Saying Goodbye to Ottawa Musician and Entertainer Mike O’Reilly

It's as if music, mischief, laughter and kindness were looking for somewhere to live and they found their dream home in Mike O'Reilly.

O’Reilly, the legendary Ottawa artist, musician and comedian passed away Wednesday after a battle with cancer. He was 76.  

The legacy of Mike's talent and humour will live on in the memories of his friends, and his many international musical admirers.

"Great entertainment with great musicianship and singing. Not too many do it all," says Al Bragg, steel guitar player, and Mike’s long-time pal, bandmate.

But Mike did it all—for a lifetime—sharing songs and smiles like nobody else.

"My heart is very heavy right now because we’ve lost a great one," says Vince Brooks, lifelong friend and bandmate.

"So many memories. So many wonderful times with that guy and he’s gone," reminisces singer-songwriter, pal and bandmate, Les Emmerson.

Born in England to a Canadian World War II serviceman and local Devonshire girl, Mike was raised in Ottawa.  

He studied at Glebe Collegiate and then earned a teaching degree at the University of Ottawa.  

But the stage would become Mike’s classroom, where he gave a masterclass in the art of entertainment.

"Even though it’s a sad time, it’s making me smile just thinking about all those times on stage where he’s cracking jokes, belting out songs.  He was a wonderful person," reflects celebrated Bluegrass fiddler, Ray Legere, from his home in New Brunswick.

"How sincere he was about trying to entertain people and make people really listen and enjoy it.  He wanted everybody to go home happy and everybody did," says a smiling, and emotional, Les Emmerson.

O’Reilly was a world class, bluegrass performer, a festival favourite. He wrote more than 300 songs.

His work is celebrated by the industry’s greats.

"Mike really liked the music and worked at it," recollects Bluegrass banjo player, and long-time musical collaborator, Dick Smith of Virginia, USA.

"Goble said Mike was his favourite song writer and Pete Goble was one of the premier songwriters of Bluegrass. That’s saying something, in my opinion.” 

O’Reilly collected, and brilliantly played, a variety of vintage musical instruments but most agree his best was the one he was gifted at birth.

"I would say that’s his number one attribute. Mike’s vocal, 'Wow,'" says Al Bragg. 

Ray Legere wholeheartedly agrees.

"From the first time I heard his voice, that high tenor voice—it just knocked me out."

"He’d do this acapella thing and I thought holy smokes, what a voice. What a tenor. Haunting. People would just stop dead and say that’s coming out of that guy who was just so funny a couple of minutes ago? He was a complete entertainer," says Les Emmerson, shaking his head.   

O’Reilly formed countless bands over the years.  He was an incomparable frontman for Cody, The Radio Kings and Bolt Upright.

"He was the show and we were just the icing on the cake," laughs Brooks.  

In Ottawa, we’ll forever remember Delmer and Cecil performing such classics as "Meadow Muffin Blues."

O’Reilly turned manure on your boots into a hilarious pasture party, with his foot-stomping musical treasure.

And those who treasured him will remember him in their own way; his wife Rose, his children Rylan and Devon, his mother Mary, and his legion of friends and fans.

Ray Legere, who played with O’Reilly for 30 years, will continue playing Mike’s vintage Martin guitars.

"We’ll keep his memory alive and we’ll keep smiling for him cause that’s the way he would want it," says Legere.   

Al Bragg, proudly showing off his Radio Kings band jacket, sports bandmate Mike’s famed ten gallon hat.

"This is for you Mike!” he says, as he models it.

"At the end of the day I think anyone who knew him would say, 'Boy, I’m really glad I knew that person,'" says Brooks. 

Garry Bitze, retired CTV (CJOH) producer knew O’Reilly well.

"I have never known a man with more friends, from more walks of life," said Bitze.

O’Reilly’s passing is deeply felt by all of them.

"My buddy," says a sad and loving, Les Emmerson.

"I’m so sorry for Rose and the family and everybody, but maybe we should all get together and sing some songs.  That would be the best tribute I could imagine," Emmerson suggests.

In the future, when live music can be played and celebrated, those tunes, and melancholy riffs will play.

And in true O’Reilly style, there will be more laughter than tears.