Born on May 28, 1944, in Big Pond, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada; daughter of Renee and Neil MacNeil; siblings: three brothers, four sisters; married and divorced; children: Laura and Wade. Addresses: Record company--EMI-Capitol Music Group, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10104 Phone: (212) 253-3000.

Against the odds and following years of determination, singer and songwriter Rita MacNeil has become one of the biggest, brightest, and most beloved stars in her native Canada, where many considered her a musical legend. But while her popularity soared over the years--not only in Canada, but in other countries across the globe as well--one would find it all but impossible to locate a Rita MacNeil album in the United States, except through her website. Most agree that her absence in the American market comes down to externals. A large woman with a faint yet noticeable cleft palate who has battled a weight problem along with teasing throughout her life, MacNeil has yet to find her place in an image-conscious industry, despite her wide-ranging talents. Nonetheless, MacNeil understands the pressures of working in a business set on appearances, even though such factors have nothing to do with her music. As David Napier in Saturday Night noted, "it's the music--heart-wrenching lyrics backed by a haunting voice--that has brought the middle-aged mother of two to the brink of international stardom."

MacNeil took the often malicious attacks and jokes about her weight in stride, working throughout her 20-year career to overcome preconceptions. "We all look different in this world and should have the right to do what we love to do, no matter what," said the award-winning singer to World & I contributor Linda Joyce Forristal. While MacNeil has encountered difficulties throughout her lifetime, including intense shyness and dealing with sexual abuse as a child at the hands of an uncle, her struggles have served as the impetus for her songwriting, and for this she remains grateful. Within the lyrics and melodies of her numerous hits--rich, emotional recollections that never fail to rouse her endearing fans such as "Working Man," "Flying on Your Own," "I'll Accept the Rose," and "She's Called Nova Scotia"-- live MacNeil's own personal experiences and the tragedies of those around her.

Because of her unique ability to relate to others' hardships, MacNeil has acted as a source of inspiration for millions of listeners worldwide, including fans from Sweden, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and her own homeland. Her frequent concert tours, both at home and abroad, always sell out. In Canada, the singer's 15 albums have consistently exceeded the platinum sales mark, and she saw several top ten hits in both Britain and Australia. An artist known for her wide range of styles--from Celtic, country, and folk to rhythm and blues, pop, and rock--MacNeil appeals to a variety of fans. Like so many modern-day songwriters, she has gained much of her musical nourishment from the radio. "I'd listen to everything from Celtic to rock to Hawaiian music," she recollected, according to her website. "As a teenager, I could hardly wait to be able to come home from school and put the radio on. I liked everybody, that was the whole premise of my life."

Bestowed with several honors and awards for her contributions to the world of music, MacNeil won three Juno Awards for Most Promising Artist in 1987, Female Vocalist in 1990, and Female Country Vocalist in 1991; four Canadian Country Music Awards for Country Fan Choice of the Year in 1991 and again in 1992, as well as for Top Selling Album in 1990 and 1991; and received five honorary doctorates from the University of New Brunswick, St. Mary's University, Mount St. Vincent, St. Francis Xavier, and University College of Cape Breton. One of MacNeil's proudest moments occurred when she was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1992. In a career filled with accomplishments, two other highlights stand out for MacNeil: a 1991 performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England, and a prior 1986 appearance at Expo '86 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. "Vancouver is one of my favorite places," MacNeil stated on her website. "It's where I got my big break and it will always have a special place in my heart. The press were very kind and I think they were responsible for getting people out to the shows. It was the springboard that enabled me to continue and opened up a lot of doors for me."

Determined to Sing

Most of the credit for a performer's rise to fame, however, is due to the singer's own perseverance. MacNeil, the fifth of eight children born to Renee and Neil MacNeil on May 28, 1944, in the town of Big Pond in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, started singing with her extended family, who immigrated to North America from the Isle of Barra in Scotland four generations before. On a regular basis, family members and friends would get together for informal "kitchen parties," during which someone would play an instrument and everyone would sing. By the age of six, MacNeil realized that she wanted to spend the rest of her life in music. "I sang first because I was compelled to," wrote MacNeil in her 1999 autobiography entitled On a Personal Note, "as if I were freeing my spirit." Both MacNeil's father, a hard-working carpenter and shop owner who inspired the singer to later write the song "Old Man" (available on 1981's Part of the Mystery and 1992's Thinking of You), and especially her mother, who stayed busy raising MacNeil and her three brothers and four sisters, supported their daughter's aspirations from the beginning.

In 1952, MacNeil moved with her parents and siblings from Big Pond to Sydney, Nova Scotia, in order for her father to find more work. But despite an industry boom in that town, carpentry work remained scarce, and her father continued to struggle to make ends meet. It was during these years that MacNeil developed a case of severe shyness, a condition intensified by her harelip and teasing by classmates. Even though singing around those she knew well came easily as a child, when she tried to take formal music lessons, the bashful MacNeil was unable to utter a single note for her teacher. Later on, she entered a local Kiwanis Music Festival, but froze midway through her performance and wept all the way home.

As a result, MacNeil never learned to read, write, or play a musical note. Instead, she learned to create songs in her head, a technique she continued to use as an adulthood. According to MacNeil, she sings and hums words, and the melodies just comes to her. After composing songs by memory, she then sings them to her band, who help MacNeil mold each tune into a polished product.

Faced Stage Fright

Although MacNeil, at the time still desperately afraid to perform in public, spent most of her early life practicing songs by singing to her mother and using a broom handle as a microphone, she made up her mind during her teens to overcome her stage fright in order to fulfill her longtime dream. At the age of 17, in the early-1960s, she left home and moved to Toronto, Ontario, believing that the big city would provide her more opportunities to sing. In Toronto, MacNeil started singing in small clubs and bars and eventually married and had two children, Laura and Wade. During these years, MacNeil was also involved in the women's movement and became a sort of musical spokesperson, performing regularly at feminist rallies around Toronto. However, worried that she might be pigeonholed, MacNeil later removed herself from the activist scene. "I can use the word feminist, it's other people that don't understand it that make me nervous," she explained to Napier.

MacNeil's marriage ended in divorce after six years, and she moved with her children to Ottawa, Ontario, where she spent her darkest days a single mother. Forced to support her children on her own, MacNeil took various jobs as a janitor, sales clerk, and waitress, in addition to occasional performances, to earn enough money for her family. "A lot of songs come out of those hard times and you learn a lot about yourself," she recalled on her website. "You learn about what it's like being on both sides of the fence as far as trying to meet your bills and make a living. Then when things start to go well, and things are easier you can look back on those hard times to give you strength to get through everything. It's great inspiration for writing."

Returned to Her Roots

Feeling homesick, MacNeil in the late-1970s returned to her first childhood home, Big Pond. Soon thereafter, her luck began to change, and after giving a total of 72 performances during the Expo '86 in Vancouver, she became an "overnight" sensation. Prior to this breakthrough, though, MacNeil had already begun her recording career, releasing her early albums independently. Her debut, 1975's Born a Woman, was produced and distributed with help from MacNeil's friends, who collected money to finance the project. In 1981, the singer arrived with Part of the Mystery, then released her third album, I'm Not What I Seem, in 1985. All of her self-produced records--with the latter album partially produced by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) and distributed by the College of Cape Breton--did relatively well, selling around 10,000 copies each. Although now out of print, her early recordings are available for download via her website.

MacNeil forged ahead with a fourth album, 1987's Flying on Your Own, a record she hoped would attract major-label interest. Although record companies rejected the effort, she released Flying on Your Own, the title-track being her signature song about a woman's inner strength after a failed relationship, by herself. Eventually, the release sold so many copies that Virgin Records (Canada) offered to distribute. Now signed to EMI Music, MacNeil continues to publish her songs through her own Lupins Productions, headquartered in Sydney and managed by her son.

Continuing to record--including a performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra entitled A Night at the Orpheum, released in 1999--and touring almost non-stop throughout the 1990s, MacNeil also worked in television during these years on her own hit variety show on CBC called Rita & Friends (winner of a 1996 Gemini Award) from 1994 until 1997. Over the three seasons it aired, Rita & Friends entertained more than one million viewers each week and featured an eclectic mix of guests such as songwriter Joni Mitchell, rock singer Jeff Healy, and alternative acts like the Crash Test Dummies and Sloan. Other side projects included toying with the idea of her own line of plus-size clothing and opening her famous Tea Room, a popular tourist stop in a renovated school house in her hometown. Completed in the early-1990s and run by MacNeil's daughter, the well-known destination serves baked goods, teas, and Rita MacNeil memorabilia.

by Laura Hightower

Rita MacNeil's Career

Began recording career in Toronto and Ottawa playing in small clubs and at feminist rallies; released self-produced and distributed debut album Born a Woman, 1975; returned to hometown of Pig Pond, late-1970s; performed 72 shows at the Expo '86 in Vancouver and became an "overnight" success; signed with Virgin Records (Canada) after high sales of independent album Flying on Your Own, 1987; performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London, 1991; signed with EMI Music, 1995; published autobiography On a Personal Note and released album A Night at the Orpheum, 1999.

Rita MacNeil's Awards

Three Juno Awards for Most Promising Artist, 1987; Female Vocalist, 1990; and Female Country Vocalist, 1991; four Canadian Country Music Awards for Country Fan Choice of the Year, 1991 and 1992, as well as for Top Selling Album, 1990 and 1991; five honorary doctorates from the University of New Brunswick, St. Mary's University, Mount St. Vincent, St. Francis Xavier, and University College of Cape Breton; inducted into the Order of Canada, 1992; Gemini Award for television show Rita & Friends, 1996.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

February 20, 2005: MacNeil won the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2005 East Coast Music Awards in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Source: Globe and Mail, February 21, 2005.

Further Reading

Sources

BooksPeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 5 years ago

I am appalled by the comments of previous visitors.Obviously, they are sick dimented individuals that have nothing better to do. How sad that their comments have to be disqustingly viewed by sane people who love Rita. Get a life!

almost 5 years ago

first of all i am so angry at those ignorant people writing hatemail hiding behind a false name they should be removed. I have loved your music for years i listen to it lots. I live in ayrshire scotland its very hard to get your music here do you think you will ever come to britain

over 5 years ago

Rita, I love your music! I went to your concert in Canada and fell in love with you and your music instantaneously! Please take your tour to Connecticut sometime as I would love to see you again and have all my friends and family come too! xoxo Spencer

over 5 years ago

Dear Ms. Rita "Big Mac Meal", I mean Macneil, how many cheeseburgers can you eat in one sitting? 10 or 20? do you have trouble NOT breaking chairs? what size is your underwear? who's your mom? is she ok? my friend Michael likes large quaker women. you are large and probably eat a lot of quaker oats with your lard and can you jump? have you ever fit your entire body into a bathtub? have you ever been harpooned by accident? have someone ever mistaken you for a baker and tried to buy your rolls? are you related to butterbean? how wide are the lenses they used to film your music video?

over 5 years ago

Hey Rita, me likes me a big woman :) on a SCALE 1-10 (one that you would not break) how available are you? - Hank (a.k.a. the workin' man)♥

over 5 years ago

she is a very large woman. at least 500 pounds.♥ P.s. how much do you weigh Rita?;)

over 5 years ago

Hello Rita, My husband and I are driving across Canada this summer. We don't want to miss stopping at Big Pond and possibly seeing you. It's my 60th Birthday and we wanted to spend it seeing the best of Canada..and that includes YOU xoxo Claire

over 5 years ago

Rita thank you from the bottom or my heart. You moved me tonight with your rich and powerful voice. The Von Trap children are a wonderful compliment to your preformance. Angel surround by Angles. Merry Christmas! Linda

over 5 years ago

Hi Rita! I've just watched a documentary of you on TV and I must say I'm so proud of you as a Canadian Singer!!!You are a genuine, wonderful singer and person who I hope to meet someday. May God Bless you for all you've given to this great country of ours and many others around the world. God Bless....John

almost 6 years ago

Hi Rita, thank you for the beautiful songs of Canadiana and life. I'm from Northern Ontario, Cochrane, and have been listening to you sporadically since the 70's. We worked in Northern isolation at the time, we drank 'home brew', jammed and listened to radio. Since then life has taken some interesting turns for good and bad and now I have a collection of your songs which are playing on the Amazon Cloud as I type. It is my understanding that 'Working Man' was done to honor men lost in the Springhill Mine disaster? If so, more folks need to be made aware of this as it was such a horrific event for Eastern Canada, indeed any Canadian at the time. Please continue your wonderful work and sharing your beautiful, powerful voice with us.

almost 6 years ago

Hi, Yesterday Aug 4, I was the luckiest gal in the whole world. I am from Mitchell Ontario. I have lots of family that lives in North Sydney where my birth mother was born. In March of this year I was told I had ALS. As one with this doesn't know what is down the road my Dr. told me to do now what I wanted to do while I was still able. On my bucket list was to visit the Cap and Rita's tea room and maybe if I am lucky meet Rita. As we just arrived on Wed. and with ALS rest is very inportant, we decided to go sight seeing around the Big pond area and visit Rita's tea room. We arrived around 3:00. With us with my cousin's husband Simon, who was on the tv show last year under "Canadian's Wortest Handyman Show". That was a very good ice breaker. When asked if Rita was around as Linda explained my situlation about ALS, a call was made and within minutes Rita was there in person, unknown to me and I was in heaven. Her and I talked and shared information about ALS. What a warm down to earth gal Rita is. She made my dream come true. My husband John took several pictures of us together as he said later unless you have a picture who is going to believe our story. Thanks so much to Rita and her staff for making this possible for us.

about 6 years ago

Hi I was wondering if you would ask Rita if she would like to sing and record my song titled "Mother's Day"? I would send the Lyrics and and disk of how the song goes. Please let me know, Anita Proctor, Flin Flon, Manitoba Thank you for taking the time to read my mail. xox

over 6 years ago

Just last week I was talking with a friend about you and how you come across as very down-to-earth when singing. This evening I was flipping around on t.v. stations and didn't find anything interesting until I saw your interview from Christmas, 1999. It was truly inspirational to listen to you and hear about your struggles through the years with personal issues but yet you accomplished your dream of singing. I am very inspired by you and hope that I can keep going at my dream. Merry Christmas!

over 6 years ago

Rita, My Parents just adore you. They were born in Italy.You have Italian Fans.They like your songs and music because it's down to earth.Your songs relate to home and they can relate to someone who's heart is where the home is.

over 6 years ago

Hello Rita, You are a hero of mine. I was born one of 10 children, 8 girls and 2 boys. My father was born in Dominion and he loved music. I lived in Cape Breton for a number of years. Your records were always played in my house. I often sing Working Man and I'll accept the rose tonight. People tell me I sound like you. It is wonderful to read of your success and I continue to pursue my dreams. Thank you for everything. Jean

about 7 years ago

Rita, you are awesome! My dear friend, a Canadian, gave me your CD many years ago. It was only last year when I started a jam session with Jim McNeil from Cape Britton who sings a lovely version of The Working Man, that I've come to appreciate your extreme talent and song. Thank you for sharing this bio with us. Best wishes. Mary

about 7 years ago

Rita your strengh and beauty shine through with each song you perform. I can remember sitting in a pub in Newfoundland when we lived there and listening to you sing on wet Saturday afternoon. Your song Flying on Your Own became "my song" when I divorced and rasied my children on my own. As a fellow Nova Scotian, who has lived in the west for 29 years, I always enjoy your music and the chance to see you perform when in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

over 7 years ago

my name is jeanette morrow and i am only 19 alot of my friends wen they ask me who my fav singer is and i say rita mcneil they r like say who now and i know they will never understand but wen i was a young girl about 8 i would watch a movie of ritas songs and her life back home i am not sure wat it is called but i has a lot of realy good songs on it i would watch it with my grandad who also loved her music and even though she is big she is beautiful and has a voice 2 match i would love to meet her in person one day and tell her i am big as well and big girls r beautiful and i love to sing due to the fact i believe i can now do anything. rita u r beautiful no matter wat they say u r beautiful in my eyes x x x x x x x jeanette =} down in australia

over 8 years ago

Rita Macneil, like many beautiful singers, was locked in my memory banks for so long. I last saw Rita many years ago at the Adelaide Festival Theatre in South Australia. Rita was very popular in those days and I am sure she has been popular ever since. Sadly over the years I have not listened to the Radio and Rita's performance on that night was slotted into my memory. That must have been more than twenty years ago. Two days ago I was doing some shopping and I happened to go into a Salvation Army OP shop. I flicked through the cassette tapes as I do everytime I go into the Salvo's, which is reasonably frequent. I look for Music that interests me. On this occasion I could not believe my eyes, a cassette of Rita titled "Rita Macneil, Home I'll Be" I paid the princely sum of 50 cents. The lady at the counter asked me if I would like my pensioner discount. I declined, what's 50 cents when I am getting thousands of dollars in entertainment in this one little cassette. I could not wait to put it in my Cassette player in the car. Listening to her brought back so many memories of times when life was happy and uncomplicated at times when we thought we were invincible. We have had a good life but the usual ailments weaken the mortal frame. I would like to say, thank you Rita for sharing your wonderful voice with us. The tape is beautiful but one particular song, touches a cord, Journey To Australia. What a beautiful piece of music and what a beautiful rendition. As I write this my countrymen and women are suffering in the state of Victoria, NSW and Queensland with horrendous fires and floods. In Victoria 1016 houses destroyed 181 dead and thousands homeless. If you ever read this Rita, I wonder if you could search your heart and give us an anthem in your own special way. An anthem that could inspire those who have lost so much to injury, death and fires. An anthem that could lift the hearts of the victims and let them know that all is not lost. Those who have died will never be forgotten by those who love and care for them. The buildings will be rebuilt, the grass and trees will grow again. God bless you Rita, thank you.

over 8 years ago

Ever since I have heard Rita McNeil sing I loved her , I just been at her show at Casino Rama Nov. 2nd 2008 , It was a full house and a wonderful show , I also enjoyed the men of the deep. It is so refreshing to listen to a lovely singer like Rita , I had tears in my eyes when she was singing . I just read her biography , she had a very hard life ,but she has over come it all ! Good for you Rita , I am very happy for you . I wish her all the best , good health and many more concerts . Thank you M. Franze

over 8 years ago

What a wonderful, wonderful voice ! I heard your "I'm a working man" some weeks ago in our local Viennese Radio Station in Austria and I'am addicted !!! I need to buy your cd's here in Vienna, could you please provide me with some titles ? Thank you imc

almost 9 years ago

My mother is from Boisdale and she left for the states when she was only 15 in 1906. I have been to beautiful Cape Breton I found the C.B. Miners page and return to it often. Rita you are so admirable and your voice is golden. Thank you and more good fortune to you and with much admiration.

almost 9 years ago

I watched a film called candy mountain and Rita sang a song in this vidio and i would love to find out the name of the song so i can buy the cd, it moved me and i gotta have it. Please email me the name of the song and the name of the cd it is on. thanks so much Verlene Crawford of Huntington Beach Ca vdcrawfish@yahoo.com