Happy Birthday to Geddy Lee Weinrib, OC (born Gary Lee Weinrib; July 29, 1953!
Geddy Lee Weinrib, OC, known professionally as Geddy Lee, is a Canadian musician, singer, and songwriter best known as the lead vocalist, bassist, and keyboardist for the Canadian rock group Rush. Lee joined what would become Rush in September 1968, at the request of his childhood friend Alex Lifeson, replacing original bassist and frontman Jeff Jones. Lee’s first solo effort, My Favourite Headache, was released in 2000.
An award-winning musician, Lee’s style, technique, and skill on the bass guitar have inspired many rock musicians such as Cliff Burton of Metallica, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, John Myung of Dream Theater, and Les Claypool of Primus. Along with his Rush bandmates – guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart – Lee was made an Officer of the Order of Canada on May 9, 1996. The trio was the first rock band to be so honored, as a group. Lee is ranked 13th by Hit Parader on their list of the 100 Greatest Heavy Metal vocalists of all time.
Lee was born on July 29, 1953 in Willowdale, (North York) Toronto, Ontario, to Morris and Mary Weinrib (née Manya Rubenstein). His parents were Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland who had survived the ghetto in their hometown Starachowice, followed by their imprisonments at Dachau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, during the Holocaust and World War II. They were about 13 years old when they were initially imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp, close to the same age as Anne Frank at that time. “It was kind of surreal pre-teen shit,” says Lee, describing how his father bribed guards to bring his mother shoes. After a period, his mother was transferred to Bergen-Belsen and his father to Dachau. When the war ended four years later and the Allies liberated the camps, his father set out in search of his mother and found her at a displaced persons camp. They married there and eventually immigrated to Canada.
In Canada, Lee’s parents gave him a Jewish education, with a bar mitzvah at age 13. His father was a skilled musician, but died the year before from medical problems resulting from his imprisonment. This forced his mother to find outside work to support three children. Lee feels that not having parents at home during those years was probably a factor in his becoming a musician: “It was a terrible blow that I lost him, but the course of my life changed because my mother couldn’t control us.” He said that losing his father at such an early age made him aware of how “quickly life can disappear,” which inspired him from then on to get the most out of his life and music.
He turned his basement into practice space for a band he formed with high-school friends. After the band began earning income from small performances at high-school shows or other events, he decided to drop out of high school and play rock and roll professionally. His mother was devastated when he told her, and he still feels that he owes her for the disappointments in her life. “All the shit I put her through,” he says, “on top of the fact that she just lost her husband. I felt like I had to make sure that it was worth it. I wanted to show her that I was a professional, that I was working hard, and wasn’t just a fuckin’ lunatic.”
Today, Lee considers himself a cultural Jew. Jweekly featured Lee’s reflections on his mother’s experiences as a refugee, and of his own Jewish heritage. Lee’s name, Geddy, was derived from his mother’s heavily accented pronunciation of his given first name, Gary. This was picked up by his friends in school, leading Lee to adopt it as his stage name and later his legal name.
After Rush had become a widely recognized rock group, Lee told the story about his mother’s early life to the group’s drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, who then wrote the lyrics to “Red Sector A,” inspired by her ordeal. The song, for which Lee wrote the music, was released on the band’s 1984 album Grace Under Pressure. The lyrics include the following verse:
I hear the sound of gunfire at the prison gate
Are the liberators here?
Do I hope or do I fear?
For my father and my brother, it’s too late
But I must help my mother stand up straight
Lee began playing music in school when he was 9 or 10, and got his first acoustic guitar at 14. In school, he first played drums, trumpet and clarinet. However, learning to play instruments in school wasn’t satisfying to Lee, and he took basic piano lessons on his own. His interest increased dramatically after listening to some of the popular rock groups at the time. His early influences included Jack Bruce of Cream, John Entwistle of The Who, Jeff Beck, and Procol Harum. “I was mainly interested in early British progressive rock,” said Lee. “That’s how I learned to play bass, emulating Jack Bruce and people like that.” Bruce’s style of music was also noticed by Lee, who liked that “his sound was distinctive – it wasn’t boring.”
Beginning in 1969, Rush began playing professionally in coffeehouses, high school dances and at various outdoor recreational events. By 1971, they were now playing mostly original songs in small clubs and bars, including Toronto’s Gasworks and Abbey Road Pub. Lee describes the group during these early years as being “weekend warriors,” holding down jobs during the weekdays and playing music on weekends: “We longed to break out of the boring surrounding of the suburbs and the endless similarities . . . the shopping plazas and all that stuff. . . the music was a vehicle for us to speak out.” He claims that in the beginning they were simply “a straightforward rock band.”
Short of money, they began opening concerts at venues such as Toronto’s Victory Burlesque Theatre for the punk band, New York Dolls. By 1972 Rush began performing full-length concerts, consisting mostly of original songs, in cities including Toronto and Detroit. As they gained more recognition, they began performing as an opening act for groups such as Aerosmith, Kiss, and Blue Öyster Cult.