SYDNEY — As humble as she was successful, Rita MacNeil made her mark in the world singing from the soul.
It was a journey that earned her the admiration of countless fans, the respect of musicians across the country, and a place in the hearts of people across Cape Breton — all of whom were shocked and saddened to learn of her death, late Tuesday.
Rita died in hospital in Sydney on Tuesday night from complications following surgery. She was 68. Her family issued a statement on Rita’s website early Wednesday confirming the news. In it, they described Rita as “a gentle soul with a heart of gold and the voice of an angel” and said her music spoke of her love of home and family, the courage to rise above life’s challenges, and the hardworking men and women of Canada.
The woman behind iconic songs like “Flying on Your Own,” “Home I’ll Be,” “Reason to Believe,” and “Working Man,” is being remembered in her home community of Big Pond, around Cape Breton, and across the country — the loss felt particularly deeply by the local music community.
Friend and collaborator Kim Dunn, a member of Rita’s band for the past 14 years, said sharing the stage with Rita was an incredible privilege.
“I always like to say that I had a ringside seat to a true professional, and some amazing, amazing performances,” he said. “I saw how deeply connected and loyal she was, and felt, toward her audience and her fans. She truthfully and sincerely performed for them every night. It was very important to her to do so. It was all from the soul with Rita.”
Dunn, a native of North Sydney, said he has a deep respect for Rita as a songwriter and is grateful for the support she provided to him as he developed his own music.
“I’m in debt to her,” he said. “She saw to it that I had an opportunity to sing every night, either my music or one of her songs with her, and she didn’t just do that for me, she did it for others. There was no way she was going to hide any kind of talent that was on the stage. No way. She was very, very, very giving and very generous.”
Longtime friend and former bandmate Joella Foulds credited MacNeil with giving her and many others the courage to pursue careers in the music industry.
“Her legacy in Cape Breton is huge because she was out there before anyone else really, except maybe John Allan (Cameron), and she continued to work from here and that made a big difference to people,” she said. “The fact that somebody from a little community like Big Pond, who persevered, could get her voice out there in the world and become well-known was inspiring to everybody.”
Foulds, artistic director of the Celtic Colours International Festival, said she wouldn’t be doing what she is now without MacNeil’s example and her encouragement.
The two first met in the late 1970s at an International Women’s Day celebration in Cape Breton where Rita had been invited to perform, and Foulds, a musician and fan of Rita’s music, ended up accompanying her for the performance. For the next six years, Foulds toured and recorded with Rita.
“She was constantly trying to deal with the fact that she was a very shy person who had a big message and a beautiful voice,” recalled Foulds. “She was determined that this music and this voice that she had — and I mean voice in the big sense of the word — should get out there.”
Stewart MacNeil of the Barra MacNeils used the term mother figure in describing the internationally renowned singer-songwriter and said Rita was admired by the many island artists who followed in her footsteps.
“She was a pioneer for the common person, for women, for Cape Breton artists, and for just being yourself and following your path in life,” he said. “She certainly made people realize that we all have to forge our own ways and that’s probably the biggest thing I’ll remember about Rita is that she gave you that feeling that you have to live your own life. You can’t let somebody else live it for you.”
The Barra MacNeils toured with Rita a number of times and Stewart will remember her as a true professional who sang from her soul.
“I think her legacy will really be her songs. I think her songs are just being discovered,” he said. “They’re just impeccably written. They really are gems, each and every one of them, and I think in the long run her songs will be the testimony.”
One of her classics, “Working Man,” was often performed with the Men of the Deeps, who were frequent touring partners of Rita for close to 30 years.
“It’s certainly a big highlight for the Men of the Deeps. Being on the road and travelling with her was something that we’ll always treasure,” said Yogi Muise, a member of the Men of the Deeps.
He said Rita was an extremely generous and caring person.
“What you see onstage is what you get offstage. People said ‘She looks so nice, and she’s relaxed and she’s friendly’ and that’s the way she was,” he said. “She never ever looked at herself as a star. She thanked her lucky stars for the talent she had and she used it well.”
Fellow Big Pond native Gordie Sampson knew Rita first as a neighbour who lived just across the road. One of his earliest memories of Rita is hearing her sing at her father’s funeral.
“I remember being incredibly young and listening to her sing a song she wrote about her father at her own father’s funeral and watching her sing that ... and being very moved by it,” he recalled. “I can still picture the moment right now.”
As a young musician, Sampson remembers Rita gave one of his bands, Realworld, a big boost by showcasing them on her TV show “Rita and Friends.” The next year she offered him an opportunity to join her band, which he described as the “Holy Grail of gigs.” He performed with Rita for about three years.
“She was just incredibly supportive and always had time to talk and I learned to have such a great appreciation for her songwriting style,” said Sampson, who won a Grammy for co-writing Carrie Underwood’s hit “Jesus Take the Wheel.” “There’s so many sides to what Rita does that deserve so much attention — her vocals, her story, her spirit — but it’s her songwriting style that to me was the purest I’ve ever seen.”
Often described as Cape Breton’s first lady of song, Rita released 24 albums, selling millions of copies throughout her career. She won three Juno Awards, as well as numerous East Coast Music Awards, and many other honours, including the Order of Canada.
Just last month, MacNeil performed in Halifax at the 25th anniversary of the East Coast Music Awards, where she was one of 13 artists honoured with 25th anniversary awards in recognition of their success and contributions to the East Coast music scene. The Rankin Family was also recognized and after accepting their anniversary award, siblings Jimmy and Heather Rankin singled out Rita as one of their biggest influences.
“For us personally, when we saw Rita MacNeil being able to make a living from her music and writing her own songs, that was an inspiration for us to do what we did,” Heather said at the time.
The Cape Breton Regional Municipality lowered its flags outside the civic centre to half-mast and set up a book of condolences for people to sign at the civic centre, located at 320 Esplanade in Sydney. People can sign the book, located on the main floor near the customer service centre, during regular business hours. The book will be presented to the MacNeil family.
Rita is survived by her two children, Laura and Wade. The immediate family was not doing media interviews Wednesday. Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.