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RIP Rita MacNeil, Cape Breton’s First Lady Of Song
April 17, 2013
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Canada's lost one of its great voices: Cape Breton country and folk singer Rita MacNeil has died. She was 68.

According to a statement from her publicist, she passed away April 16 following complications from surgery.

If you're in Cape Breton and you'd like to gather with others to remember her, a celebration of Rita's life will be held on Monday, April 22 at 2 pm at St. Mary's Church, Big Pond.

She was known as Cape Breton's first lady of song - but she didn't start out as a confident performer. In fact, she was so notoriously shy that she didn't come into her own as a singer until a little later in life: at 42, she won a Juno Award for most promising female artist.

But once she got off the ground, no one could stop her flying on her own.

Over the course of her career, she released 24 albums and sold millions of records. She also hosted 'Rita and Friends', a variety show on CBC-TV, from 1994 to 1997, drawing regular audiences of one million people.

Rita was in the red chair this past December. Check out that interview below, and catch a special rebroadcast of the episode tonight, Wednesday April 17, at 7 pm and 11:30 pm:

She was also a member of the Order of Canada, the Order of Nova Scotia, and the holder of five honorary doctorates.

And on top of all that, she found time to open Rita's Tea Room in her hometown of Big Pond, Cape Breton in 1986. She would give performances there.

A lot of people in the music business were big fans of Rita's. Here are a few remembrances of her:

"I am deeply saddened by the loss of a dear sweet woman and a gifted singer-songwriter who represented women and her beloved Nova Scotia so eloquently in her songs." - Anne Murray

"The one vivid memory I have is when Rita was a guest on my show. Coming from a coal mining area she had a soft spot in her heart for those miners. When she sang 'Working Man' there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Rita could convey that kind of warmth and sincerity through her songs to the people in the studio audience and to the viewers at home. It was evident that she touched them all from the many letters and comments we received after that show. I have lost a good friend." - Tommy Hunter

"The most genuine entertainer I have ever worked with! I had the honour to travel with Rita all over North America. Each of the 400 shows Rita performed during our 15 years of working together carries a very special memory that I will always cherish." - Brian Edwards, CEO Rocklands Entertainment Inc.

MacNeil was born on Cape Breton Island to a large family (she was one of eight kids). At the age of 17, she moved to Toronto, wrote her first song and started singing in folk clubs.


Later, she moved to Ottawa and recorded three albums, eventually ending up back in Big Pond where she formed a musical trio and became the successful Canadian icon we know today.

In Cape Breton, Joella Foulds, the artistic director of the Celtic Colours Music Festival, told CBC News about what she's learned from Rita.

"I think I've learned that you mustn't be afraid to express yourself," Foulds said. "You have to be who you are, and that was the essence of Rita. She was this wonderful, passionate person who had something to say."


PHOTO: Rita MacNeil backstage with George

Rita MacNeil On Stage Fright

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