Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr. was a Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist who achieved international success in folk, folk-rock, and country music. He is credited with helping to define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s. He has been referred to as Canada’s greatest songwriter and was known internationally as a folk-rock legend.
Lightfoot was born in Orillia, Ontario, on November 17, 1938, to Jessie Vick Trill and Gordon Lightfoot Sr., who owned a local dry cleaning business. His mother recognized Lightfoot’s musical talent early on and schooled him to become a successful child performer.
As a youth, he sang in the choir of Orillia’s St. Paul’s United Church, and as a teenager, Lightfoot learned piano and taught himself to play drums and percussion. He held concerts in Muskoka, a resort area north of Orillia, singing “for a couple of beers”.
Lightfoot performed extensively throughout high school, Orillia District Collegiate & Vocational Institute (ODCVI), and taught himself to play folk guitar. He was also an accomplished high school track-and-field competitor and set school records for shot-put and pole vault, as well as playing the starting nose tackle on his school’s Georgian Bay championship-winning football team. His athletic and scholarly aptitude earned him scholarships at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music and the University of Toronto, Faculty of Music.
Lightfoot moved to Los Angeles in 1958 to study jazz composition and orchestration for two years at Westlake College of Music. To support himself while in California, Lightfoot sang on demonstration records and wrote, arranged, and produced commercial jingles.
Among his influences were the folk music of Pete Seeger, Bob Gibson, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, and The Weavers. He returned to Canada in 1970 where he performed with the Singin’ Swingin’ Eight, a group featured on CBC TV’s Country Hoedown, and with the Gino Silvi Singers.
He soon became known at Toronto folk music-oriented coffee houses. In 1962, Lightfoot released two singles, both recorded at RCA in Nashville and produced by Chet Atkins, that were local hits in Toronto and received some airplay elsewhere in Canada and the northeastern United States. “(Remember Me) I’m the One” reached No. 3 on CHUM radio in Toronto in July 1962
and was 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 No. 27 on CHUM in December. He 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 traveled in Europe and for one year in the UK, he hosted BBC TV’s Country and Western Show, returning to Canada in 1964. 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 who recorded one or both of these songs included Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Chad & Jeremy, George Hamilton IV, the Clancy Brothers, 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 and Spyder Turner (“I Can’t Make It Anymore”), and the Kingston Trio (“Early Morning Rain”) all achieved chart success with Lightfoot’s material. In 1965, Lightfoot signed a management contract with Albert Grossman, who also represented many prominent American folk performers, and signed a recording contract with United Artists who released his version of “I’m Not Sayin'” as a single.
Appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and New York’s Town Hall increased his following and bolstered his reputation. January 1966 marked the release of his debut album Lightfoot!, which brought him greater exposure as both a singer and a songwriter.
The album featured many now-famous songs, including “For Lovin’ Me”, “Early Mornin’ Rain”, “Steel Rail Blues”, and “Ribbon of Darkness”. In 1967 he released his second studio LP, The Way I Feel. It was highlighted by the epic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and an electrified remake of “The Way I Feel.”(#36 Canada) “Go-Go Round” reached #27.
Did She Mention My Name? and Back Here On Earth were released in 1968. His fifth studio release came in April 1970, Sit Down Young Stranger. Shortly after its 1970 release on the Reprise Records label, it was renamed If You Could Read My Mind when the song of that title reached #1 on the RPM Top Singles chart in Canada and #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. The album itself reached #12 on the Billboard 200 chart.
This was his first album on Reprise Records, he left United Artists believing they were not promoting his albums adequately. In 1971 he released Summer Side of Life which contained the song “Cotton Jenny” which would later be covered by Anne Murray. His seventh studio album reached #42 on the Billboard album chart.
It was Don Quixote, released in February 1972 and containing Lightfoot’s third and fourth seafaring songs, “Christian Island (Georgian Bay)” and “Ode to Big Blue” (his first two being “Marie Christine” from Back Here on Earth and “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle” from Sunday Concert). “Beautiful” was released as a single and peaked at #58 on the Billboard Singles chart.
Old Dan’s Records was the next album and peaked at number one on the Canadian charts. The album marks a continued evolution in Lightfoot’s sound as he begins to add country influences to his standard folk sound with the help of the banjo, dobro, and steel guitar. Lightfoot would continue to use these country influences in his music until the early 1980s.
His ninth studio release reached number one in the US. Sundown. The singles released were “Sundown” which reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and easy listening charts and No. 13 on the Hot Country Singles chart, and “Carefree Highway” which peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent one week at No. 1 on the Easy Listening chart in October 1974.
His Cold on the Shoulder LP was released in 1975 and was followed by Summertime Dream which peaked at #1 on the Canadian RPM national album chart and #12 on the US Billboard pop chart. The album shot to popularity on the back of the haunting ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, which told the story of the final hours of SS Edmund Fitzgerald which had sunk on Lake Superior in November 1975.
The song remains popular to this day and has been credited with making the sinking of Edmund Fitzgerald the most famous maritime incident in the history of the Great Lakes. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” reached #1 in Canada on November 20, 1976. In the US, it peaked at #2 on the pop chart and #50 on the country chart while “Race Among the Ruins” peaked at #65 on the pop chart.
Lightfoot’s sound, both in the studio and on tour, was centered on Lightfoot’s baritone voice and folk-based twelve-string acoustic guitar. From 1965 to 1970, lead guitarist Red Shea was an important supporting player, with bassists Paul Wideman and John Stockfish filling out the arrangements. Throughout his career, Lightfoot has released 20 studio albums and has won numerous awards, including 16 Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy Awards) and induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Gordon Lightfoot died Monday, May 1, 2023, of natural causes at 7:30 p.m. at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. He was 84 years old. He is survived by his wife, Kim Hasse, six children — Fred, Ingrid, Miles, Meredith, Eric, and Galen — and several grandchildren. His first two marriages ended in divorce. His older sister, Beverley Eyers, died in 2017.
- “Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian singer-songwriter, dead at 84” CNN Entertainment
- “Gordon Lightfoot” Wikipedia
- Gordon Lightfoot. (2021). Biography. Retrieved from https://www.gordonlightfoot.com/biography/
- The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2019). Gordon Lightfoot. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/gordon-lightfoot
- CBC Music. (2019). Gordon Lightfoot: The definitive guide. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/music/gordon-lightfoot-the-definitive-guide-1.5082539
- “Gordon Lightfoot, Hitmaking Singer-Songwriter, Is Dead at 84” The New York Times