Rocket Norton
July 18, 1950 – April 5, 2024
– by Al Harlow

His Mother Margaret called him Gary.  His Dad Harry called him “Rock”. 
Gary Frederick Wanstall was Rocket Norton to us all. 

His decorated achievements as drummer, producer, author, entrepreneur & philanthropist are astounding.  On April 5, 2024 he left us too soon.

Very few among us seem larger than life, mercurial, always exuding ideas, always there for you, living on purpose, setting goals and achieving them. 

Some talk of writing a book; Rocket wrote five.  People talk of their dreams.  Rocket made his come true.  

As we often reminded each other, Rocket and I were life-long best friends from the beginning as teens; room-mates in the Seeds of Time band house, through Prism and beyond, specializing in music, mischief, girls & cars in those nascent years.  From Motown to Muddy, Stax-Volt to the early Stones, we enthused on music endlessly.   When I went to live in London England in early 1973, Rocket followed a year later to join the adventure. 

We signed off every phonecall, letter, email, and goodbye with “love you”, from early days to the very end. 

Rocket cultivated his musical friends like a bouquet of flowers.  He’d create shows, productions, and then cast his favourite people in them.  I was fortunate to be involved in a number of his projects.  John Hall was guaranteed onboard also. 

Aside from Prism’s years of platinum albums, Junos & extensive tours of the US & Canada, attempting a list of Rocket’s own achievements is daunting, but includes the Rocket Norton Band, a brilliant progressive rock quartet on the verge of a record deal in the mid ‘70s until Prism interrupted, freeing Jerry Doucette to a solo career.  

The HUNN project, John Hall, Doni Underhill, Jeff Neil, & Rocket Norton was also dear to Rocket’s heart, recording in 1980-’81 before sidetracked. They had planned to record again in 2024.

Rocket’s ‘80s TV band on CKVU’s “TGIF” hosted by Wayne Cox, launched guitarist James Bowers’ career as composer for Global TV for the next four decades, for which Jamie still expresses enormous gratitude to Rocket. 

He created the “Rhythm & Blues Explosion” for Expo 86, a 14-to-21-piece R&B review with full horns, matching suits and dance steps.  Appointed as guitarist-arranger, I went on the ride, as we played a packed 86 Street every night of Expo, culminating at BC Place with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.  Just another feather in Rocket’s cap. 

The Night Train Review with Kenny McColl & Denise McCann/Bachman became an album release, as did Rocket’s “Visions: Mission Andromeda” in the 3-D majesty of the Vancouver Planetarium; the album version was backed by the VSO, leading to a full concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in ’87.   Rocket’s rapport with the VSO continued in his performance with Michael J Fox’s rock show at the Orpheum Theatre. 

Rocket’s 1990 CBC-TV documentary “Rock Classics” showcased Vancouver’s vintage R&B lineups, psychedelic-era bands and classic rock acts together for the TV cameras at the Commodore Ballroom. 

Becoming General Manager of Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre in the early 1990s, he turned it into a vibrant music venue, forming “Rocket Norton Theatricals” to produce shows with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington & Count Basie Orchestras, plus Dal Richards at the Commodore.

Rocket produced the stage musical “Red Rock Diner” based on radio legend Red Robinson, which toured in Canada & the US, plus “A Tribute to Nat King Cole” starring Denzal Sinclaire at Vancouver’s Centre For The Performing Arts.  “Forever Swing” featured a young Michael Buble, Rocket’s production with director Dean Reagan.  Rock also formed a limousine company, still operating; frequent clients included Raquel Welch. 

Rocket’s Beatles show “Revolver” headlined the PNE on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ 1964 performance at that venue, both shows MC’d by Red Robinson. 

Rock’s longtime manager-mentor Bill Allman navigated such events and others including our gathered alumni Ab Bryant, John Hall, stalwart percussionist Ray Ayotte, Skip Prest and yours truly, forming the “Authentics” in 2015, a perennial performance vehicle for our collective song catalog.  Rocket & Bill Allman produced our annual shows through 2023.

Throughout his career, Rocket doubted his talent and skills as a drummer, despite musicians across the country citing him as an inspiration, his Chicago shuffle and super-tall cymbal stands a trademark. 

He addressed his self-esteem with intensive jazz drum studies in 2021, resulting in his two 15-minute solo performance pieces, “Sonatina de Norton, 1 & 2”, which he performed at his last two concerts.  He declared, “I finally became a drummer.” 

His 2021 cancer diagnosis did not defeat his spirit. 

His battle with the disease spawned two classic rock “F-Cancer” benefit concerts, at the Hard Rock Theatre in Coquitlam in 2022, and Vancouver’s Centre For The Performing Arts a year later, raising more than $600,000 for the BC Cancer Foundation, including PROFYLE (Precision Oncology for Young People).  Bill Allman was again at Rocket’s side.

None of the funds raised were for Rocket’s own treatment. 

The Cancer Foundation states, “Rocket leaves an indelible mark on not just Canada’s music history but on the course of cancer research in BC, and as a result, on the lives of people facing cancer in our province.”

To consider the artists who answered Rocket’s call to perform free of charge, including Chillliwack, Loverboy, Lee Aaron, Tom Lavin & Powder Blues, Headpins, Streetheart, Doug & the Slugs, Nick Gilder, Colin James, Jim Byrnes, Prism and others is a testament not only to the cause, but to the man who called them, many appearing at both shows.  Rocket performed with most of the bands, which would exhaust any drummer half his age. 

Rocket was inducted into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame on June 22, 2023, receiving a star on Vancouver’s Theatre Row.

On September 28 he and Prism were inducted to Canada’s Walk of Fame at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

Rocket was hopeful and heroic in his own cancer battle, enduring years of chemotherapy, becoming a patient in the POG program of immune therapy. 

With the prognosis terminal, he remained stoic, beginning his farewells to old friends and colleagues.  He remained a close friend of manager Bruce Allen to the end.  

Over the past two decades, Rock and I met regularly at the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver for lunch; on our birthdays the other would supply balloons and a cake.  This past February Rocket insisted my little celebration should be a full-scale party with numerous guests.  Though I demurred, he prevailed, stating it would be the final one. 

During our last goodbyes, Rock said he did everything he set out to do, leaving nothing on the table.  He advised me to keep creating with no compromise. 

In the final days, he said he wanted to go, before the suffering worsened.  We prayed together, and I heard, “Thank you, thank you; I’m so blessed,” amidst tears of joy and gratitude.  He wasn’t talking to me.

“Come, you who are blessed — take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink … I was sick and you looked after Me … Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for Me.”

Rocket is our exemplary example of a life well-lived, of creative vision, achievement, valuing those around him, and when faced with perilous challenge, displaying astonishing courage with selfless charity.  He shines as a shooting star, now soaring above.