Cape Breton Nova Scotia lost a piece of its cultural heart April 16th when favourite daughter Rita MacNeil passed away following complications from surgery. MacNeil, aged 68, epitomised the spirit of Cape Breton music and from a humble beginning attained the position of top Canadian female artist at the 1990 Juno Awards in Toronto and top country music artist winner at the 1991 Juno Awards in Vancouver.
Starting out as a folk performer in 1971, MacNeil travelled to Toronto at the age of 17 but struggled to find her mark and worked as a cleaning lady before trying her luck in Ottawa. There she recorded three albums but none of them caused more than a local stir and she returned to Sydney Nova Scotia to perform as part of a trio.
MacNeil’s big breakthrough came in 1986 when she performed at Expo 86 in Vancouver and her talents were brought to the attention of Virgin Music Canada’s Doug Chappell. He followed a gut instinct and released her next album, “Flying On Your Own”, the self-titled single becoming a banner song for the feminist movement. That debut sold double platinum units (200,000 copies) and won her the most promising artist Juno award in 1987 at the age of 42. Truth is Canadian music never did quite figure out what category to position her in.Her music was classified “country” but anyone from the Maritimes will tell you it is a combination of country, blues and folk which constituted that region’s unique musical sound.
Brookes Diamond, a Nova Scotia based music entrepreneur had told me about the shy but powerful performer in 1981 during my first visit to Halifax and would go on to manage MacNeil in the period leading up to her Virgin Music breakthrough. Anne Murray was so impressed with MacNeil that she re-recorded “Flying On Your Own” and arranged for her to leave Diamond and become part of her Balmur Music Group. “Losing Rita broke my heart,” noted Diamond “But I knew that if she wanted to succeed she had to progress.”
MacNeil would go on to record eight straight platinum albums between 1987 and 1994, launch a highly successful CBC TV variety show Rita And Friends and take over the mantle from Anne Murray as Queen of the TV Specials, her Christmas special receiving huge ratings and critical acclaim. In 1986 she opened Rita’s Tea Room in Big Pond Cape Breton with her sister, which become a highly popular tourist spot.
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A highlight of her career was her “Working Man Song” with The Men of the Deeps choir comprised of actual miners from the coal mines around Glace Bay. Fellow Cape Bretoner Matt Minglewood was also planning to record that song as a single but he told me, “I just couldn’t do that to Rita. It was her song and she needed to record it.” Those who witnessed her performance live at the 1990 Juno Awards when the lights went dark and all you could see was this stream of coal-miners hats filing on to the stage, will remember her performance that night as one of the classic performances in Juno history.
MacNeil published her autobiography, “On A Personal Note” in 1998 and in the latter years cut back on her live performances and recording activities although she did execute a brief Christmas tour with Frank Mills through November and December 2012. Yet like Minglewood, The Rankins, Natalie MacMaster, Sam Moon and The Barra Macneils, Rita’s music signified a unique cultural contribution to this country – a contribution that surely will live on.