The widely respected and very popular singer-songwriter, actor, and comedian, Mike O’Reilly passed away on June 1, 2021, following a bout with cancer of the liver. He was 76.
Born December 10, 1944, in Seaton (Devon) England, Michael Howard O’Reilly emigrated with his family to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, in 1946, and relocated to Ottawa, Ontario, in 1958.
His country music influences go back to his father’s wind-up Victrola and the 78rpm records by Roy Acuff, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, and Hank Williams. When Elvis Presley and other rockabilly artists changed the music scene in the 1950s, O’Reilly’s musical interests changed for a while but, as a young teenager, he heard Flatt & Scruggs for the first time and, through them, the high lonesome sound of Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys.
Additionally, the already bustling Ottawa Valley coffee houses, outdoor festivals, and radio and TV stations provided a steady diet of traditional country, folk and bluegrass music.
By listening to the recordings of his radio idols, O’Reilly taught himself to play guitar, mandolin, and banjo, and he spent a few years paying his dues in the Ottawa Valley area, before he decided to make music his profession, and circa. 1971, he formed the group, Mike O’Reilly & Cody, which became the premiere bluegrass band in Canada.
Cody released two highly acclaimed LPs, the first of which, A Tale Of Three Cities, was recorded in March 1978 with the then-aspiring reso-guitarist player Jerry Douglas producing the sessions.
The album featured traditional bluegrass classics and five songs written by O’Reilly himself – his first venture into the song-writing world. One of the selections was entitled Bill Monroe & The Belmonts; a hilarious mix of classic bluegrass and the teenage doo-wop sounds of the day.
The follow-up album by Cody, Alive …And Still Pickin’, was released in 1981 on Boot Records. The album again was highlighted by five more original songs.
About this time O’Reilly adopted an alter-ego persona – as Cecil Wiggins – with a radio friend, Gary Perrin, alias Delmer McGregor, to form a comedy duo, thus establishing himself as an entertainer par-excellence.
Meadow Muffin Blues
They recorded some novelty numbers and became well-known for their escapades on radio and in live shows, becoming legendary in the Ottawa Valley region.
In 1985, he recorded a solo album, Antique Heart; another collection that included five of his own songs mixed with some bluegrass standards.
For several years, he hosted Rural Roots on CJET Country Classics Radio and appeared regularly on CJOH’s Midday Newsline. Also, O’Reilly did a three-year stint hosting the CBC-TV series Cafe Hibou – a show title adopted in recognition of the internationally famous Ottawa-based coffee house, Le Hibou.
In another venture mixing music and entertainment, he took on the persona of Melody Mike Cantrell, the host and leader of what was originally a trio, The Radio Kings, mixing the sound of classic country music and comedy. The act was a cross between Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers and The Statler Brothers’ alter-ego outfit, Lester Roadhog Moran & The Cadillac Cowboys. A debut album, The Last Radio Show, was released in 1994; a self-titled second release came in 2001.
Here is a sample ….
1000 Islands Bluegrass Festival, LaFargeville (St Lawrence Valley), New York (1993)
From the late 1990s O’Reilly paired with noted veteran banjo player Dick Smith to form Dick Smith & Mike O’Reilly Band, and over the period of about a decade the group released four CDs. Amazingly, all 56 songs featured on these albums were written solely by Mike O’Reilly.
One of those is Honky Tonk Nights from A Honky Tonk Frame Of Mind……
O’Reilly performed at many major bluegrass festivals in Canada and the USA. He has toured and played to audiences across Europe and in Australia, and during the 1980s he organized and hosted tours to entertain Canadian Armed Forces stationed in the Persian Gulf and Bosnia.
He was also an MC at many bluegrass festivals and events.
A talented and prolific songwriter, his songs have been recorded by American bluegrass great, Del McCoury, who has recorded four of O’Reilly’s compositions.
Others to record his songs include Ronnie McCoury, Danny Paisley, Charlie Waller & The Country Gentlemen, Junior Sisk, Mill Run, and Blue Ridge. In 2010 Rhonda Vincent cut O’Reilly’s song Court Of Love, which became a radio hit.
O’Reilly was voted Composer of the Year four times by the Canadian Bluegrass Society.
Concurrent with his on-going musical activities, from 1988 O’Reilly had an acting career, beginning with a voice-over role in the Dennis the Menace animated series. Similar parts in video or animated productions followed (The Little Flying Bears (1990), Young Robin Hood (1991-1992) and The Legend Of White Fang (1992)).
Also, he has done voice-over work for several corporate productions.
Later O’Reilly had character roles in Canadian-made TV movies (Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story (2001) / Maid Of Honor (2006) / Demons From Her Past (2007) / My Daughter’s Secret (2007) / My Mother’s Secret (2012)).
He is perhaps most widely known for his role as Greg in The Commitments (1991), and his appearance in The Van (1996), both films being part of Roddy Doyle’s The Barrytown Trilogy.
He once said of this aspect of his life ….
“Oh…I love doing the voices and the acting has been fun, but it really is just a sidebar to my music. Making music, singing, entertaining folks, and promoting bluegrass music will always be my first love.”
One of Mike’s most enduring musical associations was with Ray Legere, who played with him for 30 years, including their time together in the Dick Smith & Mike O’Reilly Band. Legere and O’Reilly recorded a duet-style album – with Andy Ball playing acoustic bass – for a two-week Home Roots tour of Winnipeg that they undertook in October 2011.
Be Quiet (When Willie Walks By) by Mike O’Reilly
Valley Bluegrass Festival, Renfrew (2010)
O’Reilly’s many years of working on the bluegrass stages of Canada and beyond, and his outstanding achievements as a songwriter and industry promoter, were recognized further by being selected as Entertainer of the Year eight times by the Canadian Bluegrass Society, and DJ of the Year five times.
In 1996 he was inducted into the Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame – one of the first bona-fide bluegrass artists to earn such an accolade.
In this news clip some of his friends remember O’Reilly as an all-round talent and good guy …
R.I.P. Mike O’Reilly
- A Tale Of Three Cities (Posterity Records PTR 13008, released 1978)
- Alive…And Still Pickin’ (Boot Records BBG 6015, 1981)
Delmer MacGregor and Cecil Wiggins
- The Valley Express / Meadow Muffin Blues (Chez106 FM, (Canada) 45rpm, 1979)
- Delmer With Cecil Wiggins And The Battered Muffins – Dance The Gidday (No Label – DAY 001, (Canada) 45rpm,
- The Best Of Delmer & Cecil (Chez106 FM DC106, (Canada) cassette, 1989)
- Antique Heart (1985)
Dick Smith & Mike O’Reilly Band
- Dick Smith & Mike O’Reilly Band (New Era NE-CD-100, 1998
- A Honky Tonk Frame Of Mind (New Era NE-CD 200, 2005)
- Life’s Road (New Era NE-CD 300, 2005)
- On The Town (New Era NE-CD 400, 2008)
Ray Legere & Mike O’Reilly
- Story Songs & Toe Tappin’ Tunes (Acoustic Horizon AHM , 2011)
The Radio Kings
- Last Radio Show (….., 1994)
- The Radio Kings (Dark Skippy Records DS6-2, 2001)