Goodbye Dear HeartCanada and music lost one of its bright shining stars yesterday. Rita MacNeil, whose story is a familiar one to most Canadians of my generation, died yesterday. She was a gentle loving person with a voice of silver and a heart of gold. She released 24 albums between the first in 1975 and her most recent in 2012. Eight of those albums went Platinum and 2 went gold. She was proud of the fact that at 42 she was voted "Most Promising Newcomer" but even more proud of the relationship she had with her audience - they loved her and she repaid that love 10 fold. No video could ever capture the honest love fest that was a Rita McNeil concert.
Back in 1990 I was working at Ottawa airport for Air Canada and the particular day that I have in mind I must have been working as an assistant agent on flight 113. The flight started in Halifax, came through Ottawa and continued on to Calgary and Vancouver. Most of the passengers had disembarked when I got a call from the In-Charge flight attendant. He said: I've got Rita (he didnt' have to say Rita who) on board and she'd like to get off. She doesn't want a wheelchair, she just wants to stretch her legs and needs a bit of a hand. Well he didn't have to say much more - I was down at the aircraft in record time and next thing I knew I was escorting Ms McNeil to the departure lounge. She was wearing one of her kaftans - she once joked that it showed her figure to its best advantage - and her signature big floppy purple hat. We chatted as we came up the jetway - she had just had an operation and was headed for Calgary for the first of a series of concerts out west. In the lounge a few people approached her shyly and she - almost as shyly - chatted and signed autographs. Come boarding time I took her down to the aircraft and mentioned to her that I had spent Christmas that year in Cairo with my partner who was working there. I told her that we had played her Christmas album and that it really made us feel that we were home and just a bit homesick. She squeezed my arm and in that soft voice said: Well dear heart, for me that makes the recording of it all worthwhile. She said thank you and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
Here she is on George Stroumboulopoulos in December 2012 as she started another cross country tour.
And I know many people are posting Working Man as a tribute but if anything tells Rita's story it has to be her anthem Flying On Your Own.
Goodbye Dear Heart, everything you did was worthwhile.
17 April -1397: Geoffrey Chaucer tells the Canterbury Tales for the first time at the court of Richard II. Chaucer scholars have also identified this date (in 1387) as the start of the book's pilgrimage to Canterbury.