Lightfoot’s biographer Nicholas Jennings wrote:
'... his name is synonymous with timeless songs about trains and shipwrecks, rivers and highways, lovers and loneliness.'
In summing up his illustrious career, Lightfoot once reportedly said:
“I simply write the songs about where I am and where I’m from. I take situations and write poems about them.”
Lightfoot, who continued to perform up until his death, was at his most active in the 1960s and 1970s, with several of his albums achieving gold and multi-platinum status internationally.
He did particularly well on the Adult-orientated rock (AOR) radio stations that were all the rage in the 1970s — known for playing entire albums rather than just singles. Lightfoot also triumphed on the country and easy listening charts.
At 12, Lightfoot won a singing competition for boys whose voices had not yet broken and made his first appearance at Massey Hall in Toronto — a venue at which he would perform more than 170 times throughout his career.
In a 2018 interview, Lightfoot said:
“I remember the thrill of being in front of the crowd. It was a stepping stone for me.”
In addition to taking piano lessons as a teenager, Lightfoot taught himself to play the drums, percussion and folk guitar. He was also a skilled athlete, setting records for shot-put and pole vaulting in addition to playing in the high school football team.
Due to his athletic prowess, Lightfoot received full scholarships to study music in Canada and the United States. While studying jazz composition and orchestration in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, he supported himself by producing commercial jingles and singing on demonstration records. He also worked briefly at a bank but found that LA life wasn’t for him.
In 1960, a homesick Lightfoot returned to Canada and performed with the Singin’ Swingin’ Eight on a television show called Country Hoedown and soon found regular work singing at Toronto coffee houses.
The following year, Lightfoot travelled to the UK and hosted a country and western show for the BBC. In 1964, after returning to Canada, he wrote two folk songs called 'Early Morning Rain' and 'For Lovin' Me'. These songs ended up being covered by an astonishing array of artists, including Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The same year, Lightfoot appeared on the influential American TV program The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and signed a personal management contract with Albert Grossman, who also managed Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Odetta and Peter, Paul and Mary. United Artists also snapped him up and produced his successful debut album Lightfoot! in 1966.
As Lightfoot’s reputation as a singer and songwriter spread, his contemporaries were full of praise.
Robbie Robertson of The Band described Lightfoot as a “national treasure”. Folk legend Bob Dylan said, "I can't think of any Lightfoot song I don't like... Lightfoot became a mentor for a long time. I think he probably still is to this day.”
'Gordon Lightfoot, every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.'
In 1967, Canada’s centennial year, the national broadcaster CBC commissioned Lightfoot – a homegrown legend at that point – to write the 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy' for a special broadcast.
Between 1966 and 1969, Lightfoot consistently placed singles in the Canadian Top 40 and caused controversy in the United States with 'Black Day In July' (1968), which was about the 1967 Detroit riot and an appeal for racial harmony.
Upon the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the song was withdrawn from radio stations in 30 U.S. states for “fanning the flames” of racial dissent. Lightfoot quit United Artists in disgust over their perceived lack of support and said it was a shame that popular radio stations cared more about “songs that make people happy” than “songs that make people think”.
Signing a contract with Warner Brothers' Reprise Records in 1970 was a turning point in Lightfoot’s career. He struck gold with 'If You Could Read My Mind' about his deeply troubled marriage to first wife Brita Ingegerg Olaisson and sold more than a million copies by 1971.
Lightfoot then spent the next seven years pumping out some truly amazing songs.
Perhaps the most heartfelt was 'Sundown' (1974), which was purported to be about a tortured relationship that Lightfoot had with a Canadian backup singer, groupie and later-convicted drug dealer called Cathy Smith.
In the song, which reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and U.S. Easy Listening charts, Lightfoot famously referred to Smith as a 'hard-loving woman, got me feeling mean'.
The rest of the lyrics perfectly capture the pathological jealousy that Lightfoot felt towards Smith, a quintessential “bad girl” who infamously went to prison for 15 months for injecting actor John Belushi with a fatal “speedball” comprising heroin and cocaine in 1982.
In a 2008 interview, Lightfoot said about writing 'Sundown':
“I think my girlfriend was out with her friends one night at a bar while I was at home writing songs. I thought `I wonder what she’s doing with her friends in that bar!’ It’s that kind of feeling. `Where is my true love tonight? What is my true love doing?’”
Upon Smith's death in 2020, Lightfoot said:
“Cathy was a great lady. Men were drawn to her and that made me jealous. But I didn’t have a bad thing to say about her.”
Around the time of 'Sundown''s success, Lightfoot was battling Bell’s palsy, a condition that left his face partially paralysed. Although he had to curtail his touring schedule for a while, Lightfoot continued to deliver major hits.
In late November 1975, Lightfoot was reading Newsweek magazine and came across the sad and poignant story of the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship sank on Lake Superior in the Great Lakes and all 29 of its crew members were drowned.
The song which Lightfoot wrote about the tragedy received heavy airplay on classic rock stations around the world, reached number two on the Billboard charts and featured in several 25th-anniversary memorial services.
The singer-songwriter also stayed in personal contact with the family members of the men who died.
While Lightfoot continued writing, recording and performing songs up until the time of his death, he suffered bouts of ill health that included a serious abdominal condition in 2002 and a stroke in 2006. In February 2010, he was the victim of a death hoax that originated on Twitter and did an interview to set the record straight.
Lightfoot attributed his ability to deal with bouts of ill health and continue a rigorous touring and recording schedule to his lifelong passion for physical fitness. He worked out at a gym six days a week to stay in shape and said in a 2012 interview that he was “fully prepared to go whenever I’m taken”.
Lightfoot also said:
“I’ve been almost dead a couple of times, once almost for real… I have more incentive to continue now because I feel I’m on borrowed time, in terms of age.”
'Gordon Lightfoot captured our country’s spirit in his music — and in doing so, he helped shape Canada’s soundscape. May his music continue to inspire future generations and may his legacy live on forever.'
Quoting 'Sundown', King continued:
'Sundown, you better take care/If I catch you creepin’ 'round my back stairs.'
Rock star and fellow Canadian Bryan Adams was deeply saddened when he heard about the passing of his close friend.
Once in a blue moon, you get to work and hang out with one of the people you admired when you were growing up. I was lucky enough to say Gordon was my friend and I’m gutted to know he’s gone. The world is a lesser place without him. I know I speak for all Canadians when I say thank you for the songs, Gordon Lightfoot. Bless your sweet songwriting heart. RIP dear friend.
Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.
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