Canadian music icon Rita MacNeil remembered

The woman known around the world as Cape Breton's first lady of song died at age 68 following complications from surgery. The singer and former CBC-TV star from Big Pond, N.S., inspired dozens of young songwriters and performers after her big break in the 1980s.

Performer overcame shyness to record 24 albums that sold millions

Beloved singer Rita MacNeil dies at 68

10 years ago
Duration 4:49
Cape Breton singer overcame shyness to sell millions of albums, and earn fans and acclaim

Acclaimed Cape Breton singer Rita MacNeil has died at age 68.

A notice on her website states MacNeil died on April 16 following complications from surgery.

Born in Big Pond, N.S., on Cape Breton Island, MacNeil was one of eight children.

She moved to Toronto at age 17, where she wrote her first song and began singing in folk clubs. MacNeil later moved to Ottawa, where she recorded three albums, but eventually returned to Big Pond, where she formed a trio.

MacNeil was famously shy, but said her parents helped her overcome that trait by constantly reminding her to believe in herself.

"You can be shy," she said. "You can work through all kinds of struggle. But somewhere deep down, you have to have belief or nothing's going to happen."

Turning point

Cape Breton's first lady of song made her mark during a six-week run at Expo '86 in Vancouver. At the time, MacNeil was well-known in her home province but a newcomer to the national stage.

"Word of mouth kind of grew," said Rod Mickleburgh of the Globe and Mail. He said review after review praised her performance, and that summer sparked a love affair between MacNeil and Vancouver.

He finally saw her on Canada Day, 1986, when she performed Working Man with Men of the Deeps.

"There probably wasn't a dry eye in the house," he said. "I mean, it just moved me to tears. I never heard a song quite like it."

'Rita really was a star'

MacNeil's voice brought people to tears across the country. Her first manager, Brookes Diamond, choked up as he spoke Wednesday about the first time he heard her perform. He was with his brother at the time.

"It was quite a picture, we were in a field at a folk festival," he said. "This voice came through the rain, mist, and we both stopped. We were riding on a dirt bike and the two of us were in tears."

In 1987 she earned a Juno award as most promising female artist, at age 42.

"Rita really was a star," Diamond said. "I think her humility and her wisdom were the two outstanding characteristics that I always appreciated."

MacNeil recorded 24 albums and sold millions of records over the course of her career.

She hosted a CBC-TV variety program, Rita and Friends, which ran from 1994 to 1997 and drew regular audiences of one million viewers. MacNeil's Christmas variety shows drew loyal viewers.

MacNeil was a member of the Order of Canada and the recipient of five honorary doctorates. In 1986, she opened Rita’s Tea Room in her hometown of Big Pond, where she also gave performances.

Surprising investigation

In 2008, MacNeil said she was shocked to learn she had been investigated by the RCMP in the early 1970s because of her work with the women's movement. At the time, police were looking for communist connections.

"I had no reason to be under surveillance, believe you me," she laughed. "I was just the singer."

Through it all, she kept a positive outlook.

MacNeil inspired a generation of Cape Breton songwriters and performers. She encouraged young singers, even if she wasn't a fan of their voices.

Remembering Rita MacNeil

"Who are we to say 'if you have a dream, don't waste your time,'" MacNeil said. "There are different degrees of the dream. Maybe they'll get to sing in a church or another place that keeps them very happy."

In Cape Breton, Joella Foulds said MacNeil was an icon. Foulds, the artistic director of the Celtic Colours Music Festival, performed with MacNeil.

"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."

Family shocked

Brian Edwards, MacNeil's promoter and agent, said he couldn't believe it when he was told of her death.

He said MacNeil was a soldier who always defied the odds. She had been in hospital battling an infection.

"I'm not sure whether they've labelled what the infection is," he said, speaking on behalf of MacNeil's family. "It was certainly not ongoing type of stuff that had existed for years."

Edwards said the infection returned after MacNeil had an operation. She was unconscious but was starting to recover before her death.

Edwards worked with MacNeil through more than 400 performances over 25 years. Over the years, he said, she never changed — always greeting people with a hug and a big grin.

"When she walked on that stage or into any room, I mean, she lit the room right up. And the funny thing is about the whole thing, a lot people would be shy when they met Rita, but she was a lot shyer than they were."

Her agent described kitchen parties at MacNeil's house, where she would sit quietly in the corner.

Edwards believes she maintained her popularity because she was dedicated to her fans.

"Rita knew who her audience was and knew what the fans wanted and didn't go off course — stayed with them whether the music industry liked her, whether they didn't."

MacNeil leaves behind a son and a daughter, as well as grandchildren.

Tributes pour in

MacNeil performed with a who's who of musicians from around the world.

"It was an honour for us to be able to know and work with such a prolific songwriter as Rita MacNeil," said the von Trapps, who toured with MacNeil in 2011. "She had such a generous heart, and great sense of humour."

In a stark contrast to her shy personality, MacNeil demonstrated that sense of humour when she made a cameo appearance on the television show The Trailer Park Boys.

MacNeil was often seen onstage with fellow Nova Scotian Anne Murray. Murray voiced her grief in a message on her Facebook page.

"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," Murray wrote.

Former CBC television host Tommy Hunter also praised MacNeil's talent, especially when she sang the iconic song Working Man.

"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," Hunter said. "I have lost a good friend."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in London on Wednesday attending the funeral for former U.K. prime minister Maragaret Thatcher, said MacNeil was: "A great Canadian performer and icon."