Remembering Rush Drummer Neil Peart With The Boston Woman Who First Played Them On The Radio
by Henry Santoro and Marilyn Schairer | February 7, 2020 | WDBH
Donna Halper with Rush in 1974. Left to right: WMMS deejay Matt the Cat, Neil Peart, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Donna Halper, WMM program director John Gorman, and Mercury Records promotion representative Don George.
The news of Neil Peart’s death on Jan. 7 stopped the music world in its tracks. Peart was the drummer and main lyricist for the Canadian rock band Rush. When it came to bands both big and small, someone has to have been the first to play them on the radio. In the case of Rush, that person is Donna Halper, born in Dorchester and now an associate professor of communications and media studies at Lesley University. Halper joined WGBH News’ Henry Santoro to share stories about her friendship with Peart and the band. The interview below has been edited for clarity.
Henry Santoro: In 1974, you were a deejay at WMMS in Cleveland. You were sent a promo copy of Rush's song “Working Man.” Now, do you remember how that song resonated with you when you first put it on the turntable?
Donna Halper: I do, indeed. First of all, I was sent the entire album. There was a home-grown record with the most bizarre cover I've ever seen. It was sort of a really weird shade of red and it really did look like a loving hands-at-home production. But that's fine. I would get home-grown albums all the time. But in this case, it was sent to me from a record company up in Canada and a friend of mine named Bob Roper. My career got started in Cambridge at a little station that is no longer there, WCAS. And, when I was there, I made a lot of friends with record promoters all over everywhere, including in Canada, because I always liked Canadian music. I used to go up to Canada.
So anyway, Bob Roper sends me this album and I look at it and I'm like, “Hmm not the most professional thing I've ever seen, but who knows what's inside of it?” And it comes with a note basically saying, “Our label, A&M of Canada, we're not signing these guys. We just don't think they're ready for primetime. But, I hear something and you and I have talked many times about music. What do you think?”
So, I put the needle down on the longest cut that I could find. And it was “Working Man.” And immediately, I knew that song would resonate with the audience. Cleveland at that time was a factory town. “Well, I get up at seven. Yeah. Go to work at 9:00. Get no time for living. Yes, I'm working all the time.” That absolutely was going to resonate with the audience. Now, did I know I was going to be friends with them for 45 years? No. Did I remember the exact day when I got the record? No. Because you don't realize at the time that this is going to be a significant event. All I know is I got such good responses when I ran that song down to the deejay who was on the air, a guy by the name of Denny Sanders, and I said, “Denny, you gotta listen to this.” And he put it on the turntable. Immediately, people started calling. Now agreed, some of them thought it was the new Led Zeppelin album because the lead singer to them, for reasons that I don't understand, sounded a bit like the lead singer of Led Zeppelin. Doesn't matter. The fact is, people loved the song. And from then that led to us playing other songs from the album like “Finding My Way,” and before you knew it, we had a hit record in Cleveland.
So, I got in touch with the management. I said, “Hey, you don't know me, but I'm the music director at WMMS in Cleveland.” And they were like, “Cleveland!? We can't get arrested in Toronto, we're from here and nobody will play our songs!” And one thing led to another. I helped get their import album into a record store called Record Revolution. It sold out pretty quickly. Then the original band with John Rutsey came down and later they were signed to Mercury Records, which I was not entirely responsible for, but I did have a hand in it because I was friendly with the national promotion director, Cliff Bernstein. And they called and said, “Hey, you guys are getting great reactions from this record. Do you think we should sign them?” I was like, “Yeah, I really do think these guys have potential.”
Santoro: And the band never forgot that.
Halper: They never did. And they dedicated the first two albums to me. Later, I was in a documentary about them. But, more importantly, I got a 45-year friendship out of this. And what is stunning to me is I was in broadcasting for almost four decades. I'm not new to this. So, I helped a lot of bands over the years. It was my job. I was the music director. Never so much as got a thank you. And in fairness, nor did I expect one. This is not the kind of job, as you know, you interview people for a living.
Santoro: And I was in the music business for a long time.
Halper: Then you know what I'm saying. So, mom raised us to be courteous, OK, you interview me, not like you personally, but you interview me. The chances are very good I will send you a thank you note because mom raised me like that. But, in general, rock bands, I don't know if it was mom that did it or whatever, but manners were not really something I expected. Some of them yeah, but by and large, I didn't hear back from most of them. In the case of Rush, their management, them, their families. I mean, funny story and true story. We're at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when the band finally got inducted.
Santoro: That’s in 2013.
Halper: Yep. And we're backstage and Geddy's mother comes up to me and she's wonderful. She's amazing. She's like, you know, I think early nineties now. And she calls Geddy over, the lead singer. And she's like, “Geddy, did you think Donna?” and Geddy is like looking at me like, “Oh my God, ma, every day for like the past 45 years.” But, that's just how they are. These are family men. I did not know any of that at the time.
Santoro: And nor was Neil in the band.
Halper: He was not in the original. ... The original iteration that I got had a drummer named John Rutsey. Now, God rest John Rutsey’s soul. He was a diabetic. He also was somebody who at that time was not taking care of his health. Now, if he were around today, it would be much easier for him to maintain his illness. You know, you got the little portable things you can do. You get the finger stick. Back then, if you had serious diabetes, you had to go to the hospital.
Santoro: And with life on the road like that, it’s almost impossible.
Halper: Bingo. And so they sort of knew that if they were going to get to the next level, they needed a different drummer. It was a tough decision. But they also wanted someone who could be more of a lyricist. They had been a three chord bar band, as they themselves would tell you. And that was where they were, but that's not where they wanted to stay. They had visions of being something else. And that led to Neil.
Santoro: People say that in the beginning Rush was good. But, Neil wasn’t with them then, as we just talked about, and when he did join the band, they went from good to great overnight.
Halper: I think that the original album, a lot of people like to mark that album. I never do. I heard potential in that record. I still think “Working Man” sounds good. It has aged very well as a rock and roll song. I still get the chills when I hear the opening chords to “Finding My Way.” Now, agreed, are there like deep, significant philosophical — No. They were three chord rock and roll band back then. But yes, Neil took them to the next level.
Santoro: Which was what they were looking for.
Halper: But, they wouldn't have gotten there if it weren't for that seminal first album. So, I kind of listen to it in that way. But yes, Neil brought with him a knowledge of poetry, a knowledge of literature, a knowledge of history and philosophy. He was very well read, and jokingly nicknamed "the professor."
Santoro: And when he joined the band, he asked to meet you.
Halper: He did indeed. Because I already had a prior relationship, [but] not a relationship like some people think of. I was more sort of like the big sister of the band at that point in time.
Santoro: So you aren’t a groupie?
Halper: Oh, heavens, no. No, no, no. I was a very old fashioned old school person. I don't smoke. I don't drink. I don't do drugs. I am a former Sunday school teacher. I am a former chaplain, OK? And as a result, you know, if you were looking for that party animal, that probably wasn’t me.
Santoro: That wasn't Donna Halper.
Halper: No, no, no. But, on the other hand, I like to have fun just like anybody else. But I'm kind of, you know, show me where the ice cream is. Show me where the cookies are. Give me some music I can dance to. And I love good conversation. So, I had had a good relationship already with the management and with Geddy and with Alex and Neil wanted to know what I was all about. And so I had him over my apartment. And some people are like, "Oh, you had Neil at your apartment?" Well, yeah, because we wanted to get away from the radio station and just have a conversation. We both were into conversation. And that is something that was true about Neil all the days of his life. Neil was never the kind of person that had like 90,000 friends. I mean, there's a line in one of the songs that I'm sure, you know, “I can't pretend the stranger is a long awaited friend.” That absolutely, that was Neil.
Santoro: And he wasn't necessarily into the meet and greets, either.
Halper: No, no, no. I'll be honest with you. I have one picture of me with Neil, one in 45 years. It's not because he hated me. He did not. We kept in touch off and on over the years. But, he just never showed up at the meet and greet events. It wasn't his area of comfort. He just didn't. So, I never expected that he would. But when he came to my apartment, we talked literature. We talked poetry. We talked philosophy. And he borrowed a copy of a Shakespearean play that he and I both like, “King Lear.” And that's going to come up again years later. But I never thought that much about it. People borrow my books all the time. And if you ever lent a book to someone, you hope it comes back. But, you know, if it doesn't, you're not like, “Oh, this is a shock.” So, I never thought another thing about it. But yeah, it was the kind of conversation that you would not expect from a music director and a rock star. And yet it was so typical of Neil.
Santoro: And when you listen to his lyrics, you can hear that poetic reference to classic literature. You can hear it, you feel it.
Halper: Absolutely. He was a very erudite person. And I know it's fashionable to mock certain lyricism. “Oh, my God. They're overblown and lots of hyperbole.” Hey, come on. It's rock and roll. It ain't a course at a college. But, the fact remains, he was very well read and it informed the kind of music that he did. It is a myth, you and I both know the industry, we both were in it for a long time, it is a myth that all rock and roll is just, “I lost my baby bop bop shabop doo ah,” you know, there are plenty of songs that have deep philosophical thoughts to them, but they're just set to a rock and roll beat.
Santoro: There's the Rush albums and then there's Rush live. A rush performance in concert is off the charts, unbelievable.
Halper: Not only off the charts, but you really get the respect that these three guys had for their instruments, for their music and for the fans. A lot of people used to get upset about Neil not coming to the meet and greets. And I would always say to them, “He just spent three hours up onstage playing his heart out for you.”
Santoro: Surrounded by the largest drum set that could fit on a stage!
Halper: So, how did he not reach out to the fans? This was his communication. And everybody's going to find their comfort zone. Some people are more comfortable at the parties. Some people are more comfortable just with a small group. Neil always had a small group of friends and he had them all his life. It is also no accident and no myth to say he was good to his parents. It's like, yeah, right, he was good. But he was. And we can say this about all the members of the band. They were very unusual in that way. They kept in touch with their parents. They were good to their parents. You don't see that in rock and roll. It was one of the things that I found kind of charming.
Santoro: And the three of them were also very philanthropic.
Halper: Very much so. And they were friends, by the way. If you saw the documentary “Beyond the Lighted Stage,” until the day Neil passed, he was the new guy, even though he'd been with the band almost since its inception. But, they like to play jokes on each other. They like to play around. They liked each other.
Santoro: It's not like the Eagles, five guys, five limos.
Halper: Or what they used to say about the Red Sox. But the fact remains, they liked each other. Now, agreed, you can't spend 360 days a year out on the road and not get into little squabbles now and then. But by and large, they were friends. They liked each other and they shared the same beliefs. And the thing with philanthropy, I'm glad you mentioned it, because there are a lot of people that they want everyone to know that they're philanthropists. They want their name on a building. If I told you, and when I mentioned since Neil passed, I've mentioned to fans some of his philanthropy and some of them were really surprised. I mean, they weren't surprised because Neil being Neil, he was a very ethical, honorable guy. But the amount of philanthropy that he did is widely unknown. And that's the way he wanted it. He didn't do it to get, you know, the "Neil Peart Memorial Building." He didn't want it.
Santoro: He had the same brain cancer that took the lives of Senator John McCain and Senator Ted Kennedy. How did he handle his diagnosis?
Halper: And by the way, Canadian musician Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. ... Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip was another musician that had the same kind of disease that Neil did. They both handled it very differently. And again, I'm fine about that. Everybody's got to handle their disease a different way. When I got cancer, I was very public about it. I wanted to not so much be a role model because, like, who am I? But I did know that I have a lot of people that follow me on social media. So, I wanted to just be encouraging. It's like, I have great faith in my doctors, et cetera. Neil was much more private. Neil only let a very few people know just how sick he was. It didn't make the trades. It wasn't in Billboard. I mean, reporters who covered him over the years were shocked. I'll be honest with you. I didn't know how sick he was. Now, yes, I knew he was sick. But, I would be lying to you if I said I knew how sick. The truth is, that just wasn't Neil. He didn't want a lot of attention. He held his private life very private. And this is another reason why some people have been very upset that on social media there were some rumors and it was like speculation about his final days. We're seeing this about Kobe Bryant, like, “Oh my God, what was going on at the crash site?” It's none of your business. Let's just keep it to the families. It's a shame that the person passed away. I have deep respect for Neal's family. They didn't want the details out. Even if I knew something. I wouldn't have said anything.
WGBH News intern Alex LaSalvia contributed to this story.
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