For Rita MacNeil, success came late – and it was not easy.
But Ms. MacNeil’s incredible voice, and the poetry and authenticity of her songs – often about her beloved Cape Breton – catapulted her to international stardom. It also put Big Pond, the village of 200 people where she grew up, on the map.
The 68-year-old singer died on Tuesday night in Sydney of complications from surgery. She was in hospital for a couple of weeks with what was believed to be an intestinal infection, according to sources. A family representative told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail, “the care Rita received in the hospital was beyond reproach. The doctors and nurses tending her did all and more that they could.”
Cape Breton is in mourning. Flags are flying at half-mast, and a book of condolences has been placed at the Civic Centre in Sydney.
“She had this incredible, almost bottomless love for Cape Breton,” said Brookes Diamond, her manager for nearly 10 years, starting in the late ’70s.
But mourning is not limited to Nova Scotia – tributes have been pouring in from across the country and around the world.
“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 the province. Ms. Murray covered Ms. MacNeil’s Flying on Your Own, with which “a lot of women identified,” she said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper tweeted from London, where he attended Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: “Saddened to hear about the passing of one of Cape Breton and Canada’s finest voices, Rita MacNeil.”
Ms. MacNeil was an unlikely star – a large woman in a body-conscious industry, she was enormously shy and humble, and would be physically ill in her dressing room before coming out on stage to perform.
A single mother, she went from a cleaning lady with little income to singing at London’s fabled Royal Albert Hall. That didn’t even change her – performing before the British elite, she kicked off her high heels and sang in her stocking feet. It was part of her appeal – and what made her real.
Born with a cleft palate, Ms. MacNeil endured several operations.
Her cousin, Josephine MacNeil, said Rita started singing in local bars. It was tough for her, especially because of her size. Ms. MacNeil said she was “mocked” and people would talk over her.
“She had the guts to get up and do what she did,” Ms. MacNeil said. “By God, it turned out well for her in the end.”
Her big break came at Vancouver’s Expo 86. Booked for six weeks, Ms. MacNeil was an instant hit.
But it was her moving song, Working Man, about the Cape Breton coal miners for which she will be long remembered. She would often perform it with the Men of the Deeps, a choir of coal miners.
At one time, she had three platinum albums in Australia. When she sang Working Man there, the Australians went “completely crazy,” Mr. Diamond recalled.
Brian Edwards, her agent/promoter for the past 15 years, said she “put her heart and soul into everything … the more she gave, the more the audience gave back.”
Despite her public life, Ms. McNeil was a private woman. Last year, she had renovated her restaurant – Rita’s Tea Room – which drew busloads of tourists every summer to Big Pond. Her cousin believed she had big plans for the summer – but felt her health was declining.
Frank Mills, the pianist best known for his instrumental hit Music Box Dancer, toured with Ms. MacNeil in 2010 and 2012. It turned out, he said, to be one of the “most fun things I have ever done in my life.” But on their last tour, he worried about her health. She had obvious mobility issues and was having difficulty hitting the high notes and holding them.
“Rita wasn’t as strong as on the previous tour, and I noticed she was labouring,” he said. But, “she was a trouper and she never complained.”
Funeral details have not been announced. Ms. MacNeil is survived by two children, four grandchildren, her dear friend Rose Barrage and her extended family.