Rita MacNeil

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Rita MacNeil
Rita MacNeil Live at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Ontario.jpg
Rita MacNeil at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, December 12, 2009
Background information
Born (1944-05-28)May 28, 1944
Big Pond, Nova Scotia
Died April 16, 2013(2013-04-16) (aged 68)
Sydney, Nova Scotia
Genres Country, folk
Occupation(s) Singer
Years active 1975–2013
Labels Virgin Records
Website Official website

Rita MacNeil, CM, ONS (May 28, 1944 – April 16, 2013) was a Canadian country and folk 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 charts throughout her career. In the United Kingdom, MacNeil's song "Working Man" was a No. 11 hit in 1990.[1]

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, four CCMA awards, eleven ECMA awards, become inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and named to the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.[2]

Personal life[edit]

Early years[edit]

MacNeil was born in Big Pond to Catherine 'Rene' and Neil J. MacNeil.[3] She was born with a facial disfigurement from a cleft lip and palate.[4] MacNeil was the fifth of eight;[4] she had three brothers and four sisters.[5] Her father owned a local store and was a carpenter,[6] and her mother worked in the family store.[7]

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,[8] recalling years of sexual abuse and noting that he had done everything short of raping her.[9] 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.[10]

1950s[edit]

In the mid-1950s MacNeil's parents sold their store and began a big move that would take them to Sydney, then to Toronto.[11] MacNeil's father worked as a carpenter, her mother worked at Eaton's, and her sister Mary worked at a local grocery store.[12] 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,[13] 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.[14]

1960s[edit]

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.[15][16] 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.[16]

Like her mother, MacNeil worked for Eaton's, in the Customer Account Services Department[17] By 1964 she had begun taking voice lessons.[18] She had also met a man she described as Sicilian, with jet black hair, brown eyes and very white teeth.[19] 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.[20]

On April 15, 1966, MacNeil gave birth to her daughter Laura.[21] She also started struggling with her weight, which fluctuated from 119 to 183 pounds.[22] 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 [23] and her Eaton's job.[24]

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.[25] The newlyweds moved Laura into their Toronto home in August 1967.[26]

Langham and MacNeil left Toronto in the summer of 1968, purchasing a 78-acre farm in the village of Dundalk.[27] MacNeil's second child, Wade, was born there on April 30, 1970.[28]

1970s[edit]

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 of 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.[29] 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,[30] 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.[31] By summer 1979 MacNeil and Langham had filed for divorce.[32]

Career[edit]

1970s[edit]

MacNeil was first introduced to the women’s movement in 1971 and it was pivotal to her music career.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35]

In 1975 MacNeil released her first album, Born A Woman, a tribute to those fighting for women's rights across the county.[29] 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.[36] 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," [37] and "Old Man," which was about her father.[38]

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.[39]

"Working Man"[edit]

"Working Man" sparked from a visit to the Princess Colliery in Sydney Mines, prompted by the stories of the miners' daily hardships.[40] 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.[41] The song, which peaked at number 11 in the UK charts, became a worldwide sensation and the unofficial anthem for coal miners everywhere.[1]

1980s[edit]

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."[42] 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.[43] In 1983 MacNeil released her third album, I'm Not What I Seem.[44]

In 1985 MacNeil was invited to sing at the Canadian Pavilion in Japan, at Expo ’85.[45] Upon her return home she taped her first television special for CBC, Celtic Fantasy, at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium.[46] Unfortunately the successful year ended in heartache when MacNeil's father died in early December.[47]

After MacNeil had performed several times at Expo '86 in Vancouver,[48] the media began encouraging everyone to go and see her sing.[49] Vancouver was a long way from home, and out of MacNeil's homesickness came "She's Called Nova Scotia."[50]

MacNeil was selected along with John Gracie to tape a pilot episode for a CBC television series called View From the Heart,[51] 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.[52]

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,[53] and selling 75,000 copied by the end of 1987. MacNeil also won her first Juno Award in 1987 for Most Promising Female Vocalist.[54]

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.[55] 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.[56]

MacNeil's success was evident. Fellow Canadian singing icon Anne Murray covered the song "Flying on Your Own", on her 1988 album As I Am.[57]

MacNeil was given one of the Canadian music industries high honour awards, the Procan award, now known as Socan.[58][59]

In 1989 MacNeil received another honorary doctorate, from St. Mary's University.[60] She also filmed another television special, Flying on Your Own, for CTV,[61] and released another album, Rita, which she recorded in Vancouver.[62]

1990s[edit]

In 1990 MacNeil was nominated for three Juno awards: Album of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, and Country Vocalist of the Year; she won Female Vocalist.[63][64]

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.[65] She also filmed her first Christmas special for CTV, Now the Bells Ring,[66] and saw her Christmas album, Now the Bells Ring, reach triple-platinum status and Flying on Your Own reach double-platinum status.[67]

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").[68] MacNeil also set out on a European tour, which included what she considered a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity performance at Royal Albert Hall.[69]

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.[70]

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.[71][72]

IN 1993 MacNeil won the East Coast Music Award for Female Vocalist of the Year and received honorary doctorates from St. Francis Xavier University and Mount St. Vincent University.[73]

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.[74] 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.”[75]

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.[76]

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.[77][78] 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.[79]

MacNeil received another honorary doctorate in 1994 from the University College of Cape Breton.[80] 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.[81] By 1996 the show had been moved from its popular Friday-night slot to Wednesday nights, and was eventually cancelled.[82]

MacNeil won a Gemini Award for Best Performance in a Variety Program in 1996.[83] 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.[84]

MacNeil wrote a memoir, On a Personal Note with Anne Simpson in 1998 and it was published by Key Porter Books.[85] She was interviewed by CTV journalist Sandie Rinaldo in a one-hour documentary based on her autobiography, Rita MacNeil: On a Personal Note.[86]

2000s[edit]

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.[87]

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.[88] She produced a television special on year later in 2004 called Rita MacNeil's Cape Breton, featuring Jimmy Rankin, Ashley MacIsaac, and The Men of the Deeps.[89]

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.

MacNeil was featured in a 2004 episode of Trailer Park Boys, in which she and her band were forced to harvest marijuana at gunpoint.[90]

MacNeil was awarded the Order of Nova Scotia in 2005.[91] She was also awarded the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2005 East Coast Music Awards.[92]

Flying On Her Own, a play based on MacNeil's life and featuring many of her songs, premiered at Live Bait Theatre in Sackville, NB 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.

2010s[edit]

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.[93] 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.[92]

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.[94]

MacNeil was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in September 2013.[95]

MacNeil was recognized at the 2014 East Coast Music awards with the Directors Special Achievement Award.[96][97]

Death[edit]

MacNeil died on April 16, 2013, from complications of surgery after a recurrent infection.[98][99] Early reports from the Globe and Mail that MacNeil contracted an infection while in the hospital were not correct, and the newspaper later reprinted an article of correction.[100]

Discography[edit]

Albums[edit]

Year Single Chart Positions CRIA
CAN Country CAN
1975 Born a Woman
1981 Part of the Mystery
1983 I'm Not What I Seem
1987 Flying On Your Own 27 2× Platinum
1988 Reason to Believe 20 2× Platinum
Now the Bells Ring 3× Platinum
1989 Rita 31 2× Platinum
1990 Home I'll Be 22 2× Platinum
1992 Thinking of You 19 19 Platinum
1993 Once Upon a Christmas 44 Platinum
1994 Volume 1: Songs from the Collection 31 Platinum
1995 Porch Songs Gold
1996 Joyful Sounds: A Seasonal Collection
1997 Music of a Thousand Nights
1998 Full Circle
1999 A Night at the Orpheum
2000 Mining the Soul Gold
2002 Late December
Common Dream
2004 The Ultimate Collection
Blue Roses
2006 Songs My Mother Loved
2008 Pocket Full of Dreams
2010 The Spirit of Christmas (with Frank Mills)
2012 Saving Grace
2013 Traveling On

Singles[edit]

Year Title Peak chart positions Album
CAN Country CAN AC CAN
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" * * * Reason to Believe
"Walk On Through" * * *
"Reason to Believe" * * *
1989 "I'll Accept the Rose" 9 Rita
"We'll Reach the Sky Tonight" 3 81
1990 "Crazy Love" 6
"When Love Surrounded You and I" 31
"Why Do I Think of You Today" 17
"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
1992 "Bring It On Home to Me" 44 8 69 Thinking of You
1993 "Shining Strong" 23 5
1995 "Steal Me Away" Porch Songs
"Rolling Thunder" 16 87
"—" denotes releases that did not chart
* denotes unknown peak positions

International singles[edit]

Year Title Peak positions Album
UK
[1]
1988 "The Music's Going Around Again" Reason to Believe
1990 "Working Man" (UK release) 11
"Flying On Your Own" (UK release) Flying On Your Own
1991 "Leave Her Memory" (UK release)
"She's Called Nova Scotia"
"—" denotes releases that did not chart

Television[edit]

Notable television credits
Year Title Role Notes
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 Episode 8 'Workin Man
2005 Vicki Gabereau Show herself guest performance
2012 The Hour herself
2012 George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight herself Episode 54

Awards[edit]

Juno[edit]

Year Category Result
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

Gemini[edit]

Year Category Result
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

ECMA[edit]

Year Category Result
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

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 341. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  2. ^ "Rita MacNeil". Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  3. ^ MacNeil, Rita; Simpson, Anne (1998). On A Personal Note. Toronto: Key Porter Books. p. 4. ISBN 1-55263-002-1. 
  4. ^ a b On A Personal Note. p. 14.
  5. ^ "Remembering Rita". Big Pond Publishing. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
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  86. ^ "Rita MacNeil On a Personal Note". SFA Productions. Retrieved July 25, 2014. 
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  89. ^ "Rita MacNeil's Cape Breton". SFA Productions. Retrieved July 25, 2014. 
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  92. ^ a b "Rita MacNeil, 1944-2013". ECMAs. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  93. ^ "Episode 54". CBC. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  94. ^ "Traveling On". Big Pond Publishing. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  95. ^ "Rita MacNeil inducted to Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame". CBC News. July 3, 2013. Retrieved July 17, 2014. 
  96. ^ "ECMA announces Rita MacNeil, Jay Smith, and The Chaisson Trio among 2014 honourary award recipients". ECMAs. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
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  98. ^ "Canadians pay tribute to Rita MacNeil | CTV Atlantic News". Atlantic.ctvnews.ca. 2005-02-20. Retrieved 2013-04-18. 
  99. ^ "Rita MacNeil dies at 68 after surgery; son says she had been planning summer concerts". Toronto Star, April 17, 2013.
  100. ^ "Rita MacNeil did not have hospital-acquired infection, health officials say". The Globe and Mail. April 26, 2013. Retrieved 2013-12-09. 

Further reading[edit]

  • MacNeil, Rita; Simpson, Anne (1998). On a Personal Note. Key Porter Books. ISBN 978-1-55263-002-0. 
  • MacNeil, Rita (2003). Christmas at Home with Rita MacNeil. Key Porter Books. ISBN 1-55263-476-0. 

External links[edit]