Born in Orillia, Ontario in 1938, Gordon Meredith Lightfoot was the youngest of two children, and the son of a successful drycleaning company owner. But it was his mother that encouraged his love for music from the earliest age, and made his first public performance singing an Irish folk song over the school intercom during a parents’ day event while in Grade Four.
Shortly after, he sang in the Orillia’s St. Paul’s United Church choir as a boy soprano, and began appearing periodically on local radio in the area, performed in local operettas, and became a regular in various Kiwanis and other music festivals, including some at Muskoka, a resort area near his home town.
At the age of 12, he made his first appearance at Toronto’s Massey Hall after winning a competition for young teenage boys. By this time he’d already taken to the piano, and taught himself to play drums and other percussion instruments. Soon after, he was performing in a barbershop quartet, and then a dance band.
By the time he was in high school, Lightfoot balanced his musical aspirations with his natural athletic gift. He wa a star track and field competitor, setting several school records for pole vault and shotput. He was also becoming one of the area’s most talented folk guitarists, having been influenced by 19th century master American songwriter Stephen Foster.
At 19, he moved to California, where he studied jazz composition and orchestration at Hollywood’s Westlake College of Music, where he was exposed to the developing folk stylings of the likes of Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Bob Gibson, and fellow Canadians Ian & Sylvia Tyson. Needing a way to make ends meet, he sang on demo records and wrote, arranged, and produced commercial jingles for various clients and production houses.
Missing home and never feeling like he quite fit in, he moved back to Ontario two years later, settling in a small, one bedroom apartment in Toronto. Before long he joined The Swinging Eight, a group featured on CBC TV’s “Country Hoedown,” and also was a regular with teh Gino Silvi Singers. Popular folk music as it eventually became was still in its infancy, and Lightfoot soon became a regular fixture on the Toronto coffee house circuit while finding his own groove.
In the summer of ’62, he released a pair of singles, “(Remember Me) I’m The One” and “It’s Too Late, He Wins.” Both were big hits in Toronto and Montreal, the first reaching #3 on CHUM FM’s chart, and the second which peaked at #27. He continued absorbing other influences and developing his own sound while playing for a time in a duo called The Two-Tones with Terry Whelan. They recorded a live album that was released later that year called TWO-TONES AT THE VILLAGE CORNER for the Toronto indie label Chateau Records.
In 1963, Lightfoot travelled to England to expand his horizons. Playing in a London coffee house, he was noticed by reps from BBC TV, who signed him to a deal where he hosted the musical variety program “The Country & Western Show” for a year. Upon returning to Canada, he appeared at the Mariposa Folk Festival, and was by this time gaining a reputation not only for his soulful lyrics that would later epitomize folk music, but also as a songwriter, whose works were becoming in hot demand. By the time he signed a recording deal with United Artists in 1964, Ian & Sylvia and Peter Paul and Mary each recorded both “Early Mornin’ Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me” within a year.
In 1965, he signed a management contract with Albert Grossman, who also represented Bob Dylan. Leading up to the release of his debut album in 1966, UA released the singles “I’m Not Saying,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and “Spin Spin.” Although it had actually been completed a year and a half earlier, LIGHTFOOT! was a collection of material he’d written himself, as well as takes on other British and American folk music, including protest singer Phil Ochs’ “Changes” and Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The record also included the singles “I’m Not Saying,” Early Mornin’ Rain” (featuring his first dabbling with background violins), and “For Lovin’ Me,” which by this point had also been covered by Elvis, The Kingston Trio, Judy Collins, Chad & Jeremy, George Hamilton IV, The Johnny Mann Singers, and The Clancy Brothers. Other recording artists such as Marty Robbins, Leroy Van Dyke, and Richie Havens also had chart success by this time thanks to Lightfoot’s writing genius.
Unlike its predecessor, his sophomore album THE WAY I FEEL contained a more rounded sound. Released in ’67, he utilized drums, harmonica, and other percussion instruments. And this time he didn’t rely on other writers’ songs, and along with the title track (initially released on his debut album), it included the hits “Crossroads,” “Song For A Winter’s Night,” and “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy. That last song was written after he’d been commissioned by the CBC for a special broadcast on January 1, 1967, Canada’s Centennial year.
While writing material for his next project, he produced an album that utilized strings and other orchestration for the first time when he released DID SHE MENTION MY NAME? before the end of the year. On the back of songs like the title track, “Black Day In July” (inspired by the 1965 Detroit riots) and “Pussywillows, Cat Tails,” the album peaked at #21 on the Canadian charts and broke the top 40 Stateside. He embarked on his first national tour in support of the album, and also made stops in New York City, throughout Europe, and was well-received on his first ever tour of Australia.
Lightfoot was having problems at the time with executives at UA, who he felt weren’t supporting his creative endeavors. Ironically, he was also taking heat from the critics for the wide sound scape. He released BACK HERE ON EARTH in 1968, acoustic and stripped down, marking a turning point back to his simple roots. Gone was the orchestra, in was a simple and basic four-piece sound that peaked in the top 40 on both the Canadian and American charts, with the single “Bitter Green” reaching #44. Also featured was “Marie Christine,” his first of many songs in ongoing years to have a seafaring theme.
With his obligation with them now expired, United released SUNDAY CONCERT in the spring of 1969. Recorded during a performance at Massey Hall a few months earlier, the record had five previously unreleased tracks, including “Ballad of Yourmouth Castle,” telling the tale of the tragedy that struck the ship of the same name in 1965.
United released its typical compilation ‘best of’ collection in the spring of ’70, not coincentally titled BEST OF GORDON LIGHTFOOT. His first release on new label Reprise was SIT DOWN YOUNG STRANGER later that year, marking his first time recording in Hollywood’s Sunset Studios. It was an instant smash, and critics loved the way he found the balance between his folk roots and pop success. The cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee” reached #11.
“If You Could Read My Mind,” written in reflection upon his disintegrating marriage, became his first ever #1 hit, and eventually sold over two million copies. The album saw him rely on simple orchestration again, but not in an overpowering fashion. Sitting in on the sessions were some of the industry’s top session players, including John Sebastion of Lovin’ Spoonful, Ry Cooder, and Randy Newman, and the record was his first to go platinum in Canada. (100,000 units), and would go on to be his best seller ever, once label execs decided to reissue it under the title IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND a year later.
Some copies of the original release are also one of the most sought-after albums by collectors, as execs thought it would be a good idea for the early releases to not contain a title or artist on the cover, only a picture. Realizing their error in judgement, only a few hundred copies were issued that way. Seizing on the opportunity to take advantage of his continued popularity, United Artists re-released his 1966 debut, under the new title EARLY LIGHTFOOT! later that year.
For his next project, he recorded for the first time in Nashville at Woodland Sound Studios, and the country influence showed. 1971’s SUMMER SIDE OF LIFE was a definite attempt at cross-over success, and it worked. The title track and “Talking In Your Sleep” helped the album reach #3 on the pop charts and turn gold at home, as well as making a good showing on the folk and the country charts in the US.
He surpassed that with DON QUIXOTE a year later, marking his return to the studios in California. It didn’t stray far from his trademark folk roots, but did stay on the path of gold, and became his first #1 album at home. The title track, “Beautiful,” and “Alberta Bound” (rumoured to be inspired by a lonely teenaged girl named Grace he met on a bus while travelling to Calgary in 1971), all became staples of his live repetoire, that by this time had seen him in practically every corner of Canada, the US, and the UK.
In 1972, Lightfoot curtailed his touring schedule after contracting Bell’s palsy, a condition that left his face partially paralyzed for a time, but returned with OLD DAN’S RECORDS before the year was over. The album marked a continued evolution in Lightfoot’s sound with country influences to his standard folk sound, with the help of the banjo, steel guitar, and dobro. The record cracked the top 40 at home, and on the backs of the singles “That Same Old Obsession” and the title track, went gold.
Lightfoot cracked the German market in 1974 with the double album compilation, THIS IS GORDON LIGHTFOOT. The title track to SUNDOWN, released later that year, was the record’s first single. It became one of his signature tunes, topping the Canadian and American pop charts in no time, as well as the top 10 in country and folk categories. He performed it twice on NBC’s “The Midnight Special” series. Marking his first time in studios at home in seven years, the album topped the Canadian and American pop chart (his first album to achieve that), and broke the top 10 in England. The song also marked a definite theme of road laments, evidenced by the next two top 10 singles, “Somewhere USA” and “Carefree Highway,” helping sell nearly a million albums worldwide.
Lightfoot took some much needed time off while the greatest hits compilation GORD’S GOLD was released in the spring of 1975, which featured a medley of “I’m Not Sayin'” and “Ribbon of Darkness.” Although the two songs were initally released as individual singles, he’d incorporated them into a medley for his live shows years earlier, and this was the first studio recording of the combined songs.
Lenny Waronker returned as producer for the third time when COLD ON THE SHOULDER hit the record shelves later that year. The album climbed to #3 in Canada and #10 in the US. “Rainy Day People” was the only single, which topped the Canadian charts and made the top 10 south of the border. Other noteable tracks included some of his most structured folk/AOR in years, incorporating piano, accordion, and steel guitar in “Rainbow Trout,” “Cherokee Bend,” the title track, and “Bells of The Evening.”
His last recording with Reprise was 1976’s SUMMERTIME DREAM, considered by many to be one of his best efforts ever, and a standard in any decent record collection. Maritime themes was something he returned to from time to time, and the chilling “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” (his second shipwreck song), peaked at #2 on the Canadian pop chart, helping the album shoot to #1, and #12 in the US, turning it platinum in both markets. The song has been credited with making the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior in 1975 the most famous maritime incident in the history of the Great Lakes. Continuing his production relationship with Waronker, and much the same group of backup musicians as most of the last decade, the record blended slick country like the second single, “Race Among the Ruins,” with his more traditional folk ballads like “I’m Not Supposed to Care” and “Spanish Moss.”
After signing with Warner Bros, he released ENDLESS WIRE in the summer of 1978, which peaked at #22 on Billboard’s pop chart and #14 on the country chart. But his longstanding bouts with personal problems, including alcoholism and still affected by his divorce five years earlier which he acknowledged was due in part to his infidelity and to the lifestyle of being on the road all the time, were reflected in a darker, more sombre album, and to a degree in sales. This was despite a reworking of “The Circle Is Small” from the BACK HERE ON EARTH in ’68 peaked at #3 on the adult contemporary chart. But its successors faired poorer, “Dreamland” peaking at #100 on the American country chart that summer. “Daylight Katy” wasn’t released as a single in the US, but climbed to #25 in Canada and #41 in the UK charts.
The new decade saw him branch out into acting, appearing with Bruce Dern and Helen Shaver in the 1980 movie “Harry Tracy.” When DREAM STREET ROSE was released in the fall of 1980, it peaked at #60 on the American pop chart and #58 on the country chart, but faired better in Canada, where it peaked in the top 20. The title track was the first single, making it to #18 and “If You Need Me” following it to the top 30 at home. Also on the record were throwbacks to his country roots, like “The Auctioneer,” a cover of Leroy Van Dyke’s bluegrass standard. The song seems a little out of place on the album, but had been a live staple for years, thoughit hadn’t been recorded until now. It was also the last album that would see Lightfoot collaborate with long-time producer Lenny Waronker.
Ken Friesen was brought in for SHADOWS, released in 1982. A declining market was fuelled by recordings further between for the last few years, and Lightfoot’s creative experimentations didn’t help. Greater use of synthesisers and electric organ on tracks like the singles “Baby Step Back,” “Blackberry Wine,” and “In My Fashion” were incorporated into a record that was generally softer in composition than its immediate predecessors with slower, more personal ballads. The album peaked at #87 in the US, and hovered around the top 40 at home.
Newcomer Dean Parks was used for production of SALUTE in the fall of ’83, argued as one of Lighfoot’s weaker recordings. Evidence of this is the fact very rarely did any of the songs appear in his live sets afterwards. The title track and “Without You” reflected his shift from acoustic folk and country with an orchestral flair to a sleeker adult contemporary sound, fuelled by electric guitars and synthesizers. But neither single cracked the top 50 at here or abroad. Production was big, but still, songs like “Whispers of the North,” “Tattoo,” and “Knotty Pine” showcasing his folk roots failed to certify the record gold.
He took nearly three years to find the right mix between his signature sound and creative growth, and teamed up with David Foster for “Anything For Love,” the only single from EAST OF MIDNIGHT. The song reached #13 on the American chart, and cracked the top 10 at home. But the album itself barely made a dent on the American charts, something he partially blamed on the lack of enthusiasm from Warner in promotion. Still, he was awarded a gold record for what he’d stated would be his last record.
In 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 in ’77 and Whitney Houston in ’85), was a ripoff of “If You Could Read My Mind.” The matter was later settled out of court.
He started out 1988 as a featured performer during the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, shortly before GORD’S GOLD VOLUME 2 was released, which summed up the second stage of his career, and contained a remake of “The Pony Man” from 1970. Enjoying life away from the recording studio, he made the odd live appearance, but for the most part remained retired from music. He also had another chance to dabble in acting around this time, appearing in the TV drama “Hotel,” where he played a washed up musician struggling with an alcohol addiction, a role that in many ways mirrored his own life. After being alone for 19 years between marriages, he re-married, tieing the knot with Elizabeth Moon in 1989, with whom he later had two children.
But like most artists, his retirement didn’t last forever, and returned with his 18th studio album, WAITING FOR YOU in 1993, which he dedicated to his wife Elizabeth and son Miles. Unlike almost every project he’d ever taken on, the record was self-produced. Two singles were released, and although “I’ll Prove My Love” and the title track both failed to chart, his purity and honesty were highlighted with a clean, no excess recording, and the world welcomed him back while it peaked in Canada at #24, and in typical Gordon Lightfoot fashion, was a crossover hit in the pop, folk, and AC chart. The album also marked the first time he covered a Bob Dylan song, when he covered “Ring Them Bells.”
He celebrated his 60th birthday in 1998 by releasing A PAINTER PASSING THROUGH, his last record with Warner. Co-produced by Bob Doidge, it was the first time Lightfoot had worked with him. Recorded live off the floor in the studio, it featured little excess production, and produced only the title track as a single, which peaked at #24 on the Canadian AC chart. The album also featured a cover of Ian Tyson‘s “Red Velvet” (a song Tyson pitched to him while visiting him in Toronto and drinking his instant coffee) and Steve McEown’s lament, “I Used To Be A Country Singer.” Before the year was over, he’d also received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto.
The definitive Gordon Lightfoot collection saw the light of day in ’99 when Rhino Records teamed up with Warner to release the four disc boxset, SONGBOOK. The set not only captured his most memorable works over nearly four decades, but also included several unreleased tracks and singles that didn’t make it to album. By now Gordon Lightfoot’s music had been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, Anne Murray, Nana Mouskouri, Harry Belafonte, and Barbara Streisand, John Mellencamp, and Olivia Newton-John, among dozens of others.
He began the new millennium by taping an April, 2000 concert from Reno, Nevada. The one hour show was broadcast by both the CBC and PBS that fall. The CD and DVD were released in 2001, and marked his first concert video ever released. Also in 2001, Lightfoot performed for the first time at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and a month later was at Massey Hall in Toronto, as part of Bob Dylan’s 60th birthday party celebration. He was also inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame that year.
His sheer genius was recognized with his induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003 during a ceremony in Toronto, and was then made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour. He was then made a member of the Order of Ontario, the highest honour in the province.
Only a select few artists and groups influence future music generations to the point those disciples pay homage to them with a tribute album, and he entered that realm later that year. BEAUTIFUL – A TRIBUTE TO GORDON LIGHTFOOT was released on Borealis Records, a culmination of other Canadian names putting their spins on some of Lightfoot’s classics. The Cowboy Junkies, Bruce Cockburn, Blue Rodeo, Connie Kaldor, and The Tragically Hip were among the 15 names to take part, including Aengus Finnan’s sole original tune, “Lightfoot.”
Doidge was recruited again as producer in 2004, when Lightfoot ventured into the realm of the independents, releasing HARMONY on Linus Entertainment. The raw demos were recorded nearly two years before, just before suffering a near fatal abdominalaneurysm just prior to the second concert of a two night stand in his hometown of Orillia. “Inspiration Lady” was the only single released, but failed to chart. Still, the unmistakable Lightfoot lamenting style was welcomed with open ears. By the time the record was done and climbing all the way to #13 on the Canadian AC charts, he’d recouperated enough to hit the road for the first time in over three years. Incidentally, two new tracks that were recorded live in 2001, “Shellfish” and “No Hotel,” also showcased what critics referred to as one of the best comeback albums of all time. He also appeared on “Canaian Idol” that year.
In May of ’05, he made a triumphant return to the stage at Massey Hall in Toronto. It was the first show in over two years, following his near fatal aneurysm that had him sidelined in a Hamilton hospital for over three months. After being greeted by a five-minute standing ovation, he quipped, “Sorry I’m late.” That mini-tour got dubbed 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 for a brief time used a substitute guitarist for more difficult guitar work.
By the mid ’00s, Gordon Lightfoot had achieved practically ever conceivable award and honour possible. He’d stood at the podium accepting 16 Juno Awards (nine for top folk singer, five for top male vocalist, and two for composer of the year), four songwriting awards from ASCAP, and five Grammy nominations. He’d been parodied on The Muppets as Gordon Brightfoot, been named an honouray board member for the David Suzuki Foundation, and even been named the Toronto Maple Leafs’ honour celebrity captain during the club’s 75th anniversary season in ’91-’92 (it didn’t matter – the Leafs still won nothing).
But in 2007, he joined a very elite club when he was immortalized on his own 52 cent postage stamp, as were Paul Anka, Joni Mitchell, and Anne Murray. During a ceremony in June, 2012, he was inducted into the American Songwriters Hall of Fame.