Canadian folk singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot died on Monday (May 1) at the age of 84. His passing was announced by his family.
Lightfoot had success in success in folk, folk-rock and country music. His legacy is his key involvement helping to define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s. With songs such as “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Sundown,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Early Morning Rain,” “For Lovin’ Me” and more, he is known to many as Canada’s greatest songwriter.
Born Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr. on November 17, 1938 in Orillia, Ontario, Lightfoot exhibited musical promise as a child. His mother schooled him to become a successful child performer. As a child, Lightfoot sang in the choir at Orillia’s St. Paul’s United Church and performed periodically in public. He learned piano and taught himself to play the drums as a teenager.
After graduating high school, he spent two years in California studying jazz composition and orchestration at Hollywood’s Westlake College of Music. He eventually grew tired of LA and returned to Toronto in 1960, where he stayed until his death.
Lightfoot’s career began when two singles, both recorded at RCA in Nashville and produced by Chet Atkins, became local hits in Toronto—”(Remember Me) I’m the One” and “Negotiations / It’s Too Late, He Wins.” In 1963, Lightfoot travelled in Europe and hosted BBC TV’s Country and Western Show, returning to Canada in 1964.
Lightfoot’s songwriting prowess began to earn him cuts by other artists, with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Chad & Jeremy, George Hamilton IV, the Clancy Brothers and the Johnny Mann Singers all cutting his songs. Ian and Sylvia Tyson had success with “Early Mornin’ Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me,” as did Peter, Paul and Mary. 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.
After signing a recording contract with United Artists in 1965, Lightfoot released his version of “I’m Not Sayin'” as a single. He released his debut album Lightfoot! in 1966, which featured the now-famous songs “For Lovin’ Me,” “Early Mornin’ Rain,” “Steel Rail Blues” and “Ribbon of Darkness.”
Throughout his career, Lightfoot was able to have success from his home in Canada without moving to any music mecca, though he often recorded in Nashville at Owen and Jerry Bradley’s Bradley’s Barn during the ’60s.
Between 1966 and 1969, Lightfoot recorded four additional albums for United Artists: The Way I Feel (1967), Did She Mention My Name? (1968), Back Here on Earth (1968), and the live recording Sunday Concert (1969). He placed several singles in the Canadian top 40, including “Go-Go Round,” “Spin, Spin” and “The Way I Feel.” One of Lightfoot’s biggest hits was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Canadian charts in 1965.
When he signed with Warner Bros./Reprise in 1970, Lightfoot had a big hit in the U.S. with “If You Could Read My Mind,” which sold over one million copies. He recorded a series of successful singer-songwriter albums in the ’70s.
Lightfoot was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy in 1972. The condition left his face partially paralyzed for a time and reduced his touring schedule, but he continued to have hits.
1974’s “Sundown” became his only No. 1 hit in the United States. He released another fan-favorite, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” in 1976. The tune was based on the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which claimed the lives of all 29 crew members on November 10, 1975. It hit No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 1 in Canada.
During the ’80s and the ’90s, Lightfoot recorded six more original albums and a compilation record.
His health began to suffer more substantially in the early 2000s. He underwent emergency vascular surgery for a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm in 2002, and endured a six-week coma while recovering from it. In 2006, he suffered a minor stroke in the middle of a performance.
Lightfoot persevered, making music and touring up until three weeks ago, when he canceled his tour due to his declining health.
Gordon Lightfoot was a renowned tunesmith, having influenced generations of songwriters and musicians. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012. He was awarded 16 Juno Awards throughout his career, and was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by SOCAN at the 2014 SOCAN Awards in Toronto.
Lightfoot is survived by his wife, actress Kim Hasse, as well as his six children.
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