Canada’s Gordon Lightfoot turns 80

50 years ago in 1968, Gordon Lightfoot released the album Back Here on Earth for United Artists. Photo of album cover by James Morgan

It seems appropriate that the man who wrote and performed The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was born in November, the month in 1975 when the famous maritime disaster happened on Lake Superior.

Gordon Lightfoot turned 80 on November 17.

I’ll fully disclose my fan bias right away.  I’ve been a fan since I was about 13 years old.  I have every album he’s ever recorded.

But, aside from that, like him or not, Lightfoot, along with Anne Murray, are the personification of Canadian popular music in the second half of the 20th Century.  They brought Canadian music onto radio stations, stereos, and concert stages across the country and around the world.

Gordon Lightfoot was born in Orillia, Ontario, a small city where Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching meet.  It was also the basis for the fictional town of Mariposa, made famous in the book Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by economist turned humorist (a rare combination), Stephen Leacock.  He got his start singing in church and school choirs.

In the late 1950s, Lightfoot moved down Highway 11 to Toronto, working as a bank teller, but aspiring to become the next big singer-songwriter.  He studied at a music school in Los Angeles but never graduated.  His early sounds experimented with borderline bubblegum pop with a rarity called Daisy Doo or country in the slow style of Jim Reeves or Bill Anderson with early numbers like Remember Me, I’m the One and It’s Too Late, He Wins.

Gordon Lightfoot talking with Alex Trebek, then the host of CBC-TV’s Music Hop–a sort of Canadian counterpart to American Bandstand, in 1963:

Lightfoot landed a gig as part of the “singing, swinging eight”, a group of square dancers and singers on CBC-TV’s Country Hoedown.  Lightfoot ended up finding his stylistic groove in the popularity of modern folk during the early 1960s, playing in the legendary coffee houses of Yorkville, Toronto’s Haight-Ashbury, or at Steele’s Tavern, a bar on the popular Yonge Street strip.

In those days, Lightfoot wrote songs like In the Early Morning Rain, and That’s What You Get for Lovin’ Me.  Those songs ended up being covered by the likes of fellow Canadians Ian and Sylvia, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and even Elvis Presley.

Lightfoot’s first major record deal was with United Artists.  His manager was Albert Grossman, who also managed Bob Dylan, The Band, and Ian and Sylvia.  The albums from the United Artists years have a pure folk sound.  Dylan had already gone electric, but Lightfoot was acoustic.

The album cover of 1974’s Sundown. Note that Lightfoot is sitting in a barn full of straw with a lit cigarette. Photo of album cover by James Morgan

In 1970, Lightfoot switched labels and went to Warner Reprise and later Warner Brothers.  Those were his most successful years internationally.  The height of it was in June 1974 when Sundown reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  Two weeks earlier, Paul McCartney and Wings were at #1 with Band on the Run.

Being a star has its personal costs though, and Lightfoot is no exception.  There was alcoholism, drugs, and a string of broken relationships.  He’s been married three times and has six children with four different mothers.  In the 1970s, Lightfoot was involved with Cathy Smith, who after leaving Lightfoot, became a drug dealer and fatally injected John Belushi with heroin in 1982.  She served 15 months for involuntary manslaughter.  The relationship between Lightfoot and Smith is said to be what inspired the lyrics of Sundown and other songs from that time.

In 2002, Lightfoot nearly died of an aneurysm that occurred while he was rehearsing for a show at the historic opera house in Orillia.  He spent several months in hospital recovering.

Aside from problems, there is something quintessentially Canadian about Lightfoot’s music and how it reflects his personality.  He’s never been the source of tabloid rumors.  He rarely gives interviews and doesn’t answer fan mail (I’ve tried).  He’s like a regular guy from Orillia who just happens to be an internationally renowned singer-songwriter.  He comes across as being no different from a next-door neighbor who could be a plumber or teacher.  The vocals can be understated, but always measured.  The lyrics are often reflective of personal experiences or observations.  Nothing is bold though because good English Canadians don’t do that.

There’s an endearing imagery of nature, history, and Canadian life in many Lightfoot songs.  Long River, The Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Saturday Clothes, Seven Island Suite, I’m Not Sayin’, and Did She Mention My Name? all have this feel.  Granted, it is a particularly Ontario-centric one I’ve always thought.

In true Canadian fashion, Lightfoot’s brand of folk has never been overtly political.  Sure, he wrote Black Day in July in response to the 1967 race riot in Detroit, and the Vietnam war was thinly implied in Sit Down Young Stranger, and Summer Side of Life, but Canada had very little stake in those events.  It just never seemed right for Canadians to try and sing about America’s problems.

A happy, slightly belated 80th birthday to Gordon Lightfoot.  Thank you for being such a big part of Canada’s national soundtrack.


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