Noted Canadian Singer-Songwriter
Gordon Meredith Lightfoot, Jr CC Oont, born November 17, 1938, achieved international success in folk, folk-rock and country music. He has been credited for helping define the folk-pop sound of the 1960's and 1970's. He has been referred to as ...Canada's Greatest Songwriter and internationally as a
'folk-rock legend'. Too numerous to mention all his song titles, the following are a few you'll relate to:
'For Lovin'Me'...'Early Morning Rain'...'Steel Rail Blues'...'Ribbon of Darkness' (the latter being a number one hit on the US country chart with Marty Robbin's cover in 1965...and the 1967 Detroit riot-generated 'Black Day in July' bringing him recognition in the 1960's. He experienced chart success in Canada with his own recordings, beginning in 1962 with 'Remember Me, I'm the One'. By the 1970's, Lightfoot's recordings then made an impact on the international music charts with songs such as...'If You Could Read My Mind'...'Sundown'...'Carefree Highway'...'Rainy Day People'...'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'. Some of Gordon Lightfoot's albums have achieved gold and multi-platinum status internationally.
His songs have been recorded by some of the world's most renowned recording artists, including: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., The Kingston Trio, Marty Robbins, George Hamilton IV, Jerry Lewis, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Eddie Albert, Herb Albert, Viola Wills, Richie Havens, The Replacements, Harry Belafonte, Tony Rice, Sandy Denny, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Maken, Scott Walker, Sarah McLachlan, Eric Clapton, Jim Croce, John Mellencamp, Jack Jones, Bobby Vee, Blue Rodeo, The Tragically Hip, Roger Whittaker, Toby Keith, Peter Paul & Mary, Glen Campbell, Anne Murray, Waylon Jennings, The Irish Rovers, Olivia Newton-John and Paul Weller.
Robbie Roberson of The Band declared that Lightfoot was one of his “favourite Canadian songwriters and is absolutely a national treasure.” Bob Dylan, also a Lightfoot fan, called him one of his favourite songwriters, and in an often quoted tribute, Dylan observed that when he heard a Gordon Lightfoot song, he wished “it would last forever.”
Lightfoot was a featured performer at the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta. He received an honourary Doctor of Laws degree (arts) in 1979 and Companion of the Order of Canada (Canada's highest civilian honour) in 2003. In November 1997, Lightfoot was awarded the Governor General's Performing Arts Award (Canada's highest honour in the performing arts). He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and into Canada's Walk of Fame in 1998. On February 6, 2012, Lightfoot was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. In June of that same year, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Early Years: Lightfoot was born in Orillia, Ontario, son of the manager of a large dry cleaning firm.
As a child: His mother recognized Lightfoot's musical talent and schooled him into a successful child performer. His first public tune was “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Rah” (an Irish lullaby) in grade four which was broadcast over his school's public address system on a parents' day event.
As a youth he sang under the direction of choirmaster Ray Williams, in the choir of Orillia's St. Paul's United Church. According to Lightfoot, Williams taught him...how to sing with emotion and how to have confidence in his voice. A boy soprano, he appeared periodically on local radio in the Orillia area, performed in local operettas and oratorios...and gained exposure through various Kiwanis music festivals. He was twelve when he made his first appearance at Massey Hall in Toronto, after winning a competition for boys whose voices had not yet changed.
As a teenager Lightfoot learned piano and taught himself to play drums and percussion. He held concerts in Muskoka, a resort north of Orillia, singing “for a couple of beers.” In high school at Orillia District Collegiate & Vocational Institute, Lightfoot performed extensively and taught himself to play folk-guitar. He was influenced during this time by the 19th century master American songwriter Stephen Foster. He was also an accomplished high school track-and-field competitor and set school records for 'shot put' and 'pole vault'...as well as being the starting nose tackle of his school's Georgian Bay championship winning football team.
As a young man, at age 20, Lightfoot moved to California in 1958 where he studied jazz composition and orchestration for two years at Hollywood's Westlake College of Music, which had many Canadian students. To support himself, he sang on demonstrations records and wrote, arranged and produced commercial jingles. He was influenced by the folk music of Pete Seeger, Bob Gibson, Ian and Sylvia Tyson and the Weavers. He missed Toronto and moved back in 1960.
In Toronto, he performed with The Swinging Eight, a group featured on CBC TV's Country Hoedown and with the Gino Silvi Singers. He soon became known in the Toronto coffee houses promoting folk music. In 1962, Lightfoot released two singles that became local hits in Toronto and also receiving some airplay elsewhere in Canada. His recognition escalated. In 1963 Lightfoot travelled to Europe, where in the UK he hosted for one year BBC TV's Country and Western Show. Returning to Canada in 1964, he appeared at the Mariposa Folk Festival; following this, he began to develop a reputation as a songwriter...with many artists performing his lyrics and music.
Gordon Lightfoot was commissioned by the CBC to write the Canadian Railroad Trilogy for a special broadcast on January 1, 1967, to start Canada's Centennial Year which gained utmost popularity. His albums, from this time were well received in countries other than Canada. Outside of his home country, he remained better known as a songwriter than as a performer.
In November 1975, Lightfoot read a Newsweek magazine article about the loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald which sank on November 10, 1975 on Lake Superior during a severe storm with the loss of all 29 crew members. Most of the lyrics in his song...The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald...released the following year, were based on facts in the article. It was a number one hit in Canada...and reached number two on the United States Billboard chart. Lightfoot continues his practice of meeting privately with the family members of the men who perished...when his touring schedule allows.
In the 1990's Lightfoot returned to his acoustic roots and recorded two albums. Throughout this decade, he played about 50 concerts a year.
Illness and Return to Performing: By January 2002 Lightfoot had written 30 new songs for his next album...recording guitar and vocal demos of some of these songs. In September, before the second concert of a two-night stand in Orillia, Lightfoot suffered severe stomach pain and was airlifted to McMaster Medical Centre in Hamilton, Ontario. He underwent surgery for a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm...and he remained in serious condition in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Lightfoot endured a six-week coma and a tracheotomy and he underwent four surgical operations. All of his remaining 2002 concert dates were cancelled. More than three months after being taken to McMaster Medical Centre, Lightfoot was released in December to continue his recovery at home. In 2003 he had follow-up surgery to continue the treatment of his abdominal condition. In 2003 and 2004, signing new recording contracts, his songs gained credence and appreciation. In July 2004 he made a surprise comeback performance (his first since falling ill) at Orillia's Mariposa Festival.
On September 14, 2006, while in the middle of a performance, Lighfoot suffered a minor stroke that eventually left him without the use of the middle and ring fingers on his right hand. He returned to performing nine days later (with a substitute guitarist) until 2007 when he regained full use of his right hand...playing all guitar parts in concert as he originally wrote them. He continues to perform.
Lightfoot performed at the 100th Grey Cup in November 2012, performing 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy' and was extremely well received.
Legacy: Gordon Lightfoot's music career has spanned more than five decades, producing more than 200 recordings. His sound, both in the studio and on tour, centers around Lightfoot's baritone voice and folk-based twelve-string acoustic guitar. In 2007, Canada Post honoured Lightfoot and three other legendary Canadian music artists (Anne Murray, Paul Anka and Joni Mitchell) with postage stamps highlighting their names and images.
Between 1986 and 1988, Lightfoot's friend, Ken Danby (1940-2007 ) the realist painter, worked on a large (60 x 48 inches) portrait of Lightfoot, dressed in the white suit he wore on the cover of the album East of Midnight. The picture was backlit by the sun...creating a visually iconic image of the singer.
Lightfoot band members have displayed loyalty to him,
as both musicians and friends,
as both musicians and friends,
recording and performing with him as many as 45 years.
To stay in shape to meet the demands of touring and public performing, Lightfoot works out in a gym six days per week, but declared in 2012 that he was 'fully prepared to go whenever I'm taken.' Calmly he said:
“I've been almost dead a couple times, once almost for real...
I have more incentive to continue now...because I'm on borrowed time in terms of age.
Information compiled by Merle Baird-Kerr...February 28, 2015
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