Since 1974, when he joined the band, Mr. Peart (pronounced PEERT) was the rocking heartbeat of Rush, one of the most enduring and beloved groups in a genre that came to be known as prog — for progressive — rock.
Beginning as a blues-influenced rock band in 1968, Rush evolved through the years, borrowing elements of heavy metal and punk music to create a distinctive style that won millions of devoted followers, if not always critical acclaim.
Despite being snubbed by critics and major awards — Rush has never won a Grammy — and having few Top-40 hits, the group developed an intensely loyal fan base. It wasn’t just the band’s longevity or its pyrotechnic live shows, complete with projected images and dazzling lighting effects, that appealed to its fans.
Rush maintained a certain creative purity that is rare in rock-and-roll and never succumbed to the life of excess that derailed so many others. The band was never expanded beyond the basic trio of Lifeson on guitar, Lee on bass and vocals (and sometimes doubling on keyboards) and Mr. Peart on drums. All three were regarded as virtuosos who were among the finest pure musicians on their instruments of the rock era.
“Even as a kid, I never wanted to be famous,” Mr. Peart told the Toronto Star. “I wanted to be good.”
In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine cited Mr. Peart’s “stunning unity of brains and brawn” in naming him the fourth-greatest rock drummer in history, after John Bonham, Keith Moon — Mr. Peart’s idol — and Ginger Baker, who died in October. Every Rush concert featured an extended drum solo or two by Mr. Peart, in which he created dramatic compositions in percussion on a gold-plated drum set of more than 30 pieces, including chimes, gongs, electronic gadgets and a dozen cymbals.
In his later years, he sat behind his drums wearing a small African cap, measuring each move and sonic effect. Midway through a solo, his drum set would rotate 180 degrees around him, setting up a change in musical tone in the intricate solos that drove his audiences to a state of near-ecstasy.
“Neil is the most air-drummed-to drummer of all time,” Stewart Copeland, the former drummer for the Police, told Rolling Stone. “Neil pushes that band, which has a lot of musicality, a lot of ideas crammed into every eight bars — but he keeps the throb, which is the important thing.”
During Mr. Peart’s years with Rush, the band released more than 20 albums, 14 of which were certified platinum. More than 40 million Rush records have been sold worldwide, and only the Beatles and Rolling Stones had more consecutive gold or platinum albums.
Perhaps the group’s best-known album was “Moving Pictures,” which reached No. 3 on the Billboard album chart and has sold nearly 5 million copies since its release in 1981.
“When punk and New Wave came,” Mr. Peart told Rolling Stone, “we were young enough to gently incorporate it into our music, rather than getting reactionary about it — like other musicians who I heard saying, ‘What are we supposed to do now, forget how to play?’ We were fans enough to go, ‘Oh, we want that too.’ And by ‘Moving Pictures,’ we nailed it, learning how to be seamlessly complex and to compact a large arrangement into a concise statement.”
Among the band’s best-known tunes are “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight,” both from “Moving Pictures,” along with “Fly by Night,” “Closer to the Heart,” “Time Stand Still” and “The Spirit of Radio,” with lyrics by Mr. Peart:
Mr. Peart took an intellectual approach to both his drumming and songwriting. As a drummer, he understood that the “China cymbals” used for sonic accents in rock music were used in classic Chinese opera.
His tom-toms were so precisely tuned that he could play the theme from “Jeopardy!” on them.
But he deeply admired African hand-drumming and jazz, as well.
As a songwriter, he was inspired by science fiction, classical mythology and his wide literary interests. The title of Rush’s 1984 album, “Grace Under Pressure,” was taken from Ernest Hemingway. That album included a dark song about the Holocaust, “Red Sector A”:
A wound that will not heal —
A heart that cannot feel —
Hoping that the horror will recede
(Lee, the band’s lead singer, is the son of Holocaust survivors.)
Some of the lyrics Mr. Peart wrote in the 1970s reflected the libertarian ideas of Ayn Rand, whose novels he eagerly read at the time. He later disavowed those beliefs, and the band’s lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who sometimes quoted Rush songs in his campaign speeches.
Neil Ellwood Peart was born Sept. 12, 1952, in Hamilton, Ontario, and grew up in what is now St. Catharines, Ontario, about 70 miles from Toronto. His father sold farm equipment and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Peart began playing drums at 13, after seeing a movie about Gene Krupa, the big-band drummer who played with Benny Goodman and helped put drummers in the spotlight. Mr. Peart was soon drawn to rock music, particularly the British group the Who and its drummer, Moon.
Once, when he was reprimanded in school from drumming on his desk, Mr. Peart was kept after school and told to beat on the desk for an hour. He happily played Moon’s drum parts from the Who’s “Tommy.”
For years, he wore a piece of brass around his neck, from a cymbal Moon had shattered at a Toronto concert. When the 6-foot-4 Mr. Peart auditioned for Rush in 1974, he was “this big goofy guy with a small drum kit,” Lee told the Guardian newspaper of England.
“We thought he was a hick from the country. And then he sat down behind this kit and pummeled the drums, and us. I’d never heard a drummer like that, someone with that power and dexterity. As far as I was concerned, he was hired from the minute he started playing.”
Mr. Peart said one of the reasons Rush stayed together so long was that the three band members had a shared sense of humor and dedication to their craft.
“If any of us were the slightest bit less stable,” he told Rolling Stone, “the slightest bit less disciplined or less humorous or more mean, or in any way different, it wouldn’t have worked. So there’s a miracle there.”
In 1997, Mr. Peart’s 19-year-old daughter, Selena, was killed in a car accident in Toronto. A year later, his common-law wife of 23 years, Jackie Taylor, died of cancer.
Mr. Peart then embarked on a 14-month motorcycle journey that took him from Canada to Central America. He wrote about his travels and sense of loss in “Ghost Rider” (2002), one of several books he published.
In 2000, he married Carrie Nuttall, who survives him, along with their daughter, Olivia Peart. Other survivors include his parents, Glen and Betty Peart of St. Catharines; two sisters; and a brother.
After reuniting with his bandmates, Mr. Peart settled in Los Angeles and became a U.S. citizen. In the years before the band stopped touring in 2015, he traveled between cities by motorcycle.
In 2013, after years of being ignored, Rush was finally admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
When he sat down at the drums, Mr. Peart said, he always tried to recapture the spirit he felt when he was starting out in music.
“I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had,” he told Rolling Stone, “to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.”