The song launched both his own career and that of Anne Murray. Snowbird earned MacLellan a Juno for Composer of the Year in 1970 and propelled Murray to become the first solo female artist in Canadian history to receive an American gold record.
Murray met MacLellan when they were performing on the “Don Messer’s Jubilee” television show in 1969. In her memoirs, she says he gave her a tape of his songs and explained that he wrote Snowbird after seeing a flock of snow buntings on a P.E.I. beach. He had been performing the song in public but had not recorded it; he offered that she could be the first.
Said Murray, “Here was a fresh new song, and I knew instantly it was a good one, though I would never have predicted the impact it would have on my career.” Her label gave her the okay to record Snowbird, produced by Halifax’s Brian Ahern, on her 1969 folk-country album “This Way Is My Way” (Capitol ST 6330); and also approved her suggestion that Snowbird be her first single for them (Capitol 2738) ‒ but they put it on the B side.
Their A-side choice went nowhere, but luckily an American disc jockey turned the disc over and discovered the now universally recognizable B side: “Once Snowbird started getting serious radio play, it took off like a rocket – and took me with it.”
The 25-year-old Murray watched astonished as her unassuming single went gold, rising to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 40 and Adult Contemporary charts where it beat out The Carpenters, Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond and Kenny Rogers.
At home in Canada, Snowbird was equally successful: No. 1 on RPM’s country chart for three weeks through August and September 1970, and No. 2 on the Top 100 chart.
The versatile cross-over hit found the No. 10 spot on Billboard’s country chart in the company of legends Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette and Hank Williams, and rendered MacLellan the Nashville Songwriters Association’s composer of the year.
Other artists jumped to record Snowbird within weeks of its release, including Loretta Lynn in August 1970 on her gold-selling album “Coal Miner’s Daughter”; before the year was out Perry Como, Al Martino, Bert Kaempfert, Ronnie Aldrich and His Two Pianos, Ray Conniff, The Settlers, and Lisa Rawlins had all recorded it.
At least 100 other covers followed quickly, by stars like Elvis Presley, Burl Ives, Jerry Vale, Bing Crosby and Andy Williams. Instrumentals were popular, by guitarists Paul Ridgway, Roy Clark and Chet Atkins (the latter earning a Grammy), pianist Michel Legrand, saxophonists Billy Vaughn and Boots Randolph, banjo player Buck Trent, and Living Strings.
It quickly became the go-to song for country artists such as Slim Whitman, Billie Jo Spears, George Hamilton IV, and Dottie West, and has been covered by acts as varied as orchestra leader Lawrence Welk, jazz singer Chris Connor, folk artists Doc and Merle Watson, and reggae artist Dennis Walks.
Snowbird was also huge with European musicians, who recorded it in Czech, German, Swedish, Italian, Flemish, and other languages.
As for fellow Canadians, Percy Faith, The Family Brown, Hank Snow and Rita MacNeil all paid homage to Snowbird. In 1970 alone Murray and Snowbird were sought-after for the television variety shows “Nashville North” and “The Tommy Hunter Show,” followed by “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” and “The Johnny Cash Show.”
Awards poured in: not only did Snowbird earn a BMI award, but BMI honoured MacLellan for being the first Canadian composer to have a song played over 1 million times in the U.S.
MacLellan himself recorded Snowbird – including an additional verse – for his self-titled 1970 album. After his suicide, tribute albums by his daughter Catherine MacLellan, John Gracie, and the True North label featured the song. Murray later recorded it as a duet with British soprano Sarah Brightman.
The familiar strains of Snowbird are heard in the films “Zodiac,” “He’s Just Not That Into You,” and “Canadian Bacon;” and on the small screen in “Family Guy,” “Orphan Black,” and “Malcolm in the Middle.”
Murray later said she sang Snowbird in every concert: “People from the audience request that all night long. It’s amazing to me.”
Folk, country and gospel songwriter Gene MacLellan (1939-1995), born in Val d’Or, Quebec, co-founded the Toronto rock band The Consuls. His hits included the Grammy-winner Put Your Hand in the Hand, and the country songs The Call and Thorn in My Shoe. MacLellan was a Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, among other honours.