Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Folk-Rock Troubadour, Dead at 84
Gordon Lightfoot — a genius-level Canadian singer-songwriter whose most enduring works include “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Early Morning Rain,” and “Rainy Day People” — died on Monday, the CBC confirmed. He was 84.
Lightfoot’s deceptively simple songs, which fused folk with pop and country rock, have been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash to the Grateful Dead, Barbra Streisand, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, and the Replacements.
He scored a series of hits in his native Canada throughout the Sixties, but most Americans first heard his work in 1970, when “If You Could Read My Mind” reached Number Five on the Billboard Hot 100. The deeply personal song chronicles the agonizing breakdown of his marriage, casting much of the blame on himself. “I never thought I could act this way,” he wrote. “And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it/I don’t know where we went wrong/But the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.”
“I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like,” Bob Dylan once said. “Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”
Lightfoot was born Nov. 17, 1938, in Orillia, Ontario. His parents recognized his singing ability at a young age and placed him in Orillia’s St. Paul’s United Church. He eventually taught himself piano and guitar, playing in large-ensemble pop-folk groups across Canada. After a stint at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, he began playing in folk clubs around Canada. He released two singles in 1962 (“It’s Too Late, He Wins” and “(Remember Me) I’m the One”) that charted regionally, and his profile grew considerably when Ian and Sylvia, the Kingston Trio, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul, and Mary turned his songs — most notably “Earning Morning Rain” — into hits.
He signed a management contract with famed manager Albert Grossman in 1965 that helped land Lightfoot spots on The Tonight Show and the Newport Folk Festival. He played an acoustic set shortly before Dylan made history by playing his first electric set. “I remember Albert and the musicologist Alan Lomax getting into a wrestling match in the afternoon of that day,” Lightfoot told Rolling Stone in 2019. “Joan Baez, Donovan, and I, we all stood around and watched. It was over the drum kit. They were trying to stay traditional, and somebody brought the drum kit onstage for the first time. It was quite a kerfuffle over it. It was a hot day in Newport. And a dry day. And I remember the dust was flying.”
In 1966, he released his debut LP, Lightfoot!, which he followed up the next year with The Way I Feel. The latter album featured drummer Kenny Buttrey and guitarist/bassist/harmonica player Charlie McCoy. Later that year, Dylan used them as his backing band on John Wesley Harding. “I heard the sound that Gordon Lightfoot was getting,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1969. “I figured if he could get that sound, I could. But we couldn’t get it.”
The success of “If You Could Read My Mind” in 1970 was the start of a stunning run of hits, including “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” and “Rainy Day People.” The biggest came in 1976 after he read an article in Newsweek about the the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975. He called the epic maritime disaster song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
“It was quite an undertaking to do that,” he said in a 2014 Reddit AMA. “I went and bought all of the old newspapers, got everything in chronological order, and went ahead and did it because I already had a melody in my mind, and it was from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about three and a half years old.… I think it was one of the first pieces of music that registered to me as being a piece of music.”
Despite the huge success he had as a recording artist, many of his songs are best known by their cover versions. Bob Dylan included his own rendition of “Early Morning Rain” on his 1970 LP Self Portrait, and Elvis Presley covered the same song two years later. “I was really impressed with the recording,” Lightfoot said in 2015. “It was probably the most important recording that I have by another artist.”
Lightfoot developed a severe drinking problem in the late Seventies that took a tremendous toll on his personal life and career. “I was either writing, recording, touring, or doing television,” Lightfoot once told Low Country Today. “I drank way too much. But I gave that up in 1982 thanks to the help of my sister and a bad breakup. I knew I had to quit to keep myself sharp and stay in the game.”
By the time he sobered up, MTV was ascendent and his album sales took a major shift downward. But he continued to tour and record heavily. He was back in the news in 1986 when he noticed that Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” was melodically very similar to “If You Could Read My Mind.”
“The first time I heard [“The Greatest Love of All”] was on an elevator,” he told Alabama.com in 2015. “What I finally figured out was there was a total of about 24 bars that were just really, really … It was really obvious and I noticed it. So what I did was I actually initiated a lawsuit for plagiarism, but three weeks later I let it go because I understood that it was affecting Whitney Houston, who had an appearance coming up at the Grammy Awards, and the suit wasn’t anything to do with her. The suit was against her producer [and the song’s co-writer], Michael Masser. Now they’re dragging Whitney into this and I withdrew it. I said, ‘Forget it. We’re withdrawing this.'”
In 2002, Lightfoot suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm and spent six weeks in a coma. He eventually recovered after four surgeries. “I was ashamed at the amount of blood they went through,” he told Rolling Stone. “It would have been better off if I had died. I think it was 28 units.”
Doctors performed a tracheotomy on him during his hospital stay, causing vocal-cord damage that greatly weakened his singing voice, but he was back onstage by 2004. “I wanted to recover, I wanted to sing again,” he told the State Journal-Register. “I wasn’t sure — they had to take a lot of muscles out of my stomach, and I wasn’t sure if I would have the kind of breathing control that I would need. But gradually it worked back and I started practicing.”
In 2019, he was the subject of the documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind. Around that time, he celebrated his 80th birthday with an extensive tour that wrapped up last October at the Club Regent Casino in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Many fans were stunned to see him carry on despite his advanced age and significant medical issues, but it was part of a lifelong philosophy he outlined in a 1990 interview: “As long as I got the strength and willpower to do great shows, [I will keep touring],” he said. “If I’m still pickin’, I’m still kickin’.”
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