Rita MacNeil, the Canadian singer-songwriter from Cape Breton with the sweetly powerful voice, passed away Tuesday night following complications from surgery. She was 68.
MacNeil’s longtime promoter, Brian Edwards, says MacNeil had entered hospital a few days ago because of an infection. She was advised to undergo what he described as a “routine surgery,” but then developed complications during the recovery.
“The operation itself went well and then shortly afterward, she went into a coma and never actually came out of it,” Edwards told CTV’s Canada AM Wednesday morning from St Petersburg, Florida.
Rita MacNeil has died. The Canadian country and folk singer passed away from complications following surgery at the age of 68.
“There was a lot of hope over the last couple of days,” he said. “Her vital signs were good, there was no brain damage, none of that stuff. And then all of a sudden, around 11:30 last night, they called to say she had slipped away.”
Always the reticent and perhaps unlikely star, MacNeil was one of the hardest workers Edwards says he had ever seen. Even after 24 albums, hundreds of shows, and dozens of awards, MacNeil always remained humble, he said.
“We did over 400 shows together and I mentioned on my Facebook page last night that each and every one was very special, because there was no one more real and genuine than Rita MacNeil,” Edwards said.
MacNeil was known to be painfully shy and admitted in her autobiography to having self-confidence issues, largely stemming from the abuse she suffered as a child as well as her weight. But Edwards said all that would fade away when MacNeil would step out on stage.
“Rita was as nervous as can be before every show,” he said. “…But then when she walked out on that stage, watch out, because she was in full control.”
Fellow Nova Scotian-bred singing legend Anne Murray, who appeared on a number of TV specials with MacNeil, called her “a dear sweet woman” and “a good soul” whose fans were devoted to her.
“Rita had a lot of adversity in her life to overcome and it’s just so admirable she was able to do what she did,” Murray told Canada AM.
MacNeil was blessed with a full, sweet voice with a light Celtic lilt and fell in love with singing at an early age. She decided to try to make a career of it in 1962, when she moved to Toronto at the age of 17.
Though she played small gigs in local folk music clubs, she never seemed to be able to break through with big success, and had to supplement her singing jobs with work as a retail clerk and cleaning woman.
During this time, she married and had two children, but divorced her husband after six years and moved back to Big Pond, N.S.
In 1975, MacNeil decided to record her first album with money donated by family and friends. The album was a local success and she slowly built a fanbase with regular and rousing performances.
Her breakthrough finally came after she performed at Expo ’86 in Vancouver, and then released the album "Flying on Your Own." The songs about the hardships of everyday people soon found their way onto easy-listening radio stations across Canada and it wasn’t long before the album went platinum.
MacNeil won her first Juno Award that year, being named Canada's "most promising female vocalist" – an odd designation, given that by that time, MacNeil was already 42.
She continued to work tirelessly from that point on, putting out a new recording almost annually for the next decade. In all, she recorded 24 albums, including Chiristmas collections and greatest hits packages.
Edwards says MacNeil never stopped working and would perform even when she wasn’t feeling well, quietly hiding any illness in order to allow a show to go on.
“She was such a trooper and the fans meant so much to her. She just would never stop, ever. She was determined right from an early age,” he said.
The awards kept coming as well, with MacNeil winning multiple Canadian Country Music Association awards and East Coast Music Awards trophies. She was also named female vocalist of the year at the 1990 Junos and country female vocalist of the year at the '91 show.
In 1994, her fame grew even wider when she agreed to host an endearingly Canadian TV variety show called "Rita & Friends.” The show ran through 1997 and was followed by a number of TV music specials. Throughout the show and the specials, she helped to expose other Canadian musical acts to a wider audience.
MacNeil was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1992 and the Order of Nova Scotia in 2005.
Edwards says MacNeil never let her success get to her head and was always looking to help other musicians, including the Canadian Tenors, whose career Edwards says MacNeil helped to launch.
She was also always willing to share a stage with others, from the Barra MacNeils, to the von Trapp Children.
“She just opened the stage up as if it was theirs. It was things like that that made her who she was,” says Edwards. “Everybody had an equal chance on that stage if she was on it. She shared it with everyone.”