For the past several days, I was in Toronto attending a conference about the impact of the media on our lives-- a topic I'll blog about in the near future. And in addition to attending panels and giving a talk, I also made some time to see a few folks who are very important to me, and to catch up with what they've been doing.
Toronto has long been a home away from home for me-- while my career in broadcasting and print has mainly been in the United States, I've made many friends in Toronto radio and TV over the years; in fact, my interactions with Toronto's music industry began way back in 1968-1970, when I was a music director in college radio. That's when I first encountered record promoters from Canadian labels, and they were always happy to find someone at an American radio station who would play some of their artists.
I spent about 13 years of my radio career as a music director, and it was a job I loved. I was able to hear the new songs first, and I had the freedom to give unknown artists much-needed airplay. In that era before music downloads or YouTube or social media, listeners relied on their favorite FM album-rock radio station to introduce them to new bands, and to play the best songs from bands they already liked. Somehow, along the way, I got a reputation for playing Canadian bands, and promoters would make sure I had copies of any new groups that showed promise.
Among the folks with whom I became friendly was a guy named Bob Roper. He had previously worked for Capitol Records of Canada, but in 1974, he was working for A&M of Canada. If you are a fan of the rock band Rush, you know he was the one who sent me their debut album, when I was music directing at WMMS-FM in Cleveland. But what I always found so unusual about that gesture was this: Roper was sending me an album (a vinyl album back then) by a band who had not been signed to A&M of Canada; their homegrown first album was on Moon Records.
Normally, record promoters only sent me a record that was "theirs"-- in other words, an artist who was signed to their label. The hope was that airplay in the States might lead to success (and a record deal with a US label), which would, in turn, create greater demand in Canada. (Back then, Canadian bands were often frustrated by the fact that in order to become popular, they had to first have a hit in the US, at which time, Canadian radio stations would embrace their music.) But Rush couldn't get much airplay in Toronto (or anywhere else in Canada). They diligently played area clubs, but beyond getting a local following, nothing else happened; nor did any major label sign them to a contract.
And then, Bob Roper, who was familiar with the band and believed they had some talent, sent me a copy of their album. He didn't have to. He wasn't going to benefit in any way from doing so. It was just a good deed, by a good person trying to help three young musicians to get some exposure in the States. And when I opened the envelope and played "Working Man" for the first time, I immediately understood why Roper thought these guys had potential.
If you are a fan, you know the rest of the story. But what matters to me is the friendship that he and I still share-- a friendship that has endured for more than four decades. Bob Roper and I had breakfast yesterday, just before I left for the airport to return to Boston. It was wonderful to see him. We talked about how the music industry has changed; we talked about what each of us has been up to since the last time we saw each other. And we both acknowledged that our love of Rush, and our belief that these guys deserved a chance, resulted in so much more than either of us could ever have expected.
And if there's a lesson to be learned it's that sometimes, doing a good deed can have long-lasting results. I championed the band and encouraged other radio stations to play them. I (courteously) contacted critics and reviewers who were negative about Rush, and let them know I thought they were wrong. And along with other fans, I fought to help Rush to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and ultimately to (finally) get inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But none of it would ever have happened if a certain Canadian record promoter hadn't decided to do a simple act of kindness and make sure Rush's album ended up on my desk. And as a result of what Bob Roper did back in mid-May 1974, so many people's lives were changed for the better, including mine.