Gordon Meredith Lightfoot, Jr., CC, O.Ont (born , 1938) is a Canadian singer and songwriter who has achieved international success in folk, country, and popular music. As a singer-songwriter, he came to prominence in the 1960s, and entered the international music charts in the 1970s with songs such as "If You Could Read My Mind" (1970), "Sundown" (1974), "Carefree Highway" (1974), "Rainy Day People" (1975), and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976). His songs have been recorded by some of the world's most renowned recording artists, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, George Hamilton IV, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Richie Havens, Harry Belafonte, Tony Rice, Sandy Denny (with Fotheringay), Scott Walker, Sarah McLachlan and John Mellencamp. Robbie Robertson of The Band declared that Lightfoot was one of his "favourite Canadian songwriters and is absolutely a national treasure." Lightfoot was a featured musical performer at the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta.
Gordon Lightfoot, Jr., was born in Orillia, Ontario, about 135 km north of Toronto, Ontario. As a youth, he sang, under the direction of choirmaster Ray Williams, in the choir of Orillia's St. Paul's United Church. Williams, according to Lightfoot, taught him how to sing with emotion and how to have confidence in his voice. Lightfoot was a boy soprano; he appeared periodically on local radio in the Orillia area, performed in local operettas and oratorios, and gained exposure through various Kiwanis music festivals. He was twelve when he made his first appearance at Massey Hall in Toronto, after winning a competition for boys whose voices had not yet changed. As a teenager, Lightfoot learned piano and taught himself to play drums and percussion. In high school, Lightfoot performed extensively and eventually became largely self-taught in playing folk guitar. He was influenced during this time by 19th-century master American songwriter Stephen Foster. He was also an accomplished high school athlete and set school records in track and field during his time for shot put and pole vault.
Lightfoot moved to California in 1958. He studied jazz composition and orchestration for two years at Hollywood's Westlake College of Music, which had many Canadian students. To support himself, he sang on demonstration records and wrote, arranged, and produced commercial jingles. He was influenced by the folk music of Pete Seeger, Bob Gibson, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, and The Weavers.
Returning to Canada in 1960, Lightfoot performed with The Swinging Eight, a group featured on CBC TV's Country Hoedown, and with the Gino Silvi Singers. He soon became known in the Toronto coffee houses promoting folk music. In 1962, Lightfoot released two singles that were local hits in Toronto and received some airplay elsewhere in Canada as well. "(Remember Me) I'm the One" reached #3 on CHUM radio in Toronto in July 1962 and was also a top 20 hit on Montreal's CKGM, then a very influential Canadian Top 40 radio station. The follow-up single was "Negotiations"/"It's Too Late, He Wins"; it reached #27 on CHUM in December. He also sang with Terry Whelan in a duo called the Two-Tones. They recorded a live album that was released in 1962 called Two-Tones at the Village Corner (1962, Chateau CLP-1012).
In 1963, Lightfoot travelled to Europe. In the United Kingdom he hosted, for one year, BBC TV's Country and Western Show. In 1964 Lightfoot returned to Canada; he appeared at the Mariposa Folk Festival. During this time he began to develop a reputation as a songwriter. Ian and Sylvia Tyson recorded "Early Mornin' Rain" and "For Lovin' Me"; a year later both songs were recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. Other performers recording one or both songs included Elvis Presley, Chad and Jeremy, George Hamilton IV, and the Johnny Mann Singers. Established recording artists such as Marty Robbins ("Ribbon of Darkness"), Leroy Van Dyke ("I'm Not Saying"), Judy Collins ("Early Morning Rain"), Richie Havens ("I Can't Make It Anymore"), and The Kingston Trio ("Early Morning Rain"), all achieved chart success with Gordon Lightfoot's material.
The United Artists years
In 1965, Lightfoot signed a management contract with Albert Grossman, who also represented Bob Dylan. That same year, he signed a recording contract with United Artists and released his own version of "I'm Not Saying" as a single. Appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, the Tonight Show, and New York's Town Hall increased his following and his reputation. In 1966, he released his debut album Lightfoot!, which brought him increased recognition as both a singer and a songwriter. It featured many now-famous songs, including "For Lovin' Me," "Early Mornin' Rain," "Steel Rail Blues," and "Ribbon of Darkness." On the strength of the Lightfoot! album, which mixed Canadian and universal themes, Lightfoot became one of the first Canadian singers to achieve real stardom in his own country without having to move to the United States.
Between 1966 and 1969, Lightfoot recorded four additional albums for United Artists: The Way I Feel (1967), Did She Mention My Name? (1968), Back Here on Earth (1968), and the live recording Sunday Concert (1969). During those years, he consistently placed singles in the Canadian top 40, including "Go-Go Round", "Spin, Spin", and "The Way I Feel". His biggest hit of the era was a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", which peaked at #3 on the Canadian charts in December 1965. Internationally, Lightfoot's albums from this time were well-received, but did not produce any hit singles. Outside of Canada, he remained better known as a songwriter than as a performer.
Lightfoot's success as a live performer continued to grow throughout the late 1960s. He embarked on his first Canadian national tour in 1967, and also performed in New York City. Between 1967 and 1974 Lightfoot toured Europe and was well-received on two tours of Australia.
UA would later consistently release "Best of" album compilations in the 1970s, after Gordon Lightfoot became a success on his next label Warner Bros./Reprise.
The Warner Bros./Reprise years
Lightfoot was signed to Warner Bros./Reprise in 1970 and had a major hit in the United States with his recording of "If You Could Read My Mind." The song was originally featured on his 1970 album Sit Down Young Stranger, which did not sell well. After the success of the song, the album was re-released under the new title If You Could Read My Mind. It reached #5 nationally and the success of the song represented a major turning point in Gordon Lightfoot's career. It also had only the second recorded version of "Me and Bobby McGee" as well as "The Pony Man","Your Love's Return" and "The Minstrel of The Dawn".
Over the next seven years, he recorded a series of successful albums that established him as a singer-songwriter:
Summer Side of Life (1971), with songs "Ten Degrees and Getting Colder", "Miguel", "Cabaret", "Nous Vivons Ensemble" and the title track.
Don Quixote (1972), with "Beautiful", "Looking At The Rain", "Christian Island (Georgian Bay)" and the title track which is a concert favorite.
Old Dan's Records (1972), with the title track and also the two sided single "That Same Old Obsession"/"You Are What I Am" and the songs "It's Worth Believin'" and "Can't Depend On Love".
Sundown (1974), besides the title track includes "Carefree Highway", "Seven Island Suite", "The Watchman's Gone", "High and Dry", "Circle Of Steel" and "Too Late for Prayin'" .
Cold on the Shoulder (1975). Along with title track are songs "Bend In The Water", "The Soul Is The Rock", "Rainbow Trout", "All The Lovely Ladies" and the hit "Rainy Day People".
A double compilation LP Gord's Gold (in 1975) containing nine rerecorded versions of his most popular songs from the United Artists era.
Summertime Dream (1976), along with "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" are the songs "Race Among The Ruins", "Spanish Moss", "Never Too Close" and the title track.
Endless Wire (1978) with "Daylight Katy", "If Children Had Wings", "Sweet Guenevire", "The Circle Is Small", and the title track.
During the 1970s, Lightfoot's songs covered a wide range of subjects, including "Don Quixote" about Cervantes' famous literary character, "Ode To Big Blue" about the widespread killing of whales, "Beautiful" about the simple joys of love, "Carefree Highway" about the freedom of the open road, "Protocol" about the futility of war, and "Alberta Bound" which was inspired by a lonely teenaged girl named Grace he met on a bus while travelling to Calgary in 1971.
In 1972, Lightfoot curtailed his touring schedule after contracting Bell's palsy, a condition that left his face partially paralyzed for a time. Despite his illness, Lightfoot had several major hits during the 1970s. In 1974, his classic single "Sundown" from the album Sundown, went to No.1 on the American and Canadian charts. He performed it twice on NBC's "The Midnight Special" series. "Carefree Highway" (about the actual highway in Phoenix, Arizona) was the follow-up single from the same album. It charted in the Top 10 in both countries. Lightfoot wrote it after traveling from Flagstaff, Arizona on Interstate 17 to Phoenix.
In 1976, Lightfoot had a hit song about a Lake Superior shipwreck. In late November 1975, Lightfoot read a Newsweek magazine article about the tragic loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sinking during a severe storm on November 10, in which all 29 crew members died. His song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," most of the lyrics of which were based on the facts contained in the article, reached #2 on the United States Billboard charts, and was a #1 hit in Canada. "Sundown" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" continue to receive heavy airplay on many classic rock stations. In 1978, Lightfoot had another top 40 hit on the United States Hot 100, "The Circle Is Small (I Can See It In Your Eyes)," which reached #33.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Lightfoot recorded six more original albums and a compilation for Warner Bros./Reprise: Dream Street Rose (1980), Shadows (1982), Salute (1983), East of Midnight (1986), another compilation Gord's Gold, Vol. 2 (1988), Waiting for You (1993), and A Painter Passing Through (1998).
The album Dream Street Rose has the folk-pop sound that Lightfoot established during the previous decade. In addition to the title song, it produced songs such as "Ghosts Of Cape Horn" and "On The High Seas". He also included the Leroy Van Dyke's 1950s composition "The Auctioneer," a bluegrass-like number that for Lightfoot was a concert staple from the mid 60s to the 80s, .
The album Shadows represents a departure from the acoustic sound of the 1970s and introduces an adult-contemporary sound. Songs like "Shadows" and "Thank You for the Promises" contain an underlying sadness and resignation. The 1982 American released single "Baby Step Back" marked his last time in the top 50 in that country. The 1983 album Salute produced no hit singles; the 1986 East Of Midnight album had several Adult Contemporary songs like "A Passing Ship","Morning Glory" and "I'll Tag Along" (East of Midnight). A single from East of Midnight, "Anything For Love" actually made the Billboard Country & Western chart.
In April 1987, Lightfoot filed a lawsuit against composer Michael Masser, claiming that Masser's melody for the song "The Greatest Love of All" ??? recorded by George Benson (1977) and Whitney Houston (1985) ??? stole 24 bars from Lightfoot's 1971 hit song "If You Could Read My Mind." The transitional section that begins "I decided long ago never to walk in anyone's shadow" of the Masser song has the exact same melody as "I don't know where we went wrong but the feeling's gone, and I just can't get it back" of Lightfoot's song. Lightfoot later stated that he didn't want people thinking that he had stolen his melody from Masser.
Lightfoot rounded out the decade with his follow-up compilation Gord's Gold, Vol. 2, in late 1988, which again contained re-recorded versions of his most popular songs, including a re-make of the 1970 song, "The Pony Man". The original had been brisk in pace, acoustic and only about three minutes long. This new version was slower, clocking in at around four minutes plus.
During the 90s Lightfoot returned to his acoustic roots and recorded two albums. Waiting for You (1993) includes songs like "Restless", "Wild Strawberries" and Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells." 1998's A Painter Passing Through reintroduced a sound more reminiscent of his early recordings, with songs like "Much To My Surprise", "Red Velvet", "Drifters", and "I Used To be a Country Singer". Throughout the decade, Lightfoot played about 50 concerts a year. In 1999 Rhino Records released Songbook, a four CD boxed set of Lightfoot recordings with rare and unreleased tracks from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s plus a small hardback booklet for his fans that described how he created his songs and gave facts about his career.
In April 2000, Lightfoot taped a live concert in Reno, Nevada ??? a one hour show that was broadcast by CBC in October, and as a PBS special across the United States. PBS stations offered a videotape of the concert as a pledge gift, and a tape and DVD were released in 2001 in Europe and North America. This was the first Lightfoot concert video ever released. In April 2001, Lightfoot performed at the Tin Pan South Legends concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, closing the show. In May, he performed "Ring Them Bells" at Massey Hall in honour of Bob Dylan's sixtieth birthday.
Illness and recovery
By January 2002, Lightfoot had written 30 new songs for his next studio album. He recorded guitar and vocal demos of some of these new songs. In September, before the second concert of a two-night stand in Orillia, Lightfoot suffered severe stomach pain and was airlifted to McMaster Medical Centre in Hamilton, Ontario. He underwent surgery for a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, and he remained in serious condition in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Lightfoot endured a six-week coma and a tracheotomy, and he underwent four surgical operations. All of his remaining 2002 concert dates were canceled. More than three months after being taken to the McMaster Medical Center, Lightfoot was released in December to continue his recovery at home.
In 2003, Lightfoot underwent follow-up surgery to continue the treatment of his abdominal condition. In November, he signed a new recording contract with Linus Entertainment and began rehearsing with his band for the first time since his illness.
In January 2004, Lightfoot completed work on his album Harmony, which he mostly recorded prior to his illness. The album was released on his new home label of Linus Records on May 11 of that year. It was his 20th original album. It included a single and new video for "Inspiration Lady." Other songs were "Clouds Of Loneliness," "Sometimes I Wish," "Flyin' Blind" and "No Mistake About It." The album also contained the upbeat yet reflective Marshall Tucker(Band)/Allman Brothers Band-sounding track called "End Of All Time," which was unlike what most people perceive as a Gordon Lightfoot song.
In July 2004, he made a surprise comeback performance since falling ill at Mariposa in Orillia, performing "I'll Tag Along" solo. In August, he performed a five-song solo set in Peterborough, Ontario, at the flood relief benefit. In November, he made his long-awaited return to the concert stage with two sold-out benefit shows in Hamilton, Ontario.
Lightfoot returned to the music business with his new album selling well and an appearance on Canadian Idol, where the six top contestants each performed a song of his, culminating in a group performance - on their own instruments - of his Canadian Railroad Trilogy. In 2005, he made a low-key tour called the Better Late Than Never Tour.
On September 14, 2006, while in the middle of a performance, Lightfoot suffered a minor stroke that eventually left him without the use of the middle and ring fingers on his right hand. He returned to performing nine days later and now sometimes uses a substitute guitarist for more difficult guitar work. He has continued to perform well into 2009.
While a tour was being planned for 2008, Lightfoot's manager, Barry Harvey, died at age 56 on 4 December 2007. In late 2009, Lightfoot undertook a 26 city tour.
Gordon Lightfoot's music career has spanned more than 40 years, producing more than 200 recordings. He helped define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s, influencing major recording artists, such as Bob Dylan, Gene Clark, Dan Fogelberg, Jimmy Buffett, and Jim Croce. Bob Dylan in fact called Lightfoot one of his favourite songwriters. In an often-quoted tribute to his fellow songwriter, Dylan once observed that when he heard a Gordon Lightfoot song he wished "it would last forever."
The Lightfoot sound
The signature Lightfoot sound, both in the studio and on tour, centres around Lightfoot's distinct baritone voice and folk-based acoustic guitar. Over the years, a handful of key musicians contributed significantly to that sound. From 1965 to 1970, lead guitarist Red Shea was the most important supporting player, with bassists Paul Wideman and John Stockfish filling out the arrangements.
Performing at Interlochen, Michigan, July 22, 2009
In 1969, bassist Rick Haynes joined the band, and lead guitarist Terry Clements joined the following year. Red Shea left the touring band in 1970, but continued to record with Lightfoot until 1975. He hosted his own Canadian variety show, played with Ian Tyson, and became band leader for Tommy Hunter's TV show in the 1980s on CBC. Shea played on most of Lightfoot's early hits, and his musical influence on later band configurations is undeniable. Shea died in June 2008. Haynes and Clements have remained with Lightfoot for the rest of his career and compose the core of Gordon Lightfoot's band.
In 1975, Pee Wee Charles added the important pedal steel guitar element to the band's sound, applying this traditional country instrument in a unique and creative way to Lightfoot's songs. Drummer Barry Keane joined the following year and in 1981, keyboardist Mike Heffernan completed the ensemble. This five-piece backup band remained intact until 1987, when Pee Wee Charles left the band to operate a radio station in Southern Ontario. Haynes, Clements, Keane, and Heffernan continue to tour and record with Lightfoot to this day.
Honours and awards
Lightfoot's star on Canada's Walk of Fame
As an individual, apart from various awards associated with his albums and singles, Gordon Lightfoot has received sixteen Juno Awards ??? for top folk singer in 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977, for top male vocalist in 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1973, and as composer of the year in 1972 and 1976. He has received ASCAP awards for songwriting in 1971, 1974, 1976, and 1977, and has been nominated for five Grammy Awards. In 1974, Lightfoot's song "Sundown" was named pop record of the year by the Music Operators of America. In 1980, he was named Canadian male recording artist of the decade, for his work in the 1970s.
Lightfoot was chosen as the celebrity captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the NHL's 75th anniversary season in 1991-1992.
Lightfoot was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Canadian Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2001. He was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame in 1998.
In May 2003 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country's highest civilian honour. Lightfoot is also a member of the Order of Ontario, the highest honour in the Province of Ontario. In 1977, he received the Vanier Award by Canadian Jaycees.