In 1963, Rutsey met Lifeson, while attending St. Paschals School. Rutsey would play hockey with him on the street. Both interested in music, they decided to form a band. The two would be part of the band ‘The Projection’ with Bill Fitzgerald and “Doc” Cooper.
He became a founding member of the Canadian rock band Rush formed in 1968 with guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist Jeff Jones, who would soon be replaced by Geddy Lee.
Ian Grandy stated; “John was the guy who would bug everyone to practice, and I think thought of himself as a “rock and roller”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There would have been no ‘Rush’ without John. Anyway, John led the guys as far as being ‘glam rockers’, with really flashy jackets and pants, and eight-inch high boots. One time, he was speaking to me at the Gasworks and I said, ‘Didn’t we used to be the same height (5’8”)?’ He laughed and said ‘Well, maybe a long time ago!'”
He played drums in Rush from 1968 until July 1974. The name Rush was actually suggested by John’s brother Bill during a band meeting in the Rutsey family basement. He appeared on the band’s debut single, a rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” in 1973, and on their self-titled debut which followed in 1974.
Unlike Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, who were more into bands such as Pink Floyd and Genesis, Rutsey was more into bands like Bad Company, which ultimately caused creative differences.
He was unanimously chosen as the head lyricist for the band, but became frustrated with the job and failed to produce much text.
‘Lee and Lifeson have each acknowledged that during the writing and recording sessions for the band’s debut album, Rutsey was given the role of chief lyricist. When the time came to start recording, however, he did not deliver any lyrics. In interviews, Lee and Lifeson have both said that Rutsey was dissatisfied with what he had written and had torn up the lyric sheets. Lee hastily wrote the lyrics to all the songs before recording the vocal tracks’.
Soon after Rush released its debut album, Rutsey left the band, due to musical differences and health concerns related to diabetes 1. His drinking may have posed potential problems with extended tours. Rutsey’s final performance with the group was on July 25, 1974 at Centennial Hall in London, Ontario. He was replaced by Neil Peart.
Rutsey fought diabetes for the rest of life and passed away from complications related to the disease on May 11, 2008 at the age of 55.
After Rutsey’s death, Lee and Lifeson released this statement: “Our memories of the early years of Rush when John was in the band are very fond to us. Those years spent in our teens dreaming of one day doing what we continue to do decades later are special. Although our paths diverged many years ago, we smile today, thinking back on those exciting times and remembering John’s wonderful sense of humor and impeccable timing. He will be deeply missed by all he touched.”