Rita MacNeil, CM, ONS (May 28, 1944 – April 16, 2013) was a Canadian singer from the community of Big Pond on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. Her biggest hit, "Flying On Your Own", was a crossover Top 40 hit in 1987 and was covered by Anne Murray the following year, although she had hits on the country and adult contemporary charts throughout her career. In the United Kingdom, MacNeil's song "Working Man" was a No. 11 hit in 1990.
|Born||May 28, 1944|
Big Pond, Nova Scotia, Canada
|Died||April 16, 2013 (aged 68)|
Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada
In 1990, she was the bestselling country artist in Canada, outselling even Garth Brooks and Clint Black. She was also the only female singer ever to have three separate albums chart in the same year in Australia.
Throughout her career MacNeil would receive five honorary degrees, release 24 albums, win three Juno Awards, a SOCAN National Achievement Award, four CCMA awards, eleven ECMA awards, be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and be named to the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.
On the eighth anniversary of her death, April 16, 2021, it was announced that Rita MacNeil would be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame post-humously in May of that same year.
MacNeil was born in Big Pond to Catherine and Neil J. MacNeil. She was born with a cleft lip and palate. MacNeil was the fifth of eight siblings; she had three brothers and four sisters. Her father owned a local store and was a carpenter, and her mother worked in the family store.
As a young girl, MacNeil was molested by her great-uncle who lived down the road from the family home. For many years she kept this to herself, only revealing it for the first time in her autobiography, recalling years of sexual abuse and noting that he had done everything short of raping her. She noted that the sexual abuse eventually ended, unsure whether it was because someone had found out about it or that her family moved away from Big Pond. She called it a point in her life that profoundly affected her because it was a traumatic passage out of innocence.
In the mid-1950s MacNeil's parents sold their store and began a big move that would take them to Sydney, then to Toronto. MacNeil's father worked as a carpenter, her mother worked at Eaton's, and her sister Mary worked at a local grocery store. Alcoholism, already a large part of her parents' life, became worse in Toronto, especially with her mother's desire to move back to Cape Breton. After a terrible night of drinking and fighting, MacNeil's older brother Malcolm ('Malkie') arrived in Toronto, and he and Mary convinced their parents that it was time to move back to Cape Breton, which they soon did.
By the summer of 1960 MacNeil was itching to get away to the city to start making a name for herself. She had just finished Grade 11 when she took a summer job in Toronto, along with her friend Carolyn Tobin, working for CNR. Upon returning to Sydney in the fall, MacNeil knew she wanted nothing more than to begin her singing career, and with her parents' support she moved right back to Toronto to get started.
Like her mother, MacNeil worked for Eaton's, in the Customer Account Services Department By 1964 she had begun taking voice lessons. She had also met a man she described as Sicilian, with jet black hair, brown eyes and very white teeth. She began dating this man although he had told her his parents wanted him to marry a Sicilian woman. She became pregnant in 1965; frightened and unsure of the future, she returned to her parents, who cared for and supported her.
On April 15, 1966, MacNeil gave birth to her daughter Laura. She also started struggling with her weight, which fluctuated from 119 to 183 pounds. That summer MacNeil decided to continue working toward her singing goals as she made a life for her daughter. Leaving Laura with her parents, she returned to Toronto and her Eaton's job.
That fall she met David Langham. By spring 1967 she had married Langham in a small ceremony that included the bride's sister, the groom's brother, and a minister. In her autobiography she wrote that she wore a royal-blue suit and a pink pillbox hat, while Langham wore a suit. The newlyweds moved Laura into their Toronto home in August 1967.
MacNeil longed to return to the city and convinced Langham to sell the farm, and in the fall of 1970 they moved to Etobicoke, just outside the City of Toronto. Growing restless in her marriage, MacNeil made one last attempt to save her relationship by moving back to Cape Breton with her family in 1975. It wasn't enough and she returned to Toronto on her own; for a year she tried to develop her career further while sorting out her feelings. She returned to Cape Breton in spring 1976, became severely depressed, and left again, this time taking her children on her move to Ottawa where, as a single mother, she took jobs cleaning houses and became a welfare recipient. By summer 1979 MacNeil and Langham had filed for divorce.
MacNeil was first introduced to the women's movement in 1971 and it was pivotal to her music career. In 1972 she wrote the song "Born a Woman," which expressed her feelings about how women were being portrayed by men and in the media. Her mother Catherine died that year after being ill for some time, and at her funeral Rita sang a song she had written, "Who Will I Go to See," which she included on her first album.
In 1975 MacNeil released her first album, Born A Woman, a tribute to those fighting for women's rights across the country. By 1979, her career had taken off. She performed for International Women's Day in Sydney, Cape Breton; realizing she could do her music in Cape Breton, she moved back to Nova Scotia. During the move she realized that her interests extended beyond the women's movement to include places she loved. She wrote songs like "Black Rock," "Rene," "Brown Grass," "My Island Too," and "Old Man," which was about her father.
Research done by historians Steve Hewitt and Christabelle Sethna on documents from the now-defunct Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Service have revealed accounts of the force having spied on feminists, including MacNeil, during the 1970s.
"Working Man" was sparked by a visit to the Princess Colliery in Sydney Mines, prompted by the stories of the miners' daily hardships. In her autobiography she notes that the tour guide was suffering from throat cancer, and she had remembered her mother's struggles with it, and as he talked the melody for the song began in her head, complete with lyrics. The song, which peaked at number 11 in the UK charts, became a worldwide sensation and the unofficial anthem for coal miners everywhere.
In 1981 MacNeil released her second album. Part of the Mystery, which included some of the songs she had written upon returning to Cape Breton: "Part of the Mystery," "Old Man," "Black Rock," and the first release of "Working Man." The work leading up to the album's release was immense; to ensure that it would be picked up, MacNeil and friends formed Big Pond Publishing and Production Limited in 1980, which today is run by her son Wade. In 1983 MacNeil released her third album, I'm Not What I Seem.
In 1985 MacNeil was invited to sing at the Canadian Pavilion in Japan, at Expo '85. Upon her return home she taped her first television special for CBC, Celtic Fantasy, at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. Unfortunately the successful year ended in heartache when MacNeil's father died in early December.
After MacNeil had performed several times at Expo '86 in Vancouver, the media began encouraging everyone to go and see her sing. Vancouver was a long way from home, and out of MacNeil's homesickness came "She's Called Nova Scotia."
MacNeil was selected along with John Gracie to tape a pilot episode for a CBC television series called View From the Heart, a variety show similar to her later series Rita & Friends. After travelling to Nashville to record "Flying on Your Own" and "Fast Train to Tokyo," MacNeil learned the show would not go ahead. A newspaper article with the headline 'Fat lady with cleft lip not marketable: So says CBC Toronto' said it all.
Not letting this disappointment get her down, MacNeil was ready to release her fourth album, Flying on Your Own, but record companies were unwilling to pick it up, so she decided to release it under her own record label, Lupin Production. Upon the release, sales in the Maritimes skyrocketed. At the same time she filmed a movie called Candy Mountain, in which she played the small role of a singer named Winnie. By February 1987 Virgin Record Canada and A&M Records Canada had taken over the sales of Flying on Your Own, which had sold 22,000 copies. Sales reached 40,000, eventually hitting Gold Record status, and selling 75,000 copies by the end of 1987. MacNeil also won her first Juno Award in 1987 for Most Promising Female Vocalist.
In 1988 MacNeil received an honorary doctorate from the University of New Brunswick, and released two more albums, Now the Bells Ring and Reason to Believe, which was written for her mother. At the same time Flying on Your Own surpassed 120,000 sales, reaching platinum status. By November 1988, Reason to Believe had reached platinum status.
In 1989 MacNeil received another honorary doctorate, from St. Mary's University. She also filmed another television special, Flying on Your Own, for CTV, and released another album, Rita, which she recorded in Vancouver.
Her album Rita won Album of the Year at the 1990 Canadian Country Music Awards, and at the East Coast Music Awards along with Female Vocalist of the Year. She also filmed her first Christmas special for CTV, Now the Bells Ring, and saw her Christmas album, Now the Bells Ring, reach triple-platinum status and Flying on Your Own reach double-platinum status.
In 1991 MacNeil won Female Vocalist of the Year at the Juno Awards, followed by Female Vocalist, Album of the Year (Home I'll Be), and Song of the Year ("Home I'll Be"), at the East Coast Music Awards. She was also awarded the Socan Award for Highest Airplay of a Song ("We'll Reach the Sky Tonight"). MacNeil also set out on a European tour, which included what she considered a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity performance at Royal Albert Hall.
By the fall, MacNeil had won the fan choice for Entertainer of the Year, as well as the award for top-selling album, at the Canadian Country Music Awards.
In the spring of 1992 MacNeil was given the Order of Canada. Upon receipt of this award, she was asked to sing "We'll Reach the Sky Tonight" on Canada Day, during the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada.
1993 World Series
MacNeil was invited to Toronto's SkyDome to sing "O Canada" at Game 2 of the World Series. Following the performance, a Toronto journalist made comments about the physical conditions of the Philadelphia Phillies players. In retaliation, a local Philadelphia newspaper took aim at MacNeil stating: "Towns that need forklifts to transport their O Canada singer to home plate, should think twice before describing Phillies as unfit." The journalist further wondered whether MacNeil was paid for her performance by the pound or the note or in Jenny Craig Certificates. In her autobiography MacNeil notes that no retraction or apology was ever issued by the journalist or the newspaper. When asked later if she would sing for another World Series game, she answered true to her humorous self: "Yes, I'd do it, but only if they drive me out onto the field on a forklift."
In her continuing struggles with weight and shopping for clothing in sizes above 26, MacNeil attempted to launch a clothing line, but stores didn't seem interested in carrying the line and shoppers weren't interested in her style. She hoped to get stores to carry sizes up to 32 and Penningtons considered sizes up to 26, but the 'Rita Line' garnered no interest.
More successful was Rita's Tea Room, which opened in 1986. Originally a one-room schoolhouse where she lived, it was expanded in 1993 to include the foyer, gift shop, kitchen, and additional rooms. In later years MacNeil performed summer concert series in the tea room, which included dinner and a show. Upon her death, her former bandmates continued to perform shows during the summer months.
MacNeil received another honorary doctorate in 1994 from the University College of Cape Breton. MacNeil was given the opportunity to host a television variety series from 1994 until 1997 called Rita & Friends. The show was produced by CBC Toronto in Studio 40. The first show brought in 1.7 million viewers. By 1996 the show had been moved from its popular Friday-night slot to Wednesday nights, and was eventually cancelled.
MacNeil won a Gemini Award for Best Performance in a Variety Program in 1996. She was nominated for the same award in 1994, but did not win, and in 1995 was nominated for Best Performance in a Variety Program for her Christmas special, Once Upon a Christmas.
MacNeil wrote a memoir, On a Personal Note with Anne Simpson in 1998 and it was published by Key Porter Books. She was interviewed by CTV journalist Sandie Rinaldo in a one-hour documentary based on her autobiography, Rita MacNeil: On a Personal Note.
MacNeil produced her final television Christmas special in 2000 for CTV, which included performances by Natalie MacMaster, John McDermott, The Barra MacNeils, Jamie Salé, and David Pelletier, with a special performance by Patti LaBelle.
In 2003 MacNeil filmed a television special titled Rita MacNeil presents The Men of the Deeps, a one-hour special showcasing the coal mining choir The Men of the Deeps. She produced a television special one year later in 2004 called Rita MacNeil's Cape Breton, featuring Jimmy Rankin, Ashley MacIsaac, and The Men of the Deeps.
MacNeil released her second book, Christmas at Home with Rita MacNeil, in 2003. The book shared memories of Christmas in Cape Breton, as well as family recipes and song lyrics. The book also included a copy of her 2003 Christmas album, Late December.
Flying On Her Own, a play based on MacNeil's life and featuring many of her songs, premiered at Live Bait Theatre in Sackville, New Brunswick in 2000. Written by Canadian playwright Charlie Rhindress, it was subsequently produced by Neptune Theatre in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2002 and published by Playwrights Canada Press in 2008.
MacNeil's final concert tour was in December 2012, 'Sharing Christmas: Rita MacNeil with Special Guest Frank Mills.' Her last television appearance was December 6, 2012 on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos. MacNeil's last known stage performance was just over a month before her death, on March 9, 2013 during East Coast Music Week. MacNeil was also given 25th Anniversary Award at the 2013 East Coast Music Awards Gala.
A 25th album was released following MacNeil's death titled Traveling On. It is a memorial album containing some of MacNeil's most cherished songs, hand-picked by her son Wade, her close family and friends, and thousands of fans who gave input via social media.
A biography of MacNeil, I'm Not What I Seem, by Charlie Rhindress, was published by Formac in October 2016 and became a best seller in Nova Scotia and PEI.
MacNeil died on April 16, 2013, from complications of surgery after a recurrent infection. Early reports from the Globe and Mail that MacNeil contracted an infection while in the hospital were not correct, and the newspaper later printed a correction.
|1975||Born a Woman||-|
|1981||Part of the Mystery||-|
|1983||I'm Not What I Seem||-|
|1987||Flying On Your Own||27||57||
|1988||Reason to Believe||20||17|
|Now the Bells Ring||65||
|1990||Home I'll Be||22||40||
|1992||Thinking of You||19||19||-||
|1993||Once Upon a Christmas||44||-||
|1994||Volume 1: Songs from the Collection||31||-||
|1996||Joyful Sounds: A Seasonal Collection||-|
|1997||Music of a Thousand Nights||-|
|1999||A Night at the Orpheum||-|
|2000||Mining the Soul||-|
|2004||The Ultimate Collection||-|
|2006||Songs My Mother Loved||-|
|2008||Pocket Full of Dreams||-|
|2010||The Spirit of Christmas (with Frank Mills)||-|
|Year||Title||Peak chart positions||Album|
|CAN Country||CAN AC||CAN||AUS
|1986||"Flying On Your Own"||—||—||42||-||-||Flying On Your Own|
|1987||"Used to You"||—||18||—||-||-|
|"Fast Train to Tokyo"||—||14||—||-||-|
|1988||"Leave Her Memory"||32||—||—||-||-|
|"Working Man"||48||21||—||59||11||Reason to Believe|
|"Walk On Through"||—||—||42||-||-|
|"Reason to Believe"||—||—||—||-||-|
|"The Music's Going Around Again"||—||—||—||-||-|
|1989||"I'll Accept the Rose"||9||—||—||-||-||Rita|
|"We'll Reach the Sky Tonight"||—||3||81||-||-|
|"When Love Surrounded You and I"||31||—||—||-||-|
|"Why Do I Think of You Today"||17||—||—||-||-|
|"Flying On Your Own" (re-release)||—||—||—||-||-||Flying On Your Own|
|"You Taught Me Well"||—||6||64||-||-||Home I'll Be|
|1991||"Watch Love Grow Strong"||9||—||—||-||-|
|"Call Me and I'll Be There"||—||14||81||-||-|
|"Leave Her Memory"||—||—||—||-||-||Flying On Your Own|
|"She's Called Nova Scotia"||—||—||—||-||-|
|1992||"Bring It On Home to Me"||44||8||69||-||-||Thinking of You|
|1995||"Steal Me Away"||—||—||—||-||-||Porch Songs|
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart|
|1985||Celtic Fantasy||herself||CBC Special|
|1986||View from the Heart||herself (host)||Unaired pilot|
|1989||Flying on Your Own||herself||CTV Special|
|1990||Now the Bells Ring||herself||Christmas Special|
|1994–1997||Rita and Friends||herself (host)|
|1994||Royal Canadian Air Farce||herself||episode 2.4|
|1997||Big Sky||herself||TV Mini-series|
|1998||On A Personal Note||herself||CBC Documentary|
|1998||Rita MacNeil's Celtic Christmas||herself||CTV Special|
|2000||Rita MacNeil's Christmas||herself||Christmas Special|
|2003||Rita MacNeil presents The Men of the Deeps||herself (host)||CTV Special|
|2004||Rita MacNeil's Cape Breton||herself||CTV Special|
|2004||Trailer Park Boys||herself||Season 4 Episode 8 Working Man|
|2005||Vicki Gabereau Show||herself||guest performance|
|2012||George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight||herself||Episode 54|
|1987||Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year||Won|
|1989||Best Female Vocalist||Nominated|
|Composer of the year||Nominated|
|Album of the Year (Reason to Believe)||Nominated|
|1990||Best Female Vocalist||Won|
|Best Country Female Vocalist||Nominated|
|Album of the Year (Now the Bells Ring)||Nominated|
|Album of the Year (Rita)||Nominated|
|1991||Best Country Female Vocalist||Won|
|Best Female Vocalist||Nominated|
|Best Album (Home I'll Be)||Nominated|
|1993||Best Female Vocalist||Nominated|
|1994||Best Female Vocalist||Nominated|
|1995||Best Female Vocalist||Nominated|
|1996||Best Female Vocalist||Nominated|
|1994||Best Performance or Host in a Variety Program or Series||Nominated|
|1995||Best Performance or Host in a Variety Program or Series||Nominated|
|1996||Best Performance or Host in a Variety Program or Series||Won|
|1989||FACTOR Recording of the Year (Reason to Believe)||Won|
|Female Recording of the Year||Won|
|1990||FACTOR Recording of the Year (Rita)||Won|
|Female Recording of the Year||Won|
|Song of the Year (I'll Accept the Rose Tonight)||Nominated|
|1991||Live Artist of the Year||Nominated|
|Song of the Year (Home I'll Be)||Won|
|Country Recording of the Year||Nominated|
|FACTOR Recording of the Year (Home I'll Be)||Won|
|Female Recording of the Year||Won|
|1992||Entertainer of the Year||Nominated|
|1993||Country Recording of the Year||Nominated|
|Entertainer of the Year||Nominated|
|Female Recording of the Year||Won|
|1994||Female Recording of the Year||Nominated|
|1995||Country Recording of the Year||Won|
|Entertainer of the Year||Nominated|
|1996||Country Recording of the Year||Nominated|
|Entertainer of the Year||Nominated|
|Female Recording of the Year||Nominated|
|2000||Female Recording of the Year||Nominated|
|2002||Root/Traditional Group of the Year (with The Men of the Deeps)||Nominated|
|2003||Female Recording of the Year||Nominated|
|2005||Female Recording of the Year||Nominated|
|Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award||Won|
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