Gordon Lightfoot, often called Canada’s greatest songwriter and known worldwide as one of the founding fathers of folk-rock, has died at age 84, a representative for his family said Monday.
The musician recently cancelled all of his 2023 tour dates, citing “health-related issues.” His representatives did not elaborate further at the time.
An iconic figure in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Lightfoot wrote many songs that transcended borders and music tastes, including The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald, Ribbon of Darkness and If You Could Read My Mind, among many, many others.
Legendary musicians like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand — to name just a few — have recorded Lightfoot’s songs to great success, and he was widely respected in the music industry.
Robbie Robertson of The Band called Lightfoot a “national treasure,” and Dylan himself said he wished Lightfoot songs could “last forever.”
Born Gordon Meredith Lightfoot, Jr. in Orillia, Ont., on Nov. 17, 1938, he was a natural musical talent even as a child. His mother identified his gift as early as Grade 4, when Lightfoot sang an Irish lullaby to his entire school over the PA system.
Once he entered high school, Lightfoot was able to hone his talent, and he taught himself how to play folk guitar. Opting not to attend university in Canada, Lightfoot moved to California in 1958 and studied jazz composition and orchestration at Hollywood’s Westlake College of Music.
After making ends meet by writing and producing commercial jingles, Lightfoot, a true Canadian boy, decided he missed his home country too much and moved back north of the border in 1960. He never left after that, continuing to do work in the U.S. and Europe, travelling there when necessary — but Canada was always his home.
Settling down in Toronto, Lightfoot quickly found himself getting noticed. He performed with group The Swinging Eight on CBC’s Country Hoedown and recorded his first regional hit, (Remember Me) I’m the One, in 1962. After a brief stint in the U.K. hosting BBC’s Country and Western Show, he returned to Canada and made an appearance at the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1964.
Developing a reputation in the industry, Lightfoot signed on with United Artists in 1965 and released I’m Not Saying as a single. He appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and showed up at the Newport Folk Festival, further establishing his name on the music scene. Not long afterwards, he recorded his first album, Lightfoot!, which featured hit songs Early Mornin’ Rain and For Lovin’ Me.
Unknowingly, Lightfoot had set a bar: he became famous as a Canadian artist without capitulating and moving to the U.S., a feat not commonly seen. CBC commissioned him to write The Canadian Railroad Trilogy in 1967 to celebrate Canada’s centennial — another big deal cementing his status in Canadian musical history.
He didn’t shy away from controversy, either. He recorded a song called Black Day in July, referring to the 1967 Detroit racial riots, and many U.S. states pulled it from their radio rotations. In response, Lightfoot declared that radio station managers cared more about playing songs “that make people happy” instead of songs “that make people think.” When United Artists failed to support his point-of-view, he defected to Warner Bros. music.
Once at Warner Bros. in 1970, Lightfoot had a gold-record hit in If You Could Read My Mind. The song’s success propelled Lightfoot into the heights of stardom, and over the next decade he recorded a series of albums that further increased his notoriety.
Lightfoot continued to produce hit songs throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, though obviously with aging (and a diagnosis of Bell’s palsy in the ‘70s) he cut down on concert appearances as the years went on. Amazingly, even in the ‘90s, he was still putting on an average of 50 shows a year.View link »
Throughout his life, Lightfoot was a heavy drinker and smoker, though he gave up alcohol in 1982 cold-turkey after a doctor told him he’d develop cirrhosis unless he stopped then and there.
“It was going to kill me, actually,” said Lightfoot in an interview with Larry Wayne Clark. “I was on the verge of having cirrhosis. So I heard about a doctor and I went to him and, the very first session, he made me promise that I would not drink anymore.”
In 2002, Lightfoot suffered intense stomach pain, and after being rushed to hospital it was discovered that he had a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. Afterwards, he was in a coma for six weeks and had to undergo a tracheotomy, along with four other surgeries. Despite it all, after his recuperation, he continued to write and perform music.
In 2006, he suffered a small stroke in the middle of a performance, which impacted the use of his right hand. But as with most things in Lightfoot’s life, he persevered and eventually regained full usage of the appendage, returning to the stage less than a year later.
Lightfoot was the victim of an internet death hoax in 2010, when a CTV journalist posted on social media that the musician had died. He heard the news of his own death on the radio when he was driving home. He laughed it off and said in an interview that he was “doing fine.”
“Everything is good,” he said to news outlet CP24 at the time. “I don’t know where it came from, it seems like a bit of a hoax. I was quite surprised to hear it myself… I feel fine.”
In a career that spanned more than five decades, Lightfoot has left a legacy that’ll be nearly impossible to surpass. In 2015, his hometown of Orillia honoured him with a four-metre tall bronze sculpture of a cross-legged Lightfoot playing a guitar, and many Canadians make a pilgrimage to the site to say thanks to one of this country’s finest singer/songwriters.
In March 2020, Lightfoot released Solo — an album that didn’t feature any other musicians — and it would end up being his final one. It was his 21st studio album, released more than 54 years after his debut.
Lightfoot leaves behind two daughters, Meredith and Ingrid, and three sons Eric, Fred and Miles.
—With files from Global News’ Chris Jancelewicz