Career 1983 to 1989
MacNeil appeared at major Canadian folk festivals in 1983 and 1984, sang at Expo 85 in Osaka, Japan, and, for several weeks, performed at Expo 86. Her fourth LP, Flying on Your Own (Lupins RM-1001), released in 1986, brought MacNeil a Juno Award in 1987 as most promising female singer. The title song and 'Fast Train to Tokyo' were hits in 1987. Reason to Believe (Virgin RM-2001) followed in 1988; a new version of 'Working Man,' recorded with the Men of the Deeps, was popular, as were 'Reason to Believe' and 'Walk on Through.' MacNeil appeared with the Men of the Deeps in 1988 before 10,000 people at the Halifax Metro Centre and again in 1989 on the CBC-TV telecast of the Juno Awards ceremonies.
By 1988 MacNeil was giving two or more concerts in succession at major Canadian concert halls - eg, the Orpheum and Queen Elizabeth theatres in Vancouver, and Roy Thomson Hall and the O'Keefe Centre in Toronto. She also performed at Expo 88 in Brisbane, Australia, toured in Europe, and in 1989 made her US debut at the Berklee Performance Centre, Boston. Her concerts were typically homey in presentation, broadly based from country to R&B in musical style, and ultimately inspirational in tone, often moving her listeners to tears. Chris Dafoe (Toronto Globe and Mail, 5 Nov 1988) attributed her success to 'a crystal-clear voice that is sweetened by a light Celtic lilt,' and to 'songs that speak eloquently of places and people, of dreams and the simple pleasures of friendship.'
A Christmas album with several of her own songs, Now the Bells Ring (Virgin RM-3001), was issued in 1988, followed in 1989 by Rita (Virgin RM-4001), which included the country hit 'I'll Accept the Rose' and the pop hits 'We'll Reach for the Sky Tonight' and 'Crazy Love.' Sales of each of her albums 1986-90 exceeded 100,000; those of Now the Bells Ring exceeded 200 000.
Career 1990 to Present
Her eighth album, Home I'll Be (Virgin RM-5001, CD and cassette), released in 1990, included 'You Taught Me Well.' This was followed by Thinking of You (Lupins RMCD6001, 1992), Once Upon a Christmas (Lupins RMCD-7001, 1993), Songs From the Collection, Volume One (Lupins RMCD 68001, 1994), Porch Songs (EMI 7 2438 35469 2 3, 1995), Joyful Sounds (EMI 72438 53394 2 4, 1996), Music of a Thousand Nights (EMI 7243 856328 2 2, 1997), A Night at the Orpheum (EMI 7243 4 98974 2 7, 1999), Mining the Soul (Luprock, 2000), and Common Dream (Luprock, 2002).
MacNeil toured the UK in 1991 and Australia in 1992, including performances at the Royal Albert Hall and Sydney Opera House, and achieved top-ten hits in both countries. She hosted the CBC-TV variety show Rita and Friends 1994-7, for which she received a 1996 Gemini Award, as well as CTV specials. In 1998 she released her autobiography, On a Personal Note. Her tours in Canada, including one with the Men of the Deeps, were well-received; on tour she has performed with the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the Vancouver Symphony. Although she made attempts to break into the US market, she did not achieve the same success there.
Her tea room in Cape Breton is a popular tourist attraction.
The bulk of MacNeil's successes came with her own compositions. More than 200 of her song titles are registered with BMI. Her "We'll Reach the Sky Tonight" received a SOCAN award in 1991; Anne Murray recorded her "Flying On Your Own." MacNeil's approach to songwriting is unusual in that she mentally composes music and lyrics together, spontaneously, before singing them to tape. A songbook of her music was published by Warner Chappell in 1997.
Honours and Assessment
MacNeil received Juno Awards in 1989 (female singer of the year) and 1990 (country female singer), and Canadian Country Music Association awards in 1990 and 1991 for the top-selling album (Home I'll Be) and as fans' choice entertainer of the year 1991 and 1992. The recipient of several East Coast Music Awards, including the 2005 lifetime achievement award, the singer was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1991 and of the Order of Nova Scotia in 2005.
MacNeil's recordings do not easily fit predetermined radio play categories; they range from gospel and country to adult contemporary. Her persona as one who overcomes obstacles (cleft palate, poverty, weight problems, shyness) has built loyal audiences.
Author Revised: Betty Nygaard King
Schulz MacArthur, Catherine. 'Rita's promise,' The Music Scene, 361, May-Jun 1988
Finlayson, Ann. 'The sweet sound of success,' Maclean's, 7 Nov 1988
Schwartz, Ellen. 'From the heart,' Born a Woman (Winlaw, BC, 1988)
MacIntosh, Dave. "Damn real!" Canadian Composer, fall 1992
Napier, David. "Lovely Rita, Ratings Queen," Saturday Night, Oct 1995
Timson, Judith. "Who's afraid of Rita MacNeil?" Chatelaine, Oct 1996
"Rita MacNeil," Contemporary Canadian Musicians, ed. Robert Lang (Toronto 1997)
MacNeil, Rita, and Simpson, Anne. On a Personal Note (Toronto 1998)
Wong, Jan. "Lunch with Rita MacNeil: Singer's road to stardom paved with heartbreak," Globe and Mail, 29 Dec 1998
MacNeil, Rita. Christmas at Home with Rita MacNeil (Toronto 2003)
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
The official website for Rita MacNeil features her biography, discography, album notes, lyrics, and audio clips.
Rita MacNeil, Cape Breton singer, dies at 68
A CBC obituary for beloved Cape Breton singer Rita MacNeil.
An obituary for Rita MacNeil, who was "known as Cape Breton's first lady of song. From thestar.com.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...