Skip to main content

Bob McNiven.

/Courtesy of family

Bob McNiven: Musician. Harmonizer. Songwriter. Romantic. Born May 24, 1952, in Altoona, Pa.; died May 4, 2020, in Toronto, of ALS; aged 67.

Bob’s unusual childhood was the roadmap for his life as a professional musician. He grew up singing and playing music with his family band, the Singing McNivens. His dad was a preacher and they travelled in America singing gospel music at camps and churches. Originally from Pelham, Ont., the family returned there in 1958 and continued to perform. Bob left the family group when he discovered rock ‘n’ roll but continued to sing gospel music throughout his career.

His voice had a power and a clarity that would take him to the biggest stages in North America. Bob began to make a life for himself in bluegrass and country music by moving to Toronto in the 1970s to attend the music program at Humber College.

Story continues below advertisement

Bob was an exceptionally good songwriter and had a keen ear for arranging and singing harmony, a skill that would serve him well the rest of his life. He had the skills to go solo, but his love was musical collaboration.

Bob’s other great collaboration was with painter Judy Duncan, his life partner of 43 years. Bob and Judy welcomed a son, Matthew, in 1979. Matthew didn’t get the music gene but Bob passed on his passion for cooking. Matthew eventually followed in the artistic footsteps of his mother.

Bob always had a band on the go: the country roots group Open Road, followed by the power trio, Derby, Saunders and McNiven. Then, in 1980, he answered a two-line classified ad in the local paper: “Wanted, bluegrass guitar player.” Bob soon joined the four-piece bluegrass band Whiskey Jack and spent the next 40 years recording many albums, touring North America, performing weekly on CBC’s The Tommy Hunter Show and touring with Stompin’ Tom Connors.

There are a million Bob McNiven stories but one fit for publication is his Whiskey Jack audition. He arrived at the basement of the band leader’s Toronto home and walked in, smiling, ponytail hanging down to his behind. He threw a green garbage bag full of pot to the floor. “You’re in!” the band leader declared. The next few years were a bit hazy.

Bob’s romantic nature was evident in his songwriting. His signature song was a powerful love song called One More Time. He wrote it early in his career and it became the last song he performed in his final show in 2018, when the effects of ALS forced him to retire from the stage. During his long illness, Bob enjoyed the laughter, tall tales and tears during many visits from family, friends and bandmates. He was thrilled when Matthew and his wife, Naomi, brought his first grandchild, Reine, into his life a few months before he died.

Bob was a great best friend and musical partner. He helped his band mates live a rich life by making a career in music. He was also a private man with a humility that more often than not overshadowed his accomplishments and talent.

In Whiskey Jack, Bob played guitar to my banjo, sang beautiful harmony to my songs and knew when to laugh at my jokes. I used to think that maybe he didn’t know how good he was.

Story continues below advertisement

Duncan Fremlin is Bob’s bandmate and friend.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide.

Follow related topics

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies