9th February 2020
I thought that an article about Gordon Lightfoot would be a pretty straightforward task but as I researched this Canadian Folk/Rock legend I quickly realised that this was going to a winding journey through a professional career that has spanned 60 years.
Gordon’s mother recognised and encouraged his musical talents from a young age and groomed him as a successful child singer performing on local radio, operettas and variety shows.
He also sang in the choir of St Paul’s Church in his hometown of Orilla in Ontario. Gordon remembers that the choirmaster, Ray Williams, was responsible for teaching him how to sing with emotion and confidence, Knowing Gordon Lightfoot’s adult baritone voice so well, it is hard to imagine him as a leading boy soprano. I didn’t know before the research that there was a competition specifically for ‘Boy’s whose voices have not changed yet’, but there is, and the 12-year-old Lightfoot won it, along with his first ‘big’ performance at the Massey Hall in Toronto,
As a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, he drew a lot of influence from the 19th Century ‘father of American music’ Stephen Foster, who wrote the classics Camptown Races, Oh! Suzanna, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and Beautiful Dreamer. As a bright student, quick learner and good athlete, he won a scholarship at both the University of Toronto and the McGill University Schools of Music. In 1958 he moved to California’s Westlake College of Music in Hollywood to study Jazz composition and orchestration.
While there he got a brief taste of professionalism when he sang on demo records and produced jingles to support himself. Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian first and foremost and, as much fun as his USA jaunt had been, he missed his home, and in 1960 he returned to Canada where he has remained based since.
It didn’t take long to establish himself in the emerging coffee bar scene and released two singles through RCA in Nashville and produced by Chet Atkins. Both were local hits around the Toronto area. Having become a local music celebrity he was offered the chance to host the BBC’s TV Country & Western Program. Knowing it was only for a year, he headed off to the UK to broaden his musical horizons.
His reputation as a songwriter started to grow when folk duo Ian & Sylvia Tyson, and Peter, Paul and Mary started to record his songs, The list of musicians who have now recorded and covered his songs is staggering and include some of the biggest names in the music industry.
1965 was Gordon Lightfoot’s breakthrough year. He signed with United Artists under Alan Grossman’s management. Some high-profile appearances on The Tonight Show and the Newport Folk Festival led to the release of his debut album, Lightfoot, in 1966. The album contained early favourites like Early Morning Rain, Steel Rail Blues and For Loving Me.
Now that we have laid down some background to Gordon’s career, let’s listen to one of my early favourites, and one that I always felt comfortable singing. Apart from being perfect for my somewhat limited vocal range, the lyrics and melody flow perfectly, Here’s a live clip recorded at the BBC and a very young Rolf Harris introducing Gordon Lightfoot and Early Morning Rain.
I can imagine the pride that Gordon Lightfoot must have felt when CBS commissioned him to write a song for the Canadian Centennial celebrations (1967). He wrote Canadian Railroad Trilogy in three days and performed it on a special New Year’s Day broadcast. The song appeared on his ‘The Way I Feel’ album later that year and has gone on to be one of his signature songs. Gordon was most surprised when on meeting Queen Elizabeth II she told him how much she enjoyed the song.
He recorded four albums for United Artists between 1966 and 1969. ‘Did She Mention My Name?’ his 1968 album, featured a track about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The song was Fanning the Flames and was a call for racial harmony. Radio stations across 30 states pulled the song from their playlists. Lightfoot responded with a public announcement that radio stations cared more about playing songs that make people happy rather than make them think. United Artists didn’t support him in his stand and defected to Warner Bros. / Reprise Records in 1970; a move that gave him his first major international hit.
If You Could Read My Mind had originally appeared on the ‘Sit Down Young Stranger’ album. The poorly selling album was quickly renamed to match the title of the hit single and re-released. The success of the album marked another major turning point in Gordon’s career.
The following seven years saw eight albums that included some of his most enduring hits and established him as a leading storyteller in song. These included his tale based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote which has gone on to be a concert favourite. Another remarkable feat of his storytelling ability came with his The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald from the ‘Summertime Dream’ album. He wrote it after reading the Newsweek article about the 1975 tragedy. It reached #2 on the USA Billboard charts and Gordon performed at several anniversary memorials and has kept personal contact with family members of the crew that perished in the event.
Another dark story involves his mega-hit Sundown. The ‘Sundown’ album is my favourite of Gordon Lightfoot’s 21 albums and, although I know every song well, never knew the background of a song I have sung on numerous occasions.
To give you some context, the 70s were wild years and despite his wholesome image, he had numerous affairs and lived a lifestyle fuelled by drugs and alcohol. The woman that he sings about is Cathy Smith, the part-time backup singer and notorious flirt with whom Gordon had a torrid affair that destroyed his marriage. As Rick Danko from The Band related that she was, “the most beautiful girl in Toronto and a notorious groupie who supplied sex and drugs to a stellar network of musical acquaintances”.
Cathy Smith’s story took a dark twist when she was identified and confessed to being the woman who gave John Belushi his fatal speedball injection of heroin and cocaine. She was seen fleeing the scene in Belushi’s rented car. The LAPD filed charges and after handing herself in, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and deported after serving a 15-month prison sentence.
Time for some more music, this time the sordid tale of the infamous Cathy Smith. Here’s Sundown.
The 80s and 90s saw six more albums and a compilation from Gordon Lightfoot. His 1982 album ‘Shadows’ saw a departure from his acoustic sound and introduced more of an adult contemporary feel. Although a national treasure in Canada and an international star, his popularity was waning and Baby Step Back was the last single to see a Top 50 chart.
In 1987 Gordon filed a lawsuit against Michael Masser for ‘stealing’ 24 bars of his song If You Could Read My Mind for Masser’s huge hit The Greatest Love of All which had become huge for George Benson and Whitney Houston. If you know the two songs the similarities are blatantly obvious. The case was settled out of court and a public apology from Masser followed.
He returned to his acoustic sound during the 90s and although he wasn’t as popular as the previous decades, continued to play an average of 50 concerts a year. To mark the end of the millennium Rhino Records released a 4-CD boxed set and booklet named ‘Songbook’ that contained rare and unreleased tracks from his career.
Just before a January 2002 concert in his hometown of Orilla, Gordon was rushed to hospital with severe stomach pains. He underwent emergency surgery for a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. He endured a six-week coma and tracheotomy. It was feared that he wouldn’t survive, never mind sing again. After a further four surgical procedures, he was released 12 months after being admitted and convalesced at home.
You can’t keep a legend down, and by 2003 he had signed to Linus Entertainment and began rehearsing with his band. In January 2004 the ‘Harmony’ album was released and contained many songs that were written prior to his illness.
By July 2004 he gave his first live performance since falling ill and in the November he sold out a two-night benefit show in Ontario. The next few years saw a less hectic, but still busy touring schedule. In 2006 he suffered a light stroke mid-performance leaving him without the use of two fingers on his right hand. He took on a substitute guitarist so he could continue touring. It took eight months to fully recover and, being a known perfectionist, was relieved to be able to play his songs the way he wrote them.
Probably playing on his run of bad health, he was the victim of a death hoax. A CTV journalist Tweeted that Lightfoot had died. As Gordon doesn’t have or own a cellphone (or computer) he heard about his demise while on the way home from a dental appointment. He took great delight in phoning both the journalist and the radio station to inform them he was still alive and kicking.
As he had for Canada’s centennial celebrations, Gordon played at his country’s 150th Birthday celebrations. He was introduced to the same stage that he had played 50 years earlier by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Another proud Canadian moment for him.
In 2020, at 80-years-old, he released the album ‘Solo’. It is a collection of introspective songs with simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. The songs show his years of song-crafting skill, but the album is more for ardent fans who realise that this is possibly the final offering from this legend. The full album is on the streaming services and makes for an interesting, but not exciting, listen.
To conclude the story I turn to Gordon Lightfoot himself who, when asked how long he’ll keep going, said; “To quote my friend Bob Dylan ‘Work while the day lasts because the night will come when you can no longer work.’ I’ve simply never wanted to retire.”
To close this rather lengthy mini-feature I have decided to share a live clip of Gordon Lightfoot singing the powerful saga of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The amount of information and articles written about this octogenarian legend is a bit overwhelming but I hope I’ve managed to give you a bit on insight into the life of this amazing 82-years-old. Catch you soon.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do do more than just share a song.
The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2021