Folk singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot dies at 84

Published 8:42 am Tuesday, May 2, 2023

TORONTO — Gordon Lightfoot, the folk singer-songwriter known for “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown” and for songs that told tales of Canadian identity, died Monday. He was 84.

Representative Victoria Lord said the musician died at a Toronto hospital. His cause of death was not immediately available.

One of the most renowned voices to emerge from Toronto’s Yorkville folk club scene in the 1960s, Lightfoot recorded 20 studio albums and penned hundreds of songs, including “Carefree Highway,” “Early Morning Rain” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

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In the 1970s, Lightfoot garnered five Grammy nominations, three platinum records and nine gold records for albums and singles.

He performed in well over 1,500 concerts and recorded 500 songs.

He toured late into his life. Just last month he canceled upcoming U.S. and Canadian shows, citing health issues.

“We have lost one of our greatest singer-songwriters,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted. “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.”

Once called a “rare talent” by Bob Dylan, Lightfoot has been covered by dozens of artists, including Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Anne Murray, Jane’s Addiction and Sarah McLachlan.

Most of his songs are deeply autobiographical with lyrics that probe his own experiences in a frank manner and explore issues surrounding the Canadian national identity. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” depicted the construction of the railway.

“I simply write the songs about where I am and where I’m from,” he once said. “I take situations and write poems about them.”

Lightfoot’s music had a style all its own. “It’s not country, not folk, not rock,” he said in a 2000 interview. Yet it has strains of all three.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” for instance, is a haunting tribute to the 29 men who died in the 1975 sinking of the ship in Lake Superior during a storm.

While Lightfoot’s parents recognized his musical talents early, he didn’t set out to become a renowned balladeer.

He began singing in his church choir and dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. At age 13, the soprano won a talent contest at the Kiwanis Music Festival, held at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

“I remember the thrill of being in front of the crowd,” Lightfoot said in a 2018 interview. “It was a stepping stone for me…”

The appeal of those early days stuck and in high school, his barbershop quartet, The Collegiate Four, won a CBC talent competition. He strummed his first guitar in 1956 and began to dabble in songwriting in the months that followed. Perhaps distracted by his taste for music, he flunked algebra the first time. After taking the class again, he graduated in 1957.

By then, Lightfoot had already penned his first serious composition — “The Hula Hoop Song,” inspired by the toy that was sweeping the culture. Attempts to sell the song went nowhere so at 18, he headed to the U.S. to study music for a year. The trip was funded in part by money saved from a job delivering linens to resorts around his hometown.

Life in Hollywood wasn’t a good fit, however, and it wasn’t long before Lightfoot returned to Canada. He pledged to move to Toronto to pursue his musical ambitions, taking any job available, including a position at a bank before landing a gig as a square dancer on CBC’s “Country Hoedown.”

His first gig was at Fran’s Restaurant, a downtown family-owned diner that warmed to his folk sensibilities. It was there he met fellow musician Ronnie Hawkins.

The singer was living with a few friends in a condemned building in Yorkville, then a bohemian area where future stars including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell would learn their trade at smoke-filled clubs.

Lightfoot made his popular radio debut with the single “(Remember Me) I’m the One” in 1962, which led to a number of hit songs and partnerships with other local musicians. When he started playing the Mariposa Folk Festival in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario that same year, Lightfoot forged a relationship that made him the festival’s most loyal returning performer.

By 1964, he was garnering positive word-of-mouth around town and audiences were starting to gather in growing numbers. By the next year, Lightfoot’s song “I’m Not Sayin'” was a hit in Canada, which helped spread his name in the United States.

A couple of covers by other artists didn’t hurt either. Marty Robbins’ 1965 recording of “Ribbon of Darkness” reached No. 1 on U.S. country charts, while Peter, Paul and Mary took Lightfoot’s composition, “For Lovin’ Me,” into the U.S. Top 30. The song, which Dylan once said he wished he’d recorded, has since been covered by hundreds of other musicians.

That summer, Lightfoot performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the same year Dylan rattled audiences when he shed his folkie persona by playing an electric guitar.

As the folk music boom came to an end in the late 1960s, Lightfoot was already making his transition to pop music with ease.

In 1971, he made his first appearance on the Billboard chart with “If You Could Read My Mind.” It reached No. 5 and has since spawned scores of covers.

Lightfoot’s popularity peaked in the mid-1970s when both his single and album, “Sundown,” topped the Billboard charts, his first and only time doing so.

During his career, Lightfoot collected 12 Juno Awards, including one in 1970 when it was called the Gold Leaf.

In 1986, he was inducted into the Canadian Recording Industry Hall of Fame, now the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He received the Governor General’s award in 1997 and was ushered into the Canadian Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2001.