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.
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.
Duncan Fremlin is Bob’s bandmate and friend.
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