Award-winning country and folk singer Rita MacNeil, a beloved Canadian icon who hosted her own variety show in the 90s, was a member of the Order of Canada, and had 10 albums certified gold, platinum to triple platinum,died last evening (April 16) from post-surgical complications. She was 68.
Hailing from the tiny community of Big Pond on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, the “first Lady of Song,” as she was known, had her biggest hit with 1986’s Top 40 “Flying On Your Own,” which was covered by another Canadian icon, Anne Murray, the following year. Another song, “Working Man,” landed at No. 11 on the U.K. chart in 1990. In the 90s, she also had three albums chart in Australia.
One of eight children born to Neil and Catherine (Rene) MacNeil, she wrote about a hard life in her 1998 autobiography “On A Personal Note,” and overcame profound shyness to pursue her passion for singing and writing songs. At 17, she moved to Toronto and started performing in local coffeehouses and folk clubs. She then moved to Ottawa before returning to Cape Breton and recording three independent albums, 1975’s “Born A Woman,” 1981’s “Part Of The Mystery” and 1983’s “Flying On Your Own.” She came to the world attention when she performed at Japan’s Expo 85 and Vancouver’s Expo 86.
In 1987, she signed her major label deal with Virgin Records and released her breakthrough album, “Flying on Your Own,” winning her first Juno Award for most promising female vocalist. Throughout her career, she recorded more than 24 albums (released on indie and major labels: Lupins, Virgin, EMI and Luprock) which sold in the millions. “Flying On Your Own,” 1988’s “Reason To Believe,” 1989’s “Rita,” and 1990’s “Home I’ll Be” all are certified double platinum; “Now The Bells Ring” is triple platinum; 1995’s “Porch Songs” and 2000’s “Mining The Soul” are both gold. Her last release was 2012’s “Saving Grace.”
MacNeil won three Juno Awards, numerous East Coast Music Awards, Country Music Awards, and a Gemini Award for her CBC television variety show, “Rita & Friends,” that ran from 1994 to 1997 and consistently drew 2 million viewers. In addition to being presented with the Order of Canada in 1992, she was awarded the Order of Nova Scotia and is the recipient of five honorary doctorates. In 1986 she opened up Rita’s Tea Room in her hometown of Big Pond.
MacNeil was such a beloved figure that she was invited to appear in an episode of the Trailer Park Boys, in which she and her band are forced off their bus at gunpoint to help harvest marijuana.