Legendary folk singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot dies at 84

Orillia native rose to fame in the early 1960s

By David Friend in Toronto

Gordon Lightfoot, the legendary folk singer whose silvery refrains told a tale of Canadian identity that was exported to listeners worldwide, has died at 84.

Victoria Lord, the musician’s longtime publicist and a representative for the family, says Lightfoot died at a Toronto hospital on Monday evening.

A cause of death was not immediately available.

Considered one of the most renowned voices to emerge from Toronto’s Yorkville folk club scene in the 1960s, Lightfoot went on to record no less than 20 studio albums and pen hundreds of songs, including “Early Morning Rain,” “Carefree Highway” and “Sundown.”

Once called a “rare talent” by Bob Dylan, his timeless compositions have transcended the boundaries of generations and musical genres.

Dozens of artists have covered his work, including Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Anne Murray, Jane’s Addiction, Sarah McLachlan and, perhaps most surprisingly, dance supergroup Stars on 54 who turned his classic “If You Could Read My Mind” into a disco-pop curiosity for the 1998 movie “54.”

Most of his songs are deeply autobiographical with lyrics that probe his own experiences in a frank and unclouded manner and explore issues surrounding the Canadian national identity.

His 1975 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” chronicled the demise of a Great Lakes ore freighter, and 1966’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” depicted the construction of the railway.

“I simply write the songs about where I am and where I’m from,” he once said. “I take situations and write poems about them.”

Often described as a poetic storyteller, Lightfoot remained keenly aware of his cultural influence. It was a role he took very seriously.

“I just like to stay there and be a part of the totem pole and look after the responsibilities I’ve acquired over the years,” he said in a 2001 interview.

But he was humble about his status: “How does it feel to be an icon? It makes me feel no different as a human entity on the face of the planet.”

While Lightfoot’s parents recognized his musical talents early on, he didn’t set out to become a renowned balladeer.

He began singing in his church choir and dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. At age 13, the soprano won a talent contest at the Kiwanis Music Festival, held at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

“I remember the thrill of being in front of the crowd,” Lightfoot said in a 2018 interview.

“It was a stepping stone for me… My father was doing all my driving. I was doing events all around. I was playing at weddings, all the various clubs, the Ladies’ Auxiliary.”

The appeal of those early days stuck and in high school, his barbershop quartet, The Collegiate Four, won a CBC talent competition. He strummed his first guitar in 1956 and began to dabble in songwriting in the months that followed. Perhaps distracted by his taste for music, he flunked algebra the first time. After taking the class again, he graduated in 1957.

By then, Lightfoot had already penned his first serious composition — “The Hula Hoop Song,” inspired by the popular kids’ toy that was sweeping the culture. Attempts to sell the song went nowhere so at 18, he headed to the U.S. to study music for a year. The trip was funded in part by money saved from a job delivering linens to resorts around his hometown. 

Life in Hollywood wasn’t a good fit, however, and it wasn’t long before a homesick Lightfoot returned to Canada. He pledged to move to Toronto to pursue his musical ambitions, taking any job available, including a position at Royal Bank before landing a gig as a square dancer on CBC’s “Country Hoedown.”

His first gig was at Fran’s Restaurant, a downtown family-owned diner that warmed to his folk sensibilities. It was there he met fellow musician Ronnie Hawkins, who urged him to take his music to more suitable places, such as nearby Steele’s Tavern.

The singer was living with a few buddies in a condemned building in Yorkville, then a bohemian area where future stars including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell would learn their trade at smoke-filled clubs. Around that time, he befriended local folk duo Ian and Sylvia who became great admirers of his work and later recorded two of his songs as his star first began to rise.

Lightfoot made his popular radio debut with the single “(Remember Me) I’m the One” in 1962, which led to a number of hit songs and partnerships with other local musicians. When he started playing the Mariposa Folk Festival in his hometown of Orillia, Ont., that same year, Lightfoot forged a relationship that made him the festival’s most loyal returning performer.

By 1964, he was garnering positive word-of-mouth around town that attracted Bernie Fiedler, owner of Yorkville’s Riverboat coffee house, who showed up at one of Lightfoot’s Steel’s performances with an offer to pay him double.

Audiences were starting to gather in growing numbers and by the next year, Lightfoot’s song “I’m Not Sayin'” was a hit in Canada, which helped spread his name in the United States.

A couple of covers by other artists didn’t hurt either. Marty Robbins’ 1965 recording of “Ribbon of Darkness” reached No. 1 on U.S. country charts, while Peter, Paul and Mary took Lightfoot’s composition, “For Lovin’ Me,” into the U.S. Top 30. The song, which Dylan once said he wished he’d recorded, has since been covered by hundreds of other musicians.

That summer, Lightfoot performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the same year Dylan rattled audiences when he shed his folkie persona by playing an electric guitar.

As the folk music boom came to an end in the late 1960s, Lightfoot was already making his transition to pop music with ease. 

In 1971, he made his first appearance on the Billboard chart with “If You Could Read My Mind,” a reflection on a failing marriage likened to “an old-time movie about a ghost from a wishing well.” It reached No. 5 and has since spawned scores of covers.

Lightfoot’s popularity peaked in the mid-1970s when both his single and album, “Sundown,” topped the Billboard charts, his first and only time doing so.

But with Lightfoot’s intense fame came public intrusions into his private life. His 1973 divorce from Swedish wife Brita Ingegerd Olaisson made headlines and was branded as the costliest divorce settlement in Canadian legal history at the time.

“When my first marriage broke up, it took me years to get over it,” he recalled in 2012 with The Canadian Press.

“I had a good wife and two great kids, but the business just ate me up. The women ate me up. I wasn’t able to resist. I can now, but not then. And then it was alcohol, and there’s no greater catalyst to getting into further (trouble) than drinking.”

Indeed, Lightfoot endured a very public battle with alcoholism and other personal hurdles, particularly with the women who inspired his lyrics.

His 1975 album “Cold on the Shoulder” purportedly reflects on his broken relationship with Cathy Smith, a troubled former girlfriend who lingered in his mind long after they broke up.

Seven years after its release, Smith was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for giving comedian John Belushi a fatal dose of drugs. The story was splashed across the tabloids and drew Lightfoot into the scandal.

He resented being painted as a drug user, saying he dated Smith more than a decade earlier, long before her hard drug use. But he also felt an obligation to help her get back on her feet. He gave her money after her jail sentence ended in 1988 and made the publishing connections for her memoir.

Lightfoot went on to marry Elizabeth Moon in 1989. While his second marriage produced two children, the couple ultimately divorced in 2011.

Three years later he wed Kim Hasse, an Iowa-raised woman who he’d met at several shows. Despite their 23-year age difference, the pair became inseparable with Hasse frequently by Lightfoot’s side at public events.

“It’s actually quite surprising, I never thought I’d have a girlfriend again for as long as I’ve lived,” he said at the time.

During his career, Lightfoot collected 12 Juno Awards, including one in 1970 when it was called the Gold Leaf. He was also named four times as top folk singer at the RPM Awards — the 1960s predecessor to the Junos. He was nominated for four Grammy Awards, received an Order of Canada citation in 1970 at the age of 32, and was promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada in 2003.

In 1986, he was inducted into the Canadian Recording Industry Hall of Fame, now the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He received the Governor General’s award in 1997 and was ushered into the Canadian Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2001.

In 2002, he suffered an aortic aneurysm and later fell into a coma, endured more surgery and a rehabilitation period that he says stretched for two and a half years. He later said the health scare took “some of the starch” out of his voice. 

A minor stroke that hit in 2006 made it difficult for him to use his right hand while playing guitar for a short while.

Still, he continued touring. A strict workout regimen of six days a week helped him stay in shape.

In 2016, Lightfoot crossed the finish line on an astounding 80 tour dates in one year. He said his three alternating setlists were so meticulously focused that they all ran two hours and five minutes.

“At this age, my challenge is doing the best show I can,” he said in an interview with CP.

“I’m very much improved from where I was and the seriousness with which I take it.”

However, a lifetime of touring came at a hefty personal price that left him with guilt he still carried in his later years.

“I was not always the dad I should’ve been,” he acknowledged, reflecting on his absence from raising his six kids.

“I’ve worked hard on improving that for many years now.”

At 79, he quit smoking. “Cigarettes, that is,” he specified in a 2019 conversation. And despite a fall at home that forced him to postpone dates in mid-2021, he was back on stage four months later to reopen the renovated Massey Hall in a three-night engagement.

Those shows kicked off another tour that ran well into the following year.

Lightfoot’s hometown enshrined his musical legacy in bronze when they unveiled a four-metre-high sculpture dedicated to him. It was one of several local honours he would receive later in his life.

“When I found out they were working on it, I thought, ‘Why me? What have I done that is so great that I should deserve to have a statue, a very artistic work done?”‘ he said at the time.

“To have a monument of this kind and the location here (at) the Mariposa Folk Festival … It’s very appropriate.”

banner image: The Canadian Press