A couple of years later, The Men and Ms. MacNeil were booked separately at Expo 86 in Vancouver, but added a concert where they performed together. “Our career took off there,” said Mr. O’Donnell, “but hers really took off.”
The following year she was voted most promising female vocalist at the Juno Awards in Toronto. She was 42. “That was just magical,” remembers Mr. O’Donnell. “They flew us up there to do it with her. We came through the audience and some came from backstage. I will never forget it.” They often performed together after that.
After parting company with her early manager, Brookes Diamond, Ms. MacNeil worked with Leonard Rambeau, who also represented Anne Murray. In the early 1990s, Ms. MacNeil was a guest on a television special Ms. Murray was filming in Halifax.
“She was so sweet and humble,” Ms. 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.”
Although she never got over her stage fright, Ms. MacNeil became a television star as the host of Rita and Friends, the variety show she hosted on CBC Television from 1994-1997. She won a Gemini Award for the show in 1996.
Frank Mills came out of retirement to tour with Ms. MacNeil. They shared a manager in Brian Edwards, who also represented the late Stompin’ Tom Connors. Early in 2010, Mr. Edwards approached him with an offer he couldn’t refuse: the pleasure of performing with Ms. MacNeil, while earning a sweet sum of money because ticket prices had soared since Mr. Mills had last been out on the road a decade earlier.
“I had met Rita on a number of occasions, and I always loved her,” he said from his winter home in Nassau, the Bahamas. “She was such a Maritimer: kind, good sense of humour, gentle approach to life, easy come easy go, just a lovely person,” he said. “I thought, ‘I can’t miss with her,’ and it turned out to be one of the most fun things I have ever done in my life,” he recalled.
They had such a good time on the 2010 Christmas tour that they reprised it two years later. By then, though, Mr. Mills was worried about Ms. MacNeil’s health. She had obvious mobility issues and was having difficulty hitting the high notes and holding them. “I noticed she was labouring,” he said. “Anybody her size would have had issues,” but “she was a trouper and she never complained, and she had that wonderful Maritime lilt when she said, ‘Oh darling, don’t worry about me.’”
In early April, she went to hospital in Sydney complaining of abdominal pains. The doctors decided to operate, but she developed an infection and died late on April 16.
Rita MacNeil leaves her children, Laura and Wade, four grandchildren, her dear friend Rose Barrage and her extended family.
Friends and family will say farewell to Rita MacNeil on Monday, April 22, at St. Mary’s Church in Big Pond with songs and prayers. The CBC will be streaming the service.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ms. MacNeil's hometown of Big Pond, Cape Breton. This version has been corrected.