With the passing of Rita MacNeil we’ve lost our second iconic Canadian entertainer in just over a month.
Even though she wasn’t a direct client of mine, I got to know Rita MacNeil very well and spent a great deal of time with her. My involvement with Rita was through my role with Balmur Ltd., Anne Murray’s management company.
Anne always admired Rita: as a singer, a songwriter, and a person; as did Anne’s manager, the late Leonard Rambeau. Sometime in early 90s, at one of the regular meetings that Anne, Leonard and I had, it came up that Rita was having some management problems. Anne said something along the lines of, “Guys, let’s do anything we can to help Rita.” The upshot was that Rita’s management was taken over by Balmur, with Leonard looking after the career side and the business end falling into my bailiwick.
I’ll never forget my first meeting with Rita, which was in a downtown Toronto hotel. On our way back to the office I said to Leonard that I’d never been in the presence of a more calming individual. Leonard’s wry wit came to the fore as he said, “Then I hope you spend lots of time with her.”
Of course, her calm presence wasn’t the only characteristic I admired about Rita. She dearly loved her children, Wade and Laura, and they returned the love in kind. Even though she was painfully shy, she genuinely cared about people: her band; her crew; the staff at her tea room; and her fans, whom she unreservedly adored. (She wrote her great songs I’ll Accept the Rose and We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight as tributes to her fans.)
She often had self-doubts, but her inner strength always overcame them to a sufficient degree. And speaking of overcoming obstacles, no entertainer I know of overcame greater odds to become a star than did Rita: her weight, her cleft palate, her struggles as a single mom with two small children, her relatively late start in the business, and the fact that her music didn’t seem to fit exactly into any particular category.
Rita, for all her gentle attributes, was tough as hell and absolutely true to herself. Leonard felt that Rita could become a gospel music superstar, so we put together a plan and met with her to urge her to move into the gospel genre (which would have necessitated her moving to the U.S.). Leonard made the career pitch and I presented the business case. She listened patiently, without interruption, and then calmly, but clearly resolutely, refused to do so; just a gentle “no,” one sweet smile, and we knew the meeting was over.
Almost as infectious as her calmness and smile was her chuckle, which readily manifested itself when she was poking fun at herself (she never poked fun at others). Leonard, Rita and I were watching television in her dressing room before one of her concerts when the news broke that Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard was suffering from flesh-eating disease. To our amazement, Rita chuckled. When she saw the look on our faces she quickly said, “Oh, I was just thinking that if I ever get that disease I’ll probably survive longer than most people would.”
I’ve already mentioned two of her great songs (I’ll Accept the Rose and We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight), but if anyone doubts her skill as a composer (even though she couldn’t play an instrument nor read music) just listen to Working Man. And don’t forget Flying on Your Own, which Anne Murray recorded and felt was a top-ten-worthy song.
I can sum up how I felt about Rita MacNeil in one sentence: She was a lady in whose presence I always wanted to be a gentleman.