Rita MacNeil, the big-hearted, silver-throated singer from the coal mining area of Cape Breton died Tuesday night in hospital in Sydney, Nova Scotia from complications following stomach surgery. She was 68.
Best known for Working Man, Flying on Your Own, Reason to Believe, I’ll Accept The Rose Tonight and Home I’ll Be, MacNeil recorded more than 24 albums, won three Juno Awards, several East Coast Music Awards and a Gemini for the CBC TV variety show, Rita & Friends , which she hosted from 1994 to 1997.
Success didn’t come early or easily to MacNeil, but her passion for writing and singing songs about life’s challenges and her love of family and friends found her a huge and loyal audience. She had her breakout performance at Expo 86 in Vancouver and won her first Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist the following year when she was 42.
Tributes poured in after news of her death was posted on MacNeil’s website. “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,” said Anne Murray, who also hails from Nova Scotia. Murray covered MacNeil’s Flying on Your Own, with which “a lot of women identified,” she said in an interview from Florida where she spends February through April. “I also covered This Season Will Never Grow Old, which is “one of my top five favourite Christmas songs of all time.”
Acquaintances more than friends, Murray had a great respect for MacNeil’s professionalism and sincerity. She thinks MacNeil resonated with audiences because “she was so real. What you saw was what you got and to know her, even to meet her, was to love her.”
Murray says MacNeil’s haunting lyrical songs “represent Nova Scotia and how she felt about it, and how so many of us feel about. She was able to put it into words and music so beautifully.”
“I loved her music,” Murray said. “I’m a proud Nova Scotian, as she was.” And to hear “a woman, an honest-to-God really fine craftsman writing songs about Nova Scotia,” thrilled Murray. “I don’t know of another woman who did that,” she said. “Her songs just tore at your heart strings. You could be from anywhere, but I was from Nova Scotia and I knew every place she was talking about,” said Murray who was born in the Springhill, a mining town like Pond Harbour, and the site of two dreadful mining disasters in the late 1950s.
“Rita had many, many obstacles to overcome,” said Murray. “It shows the strength of her character that she was able to achieve all the success that she did.” Although the two women had the same manager, Leonard Rambeau, they didn’t meet until the early 1990s when MacNeil and the Rankin Family were guests on a television special Murray was filming in Halifax.
“She was so sweet and humble” Murray remembered, but “she was so nervous, she was throwing up. I always do my best to make people as comfortable as possible and I thought I was really good at it, and then Rita came along …but she did it and she did it well because she is a consummate professional. But I felt bad for her.”
MacNeil’s soprano and Murray’s alto blended well together, says Murray, adding with a laugh that “my voice is so low, I can sing below anybody.”
“The one vivid memory I have is when Rita was a guest on my show,” said singer Tommy Hunter. “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.”
Hunter remembered the warmth and sincerity that MacNeil conveyed through her songs to 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,” he said. “I have lost a good friend.”
Frank Mills, the pianist, best known for his instrumental hit, Music Box Dancer, toured with MacNeil in 2010 and 2012. “I was totally shocked to hear of Rita's passing,” he said in a statement.
“We did our last Christmas show together in Saskatoon on December 18th and, as always, Rita was a star.” They did many songs together, which he said he loved as much as the audience did. “I would try to be a calming influence on her pre-show jitters,” he remembered, adding that she “with her giggle would quietly remind me that we did Silent Night in the key of F.”
Mills said MacNeil was very childlike at times. “She loved to smile and had an infectious laugh. She knew a great deal about life and people and projected her very wise, gentle, and understanding nature to all,” he said. “Rita was a beautiful person, and I will never forget her."
Born in Big Pond, Cape Breton on May 28, 1944, MacNeil was one of eight children of Neil and Catherine MacNeil. Her early life was tough. She wrote about her shyness, the bullying she endured because of her cleft palate, and love affairs gone wrong in her book, On A Personal Note.
In 1986 she opened Rita’s Tea Room in her hometown of Big Pond. It quickly became a tourist attraction.
MacNeil is survived by her daughter Laura, son Wade and her extended family.
Funeral arrangements are pending.