Talk about your talented Canadian duos.
Songstress Rita MacNeil will be joined by composer and pianist ‘extraordinaire’ Frank Mills on a Christmas tour making a stop in Red Deer Dec. 12.
Rita MacNeil’s Spirit of Christmas is set to run twice at the Memorial Centre – 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
“We both enjoy Christmas very much,” explains MacNeil during a recent interview from her home in Big Pond, Cape Breton. “It seems to be a time when hope rises to the surface and spirits are lifted.”
Both MacNeil and Mills, who have been friends for years, have enjoyed tremendous success with their Christmas CDs and tours over the years. And when it came time to consider who to invite on her winter trek this year, MacNeil knew precisely who she wanted to join her.
First of all, they got together for a brand new holiday project called The Spirit of Christmas. Then it was time to plan a tour.
For Mills, who hails from Montreal and has been in semi-retirement for the past 10 years, teaming up with MacNeil provided an ideal opportunity to again hit the road and connect with his Canadian fans.
“I can’t think of a better way to do it,” he says during a recent interview from his Vermont farm. “I’ve always known Rita’s demeanour as a Maritime girl. I get a bit tense in the studio but she gets the groove – she’s a master.”
MacNeil grew up in Big Pond, Cape Breton – one of eight children. Her youth included the physical and psychological trauma of surgery for a cleft palate, a first love affair that left her with a child and a broken heart, a marriage breakdown and frustrating attempts to kick-start a musical career.
But a love for music was always there. MacNeil treasured all kinds of genres, from Celtic, country, folk, R&B to rock.
In 1971, she wrote about women having a voice and called it Need For Restoration; the next year she wrote a song protesting a beauty pageant called Born A Woman which became the title of her first record.
Born a Woman launched MacNeil into the folk music circuit, and at the time music provided a constant source of strength despite a troublesome marriage, having to care for her two children and a disappointing career thus far.
But in the late 1970s, the tunes came fast and furious and more folks were paying attention.
Her second disc, Part of the Mystery, was released in 1980. The Juno Award-winning and gold-selling Flying on Your Own came along in 1987. Reason to Believe went platinum the following year.
Her latest project, Rita MacNeil: Live in Concert was released in 2008.
Mills is, of course, known for his megahit Music Box Dancer which was released back in 1978. The infectious instrumental shot to number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in April of 1979 and also reached number three on the Canadian Adult Contemporary chart.
It also landed in the top 10 of many pop music charts throughout Europe and Asia.
“It’s a simple song that I wrote on a spring day in Montreal,” explains Mills. “At the time, the disco era was just coming to an end so I think Music Box Dancer was a breath of fresh air in that regard.”
In 1971 his professional music career got its first taste of success. He was a member of a Canadian group The Bells, whose recording Stay A While went to number one on the U.S. and Canadian music charts.
It was as a piano player with The Bells, Mills, developed his unique personal style of playing up high on the keyboard “in self defense,” as he says.
“I had to compete with two electric guitars, an acoustic guitar, an electric bass and a drum kit. It’s the only place I could hear myself.”
Mills left The Bells in 1971 to focus his talents on making an instrumental album of his own compositions.
In 1973, he recorded another record on his own which was initially leased to a label that dissolved in bankruptcy, forcing his effort to lie in limbo for several years. On the dormant project was Music Box Dancer.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“When I composed the song, I was searching for a title. One day my young daughter came to me with a broken music box to mend. There was a little dancer who popped up and spun around on a pedestal. Her arm was broken off. As I looked at I said that’s what the song is, it’s the Music Box Dancer.”
In all its various interpretations to date Music Box Dancer has sold close to six million copies.
These days, one could likely find Mills relishing a simpler life on his Vermont property. He says folks will likely find him on a tractor on the property somewhere, enjoying the peaceful outdoors.
His outlook is perhaps best summed up in a phrase he coined himself. “If you shoot for the stars, you might end up with a cloud. But if you only shoot for the clouds, you might end up sitting on your butt.”
For tickets, check out www.blackknightinn.ca or call 403-755-6626.