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Sandra Faire, who produced MacNeil’s TV projects, remembers her as “probably the most sensitive person I have ever met in my entire life.”
The lady with the big heart and the big voice from Big Pond, N.S., will sing her songs no more. Rita MacNeil died Tuesday night following complications from abdominal surgery. She was 68.
She achieved fame in 1987 with her song, “Flying On Your Own,” but she was 43 years old before she finally earned the courage to let her talent fly freely, having spent the previous decades battling with demons of weight, pathological shyness and childhood sexual abuse. Yet she somehow managed to break through to the other side with songs of hope that filled the hearts of millions around the world.
The sweet-spirited woman with a fondness for oversized hats and equally generous emotion achieved an incredible level of popularity during a career that started late but still earned her all the awards available to her: Juno, Gemini, Country Music Association and many more.
While Canada was always her home base, she remains the only female singer, for example, to have three separate albums chart in the same year in Australia.
“She was a wonderful human being and one of my happiest life experiences is having gotten to know and work with Rita,” said TV executive Sandra Faire, who helmed most of MacNeil’s television projects, including her successful series Rita & Friends, seen on CBC from 1994 to 1997.
By conventional industry standards, no one had more cards stacked against her starting out. MacNeil was painfully shy from childhood, suffered from a cleft palate that made her an object of mockery and struggled with weight issues for years, while also harbouring a secret wound: she had been sexually abused for many years by her uncle.
She left home at 17 to launch her career. But she spent years in Ottawa as a single mother of two after an early marriage ended badly, taking any job she could from janitor to waitress, “just to meet the bills and make a living.”
The first audiences for her songs were in the women’s movement in Toronto in 1971. That’s where author and business consultant Don Tapscott heard her sing. He was so captivated by her voice he set up an impromptu recording session at radio station CFOR in Orillia, Ont.
“We drove around until we found a bass player and a drummer and then we recorded the first Rita MacNeil song, ‘Tell It Like It Is, Sisters.’ ”
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