for a
number of years and noticed how songs could only get airplay if they
were auditorium tested or "tried and true" in bigger markets.
Donna: I attended RushCon (www.rushcon.org) in 2001 and 2004 and spoke at both conventions. I was asked that question several times, and I had to admit that no, I don't think I could discover Rush today. Back when I was a music director, the PD and the MD actually chose the music and made decisions based on what was right for the station. There was a lot of autonomy, and we could really get behind a band and use our influence to get them some attention. These days, 5 giant conglomerates control most of broadcasting, satellite jocks from who knows where play the songs in hundreds of cities, and few stations have the power to independently break a new artist. It still does happen, but it's much more difficult these days, sad to say.
Once Rush got going, their first few albums didn't fare too well
commercially and they were almost dropped from Mercury before "2112" was made.
It seems nowadays, a band isn't given these types of chances and there's too
much emphasis on having that blockbuster first album. If second or third
albums are not selling, it's pretty much over. If we had lost Rush at that
point, what a shame it would have been. Do you think labels are as forgiving
as they once were?
Donna: Media consolidation hasn't just affected radio-- it has affected the music industry too. There are many fewer labels and some of the surviving labels are not free to sign as many new artists as they once did. I see many examples of labels being much more conservative about who they sign or about how long they give an artist before the executives at the label decide to drop that person or group. Mercury had a number of people in the company who really believed in Rush and who fought for them and tried to persuade others to believe in the band. But let's also be realistic-- even in those 'good old days' of more stations and more labels, there was a lot of resistance at many stations to playing a band like Rush. Many stations insisted on a hit single, which Rush did not have. So while they were big in certain markets, others seldom gave them any airplay at all. In record promotion, there was something they used to call a "work record"-- that meant a song that everybody at the label really loved but they also realized it would take a while to persuade broadcasters to give it a chance, and the promotion person knew he or she would have to keep pushing and overcome the resistance at key radio stations. Many Rush songs fell into that category-- their fans loved 'em, the label had people who loved 'em, I loved 'em, you loved 'em, but in markets like Boston and New York, they got minimal airplay because certain program directors at album rock stations just did not like the band no matter what we all said... SO while we can all blame media consolidation today, the truth is even back then, a band like Rush which is so unique and so cerebral, had trouble getting airplay in certain cities, while they were HUGE in other cities. Go figure...
Ant: I've noticed that Album/Classic Rock stations tend to stick with the Rush "staples", such as "Tom Sawyer", "Limelight", "Working Man", "Spirit Of Radio", "Closer To The Heart", etc. Why has radio abandoned their 80's/90's output, especially since they had quite a few #1 AOR (Album Oriented Rock) songs, including "Dreamline", "Show Don't Tell" and "Stick It Out". Rush has had many Top 5 AOR tracks including "The Big Money", "Force 10", "Ghost Of A Chance" and "Marathon", to name a few...but we never hear them anymore.
Donna: Oh I wish people would play "Finding My Way"-- such a great radio record. So is "Distant Early Warning"-- there are so many songs we never hear-- "Anthem" comes to mind. Radio has become very 'play it safe' and limited playlists make things boring, but group owners want safe and proven hits (or well known album tracks), which they believe will get them a larger audience than if they play songs people don't know. I disagree with that strategy and when I consulted, I always advocated playing some "oh wow I haven't heard that in ages" songs, along with the proven hits and the top album tracks. Be interesting-- don't be predictable. But alas, not everybody follows that philosophy. I have some theories about why radio doesn't play a lot of 80s and 90s songs on album/classic rock stations, but no kidding, I have had three surgeries in the past year, so for now, this will have to be brief.
Ant: Any idea how many times you've seen Rush live?
Donna: Can't even count. I've seen them in NY, Cleveland, Boston, Washington DC, and a few other cities too. And I've never seen them give anything less than 100% every time.
Ant: When was the last time you saw Rush on tour? Did you get to see them on the recent Vapor Trails or Anniversary tours?
Donna: Due to my health, I didn't see them the last time they were in Boston. One thing I recall very clearly is that when they were here in 1996, it was a pretty emotional reunion. Sometime when I have more energy, I'll tell you about it. No, we don't get to see each other as much as we used to back in the 70s and 80s-- our lives have taken different directions, but we do keep in touch. That time, in 1996, it had really been a while since we'd seen each other, and Alex ran over and hugged me and then Geddy came over and we stood around in our own little circle, talking about various things, while people who were in the Meet and Greet room were trying to figure out why the guys had suddenly stopped what they were doing to hang with me for a few minutes-- and it was so great to be with them again (of course, Neil only does some of the Meet & Greets, something he has never enjoyed). Even when we only exchange an occasional e-mail, I know the guys are still my friends and they know there is nothing I wouldn't do for them.
Ant: Do you keep up with each new Rush release and actively listen to them? Do you have a favorite Rush album or "period"?
Donna: People want to ask about my favorite Rush album and I can never answer the question-- it's like asking a parent who their favorite child is. Each of Rush's albums speaks to me in a different way, and even the ones I didn't like as much as others still have something that gets my attention or impresses me. They are such a talented band and I love them dearly. And yes, I read the reviews and keep up with what is being said about them. I also write to editors and reviewers if I feel they are being too harsh on the guys-- after all, they are my friends and I stand up for my friends!
Ant: How often do you speak to them?
Donna: These days, I speak to them through their management. In fact I probably speak to the folks at Anthem more often these days than I do to the guys-- they are out on the road, I am teaching and writing and trying to get my PhD and waiting for my health to return so I can revive my consulting business. But as I said, even if it's just an occasional e-mail or a greeting through somebody else (like their management), I know they care about me and they know I care about them. It's been that way for more than 30 years and I doubt it will change.
Ant: Donna, thank you very much for your time and I sincerely hope you are feeling healthier soon. I'm going to send you a Rush performance from nearly 30 years ago. It's a black and white proshot video of their set as an opening act on December 10, 1976 at the Passaic Theatre in New Jersey. They were actually opening for Foghat that night.
Donna: Ah yes-- I remember one bizarre concert where they opened for Bob Seger...I still have the ticket stubs... I'd love to hear it, if you are willing to share.
See Also: Peart Goes Underground
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