After a sojourn in Europe, where he was host in the summer of 1963 for BBC TV's "Country and Western Show," Lightfoot was drawn to the urban folk music movement led by Bob Dylan and others. He appeared in coffeehouses and bars in Ontario, Quebec, and eastern US and in 1964 at the Mariposa Festival. Despite his personal appearances in the US, Lightfoot initially was known there more widely as a songwriter. Ian and Sylvia (Tyson) were the first to sing and record his songs, beginning with "For Lovin' Me" and "Early Morning Rain." The first was a substantial hit in 1965 for Peter, Paul and Mary, and later was recorded by Chad and Jeremy, the Johnny Mann Singers, and others. "I'm Not Saying," Lightfoot's first record hit (1965, for Compo) in Canada, was popular with US country fans as recorded by Leroy Van Dyke. "Ribbon of Darkness" was a hit in the same field as recorded by Marty Robbins in 1965. Lightfoot songs also were introduced to new audiences in the mid-1960s through recordings by Harry Belafonte, Judy Collins, George Hamilton IV (who later made an LP, Lightfoot Country, RCA Cam CAS-2379, exclusively of Lightfoot songs), Richie Havens, and the Kingston Trio.
Success in Pop and Country Markets
In the wake of the success of his songs, Lightfoot performed in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, RI, and at Town Hall, New York, and in 1966 toured with Ian and Sylvia in England. Though the contemporary folk music movement, in which Lightfoot had become a significant figure, waned for a time, he made the transition easily to the larger pop and country market, becoming in Canada the most important male pop singer of the late 1960s and the 1970s.
On 31 Mar 1967 he gave a single concert at Massey Hall, the first in what was to become an annual series until 1984, continuing thereafter every 18 months until 2001. In 1969 one of his three concerts there was recorded and released as the LP Sunday Concert. In 1978 he gave an unprecedented series of nine Massey Hall concerts in as many nights - each one sold out. Subsequent seasons often comprised up to four concerts.
Lightfoot briefly embarked on an acting career, starring in the 1983 film Harry Tracy.
Lightfoot made his first cross-Canada tour in 1967 and performed annually in the US (with multi-concert series in New York and Los Angeles) and in Europe during the 1970s. He also toured twice in Australia. He temporarily suspended touring activities in early 1972 due to Bell's Palsy, a partial facial paralysis. During the 1980s he averaged 40 to 50 concerts each year, including a European tour in 1981 and appearances on a roughly biannual basis in many major US and Canadian halls - eg, at the National Arts Centre, Carnegie Hall (New York), and Symphony Hall (Boston) - and summer music festivals (Ravinia, Wolf Trap, etc). Latterly he also performed on behalf of social and environmental causes.
During the 1990s Lightfoot toured more than he recorded, giving 60 to 70 concerts per year across North America as of 1993, reduced to 50 by 1998. In 2002 he embarked on a 60-city tour, but on 8 Sep 2002 he suffered a serious abdominal hemorrhage. His hospitalization and recovery were lengthy; his next (brief) appearance on stage was not until the Mariposa Folk Festival, July 2004. In April 2005 Lightfoot embarked on the first concert tour since his illness, performing 37 shows in Canada and the United States, including a successful return to Massey Hall.
Lightfoot at first was backed up by a second guitarist (David Rea), and later by both a guitarist (Laurice Milton "Red" Shea 1966-71, then Terry Clements) and bass guitarist (John Stockfish 1966-9, then Rick Haynes); and finally (with the addition of drummer Barry Keane and steel guitarist Pee Wee Charles in 1975) a small band. Clements, Haynes, Keane, and the keyboard player Michael Heffernan accompanied Lightfoot in 2001. He himself is a competent six-string and 12-string guitarist in the folk style. The Martin Guitar Company named a guitar for him in 2001; only a small number of Canadians have been so honoured.
Recordings by Lightfoot and Others
Several of his songs have been hits in Canada: "Spin Spin" (1965); "Bitter Green" (1968); "Summer Side of Life" (1971); and "Same Old Obsession," "You Are What I Am," (1972) and "Anything for Love" (1986). Others were greater or lesser hits internationally: "If You Could Read My Mind" (1970), covered by Liza Minnelli, Stars on 54, and Barbra Streisand among others; the million-seller "Sundown" and "Carefree Highway" (1974); "Rainy Day People" (1975); "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976, a ballad inspired by the sinking, in Lake Superior, of the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald), and "The Circle Is Small" (1978). Lightfoot also recorded Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," both popular in Canada. At least three of his albums have each sold more than 1 million copies in the US: Sundown, Gord's Gold, and Summertime Dream. Several of his albums have reached gold, platinum, or double platinum, status in Canada. Total album sales have been estimated at more than 10 million.
Other well-known Lightfoot songs include "Alberta Bound," "Did She Mention My Name?" "Home from the Forest" (recorded by Ronnie Hawkins), "I'm Not Supposed to Care," "Last Time I Saw Her," "Minstrel of the Dawn," "Song for a Winter's Night," "Steel Rail Blues" (for which he received an ASCAP award in 1966), and "The Way I Feel." His "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," a favourite in concert, recounts the construction of the CPR across Canada in the 1880s. Commissioned by the CBC for a centennial show, "100 Years Young," seen 1 Jan 1967, this three-part narrative song was performed by the composer with the Ron Collier orchestra. Lightfoot included performances of it on the LPs The Way I Feel and Sunday Concert. Recordings of other Lightfoot songs arranged for orchestra have been made by John Arpin and Neil Chotem.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Lightfoot recorded the autobiographical Waiting for You (1993), A Painter Passing Through (1998), and Harmony (2004), his 20th solo original album. Songbook, a four-CD set (Rhino Records, 1999), was a "best-of" collection with some previously unrecorded material. A television special, Gordon Lightfoot: Live in Reno (2000), was shown in the US.
Lightfoot's songs were published by M. Witmark, New York, or by his own company, Early Morning Productions, established in Toronto in 1969. Folios were issued in conjunction with most of his albums (reissues, Gord's Gold, and Gord's Gold II excepted), and anthologies have been published by Warner Brothers.
Lightfoot's Style and Influence
Lightfoot's singing has been described as "almost crooning - a style which understates and redeems the rhetorical and sentimental conventions intrinsic to all formal songwriting" (Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 14 Mar 1974). Reviewing the LP Sundown, Geoffrey Stokes (Village Voice, 14 Feb 1974) noted Lightfoot's "extraordinary sensitivity to pain - his own and others - and joy... Vulnerable and open in a way that he denied in his earlier writing, Lightfoot's is the voice of the romantic." While early recordings displayed his robust and attractive baritone voice to advantage, through the 1990s there was a gradual fading to a somewhat nasal voice of age and experience, equally valid in a folk context.
In his Maclean's article Tom Hopkins observed: "He has obliquely managed to fulfill the most honorable role of the folksinger, the role of chronicler. Many of the secrets he keeps are those of the nation. Such songs as 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'... and 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy' grasped the smell of the land, captured its textures so that for many he has become a sort of aural Pierre Berton, a codifier, a scribe and in a land of harping factions and endless miles, a link between the tribes."
Among the Canadians who have recorded Lightfoot's songs are the Irish Rovers, Sarah McLachlan, John McDermott, Anne Murray, the Rheostatics, and Ian Tamblyn. A tribute album, Beautiful, was released in 2003, and in 2010 Canadian painter Ian Wallace published a book of pastel drawings illustrating Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy."
Lightfoot received 15 Juno Awards 1965-78: as best folksinger of 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1976, and 1977; as best male singer of 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1975; as composer of the year in 1972 and 1976; and for the folk album of the year (Old Dan's Records) in 1973. He was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame in 1986. He has also been nominated for four Grammy Awards: best rock performance ("Did She Mention My Name?") in 1968; best vocal performance, male - pop, rock, or folk ("If You Could Read My Mind") in 1971; song of the year and best vocal performance, male - pop, rock, or folk ("The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald") in 1976.
Lightfoot was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1970 and made a Companion in the Order in 2003; he became a Member of the Order of Ontario in 1988. He was cited with Anne Murray as Canada's artists of the 1970s by the Canadian Recording Industry Association in 1980, and received SOCAN's William Harold Moon Award in 1990. Further honours for Lightfoot include the Governor General's Performing Arts Award (1997), induction into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame (both in 2001), a Masterworks award from the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust, and a Toronto Arts Award for lifetime achievement (2001). He was the inaugural inductee of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2003).
Lightfoot. 1964 (1966). U Artists UAS-6487
The Way I Feel. 1967. U Artists UAS-6587
Did She Mention My Name? 1967. U Artists UAS-6649
Back Here on Earth. 1968. U Artists UAS-6672
Sunday Concert. 1969. U Artists UAS-6714
Best of Gordon Lightfoot. U Artists UAS-6754
Sit Down Young Stranger. (1970). Rep RS-6392
Summer Side of Life. 1970-1. Rep MS-2037
Classic Lightfoot. (1971). U Artists UAS-5510
Don Quixote. 1971. Rep MS-2056
Old Dan's Records. 1972. Rep MS-2116
Sundown. 1973. Rep MS-2177
Cold on the Shoulder. 1974. Rep MS-2206
Summertime Dream. (1976). Rep MS-2246
Endless Wire. 1976. Warner KBS-3149
Dream Street Rose. (1980). Warner XHS-3426
Shadows. (1982). Warner XBS-3633
Salute. (1983). Warner 92-39014
East of Midnight. 1984-6. Warner 92-54821
Harmony. 2004. Linus Entertainment 801442 2
Also, the anthologies Gord's Gold (1975, 2-Rep 2RS-2237) and Gord's Gold, Volume II (1988, Warner 92-57841), comprising re-recorded versions of Lightfoot's most popular songs
Batten, Jack. "I just write songs I think Canadians will dig," Canadian Magazine, 5 Feb 1966
Harris, Marjorie. "Gordon Lightfoot," Maclean's, Sep 1968
Markle, Robert. "Early morning afterthoughts," Maclean's, Dec 1971
Ross, Penelope. "Canada's most successful singer-songwriter talks about his music," Canadian Composer, 99, Mar 1975
Markle, Robert. "Knowing Lightfoot," The Canadian, 16 Apr 1977
LeBlanc, Larry. "Lightfoot on the record," (Toronto Star) The City, 2 Apr 1978
Hopkins, Tom. "Gordon's song," Maclean's, 1 May 1978
Gabiou, Alfrieda. Gordon Lightfoot (Toronto 1979)
Lacey, Liam. "For Gordon Lightfoot, top 40 radio is the brass ring," Toronto Globe and Mail, 12 Mar 1983
"Gordon Lightfoot," interview with Murray McLauchlan, Canadian Composer, 214, Oct 1986
Johnson, Brian D. "A troubadour's tracks into the heartland," Maclean's, 16 Mar 1987
Collins, Maynard. Lightfoot: If You Could Read His Mind (Toronto 1988)
Adria, Marco. "The myth of Gordon Lightfoot," Music of Our Times (Toronto 1990)
Fetherling, Douglas. Someday Soon: Essays on Canadian Songwriters (Toronto 1991)
McLaughlin, John P. "Pitching Lightfoot in Music City," Country, May 1998
Krewen, Nick. "The genius of Lightfoot on new Rhino anthology," The Record, 5 Jul 1999
"Gordon Lightfoot's Country Songs," Country Music News, Sep 2001
"Lightfoot undergoes emergency surgery," Ottawa Citizen, 9 Sep 2002
Heydorn, Bernard. "The comeback from death's door," Toronto Star, 19 Apr 2003
Dixon, Guy. "Recovering Lightfoot celebrated at gala induction," Globe and Mail, 4 Dec 2003
Flohil, Richard. "Linus Entertainment: A growing indie label signs the legendary Gordon Lightfoot," Applaud! Canadian Music on the World Stage, Apr 2004
Author Maynard Collins, Betty Nygaard King
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
The website for the JUNO Awards and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Scroll down the page to check out the latest award winners and music clips. Sample the latest JUNO Awards CD. From the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Canadian Music Hall of Fame
The website for the Canadian Music Hall of Fame from the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS).
A comprehensive tribute site devoted to Gordon Lightfoot’s music and performing career.
Click on the album covers to access audio clips from recordings featuring Gordon Lightfoot. From Rhino Entertainment.
Gordon Lightfoot plays his guitar and talks about his music and sports in this CBC News feature.
S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online
The tragic story about the 1975 sinking of the Great Lakes freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald and its crew during a terrible storm on Lake Superior. Commemorated in the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot.
Farewell To Nova Scotia
Watch a video of Gordon Lightfoot performing the traditional maritime song “Farewell To Nova Scotia.” From YouTube.
Canadian Recording Artists
Images of a series stamps that pay tribute to Canadian recording artists. From the Canada Post website.
The CanCon Atlas
An interactive map depicting some of the Canadian places celebrated in song. Click on the map icons around the country to view music videos by a cross-section of Canadian musicians. From the CBC website.
Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy now an illustrated book
An article about the publication of an illustrated book based on Gordon Lightfoot’s iconic song "Canadian Railroad Trilogy." From the National Post.
Early Morning Rain
Watch a video of Gordon Lightfoot performing his song "Early Morning Rain" in a 1979 Chicago concert." From YouTube.
If You Could Read My Mind
Watch a video clip of Gordon Lightfoot performing his song "If You Could Read My Mind" at a 1979 concert in Chicago. From YouTube.
Song for a Winter's Night
Watch Gordon Lightfoot performing "Song for a Winter's Night" live in concert. From YouTube.
Songwriters Hall of Fame
Click on "Inductee Exhibits" to see biographies of Canadian entertainers that were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in the US.
Lightfoot's bassist put his stamp on the music
An obituary for John Stockfish, Gordon Lightfoot's original bass player. From the Windsor Star.
Gordon Lightfoot as imagined by Dave Bidini
A rather cantankerous review of Dave Bidini's book on the life and times of Gordon Lightfoot. From the Winnipeg Free Press.