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Gordon Lightfoot Biography,Career,Personal Life and Awards

About Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr. CC OOnt is a Canadian singer-songwriter who achieved international success in folk, folk-rock, and country music, and has been credited for helping define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s. He was born on November 17th, 1938. Lightfoot was born in Orillia, Ontario, to his parents ,Jessica and Gordon Lightfoot, Sr., who owned a large dry cleaning firm. His mother recognized Lightfoot’s musical talent early on and schooled him into a successful child performer. His first public performance was “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” (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.

Lightfoot was 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 area north of Orillia, singing “for a couple of beers.”

While in high school, at Orillia District Collegiate & Vocational Institute (ODCVI), Lightfoot performed extensively and taught himself to play folk guitar. He was influenced during this time by 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 on his school’s Georgian Bay championship winning football team. His athletic and scholarly aptitude earned him entrance bursaries at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music and the University of Toronto, Faculty of Music.

In 1958,he moved to California , 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 while there, he sang on demonstration 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 rented a place in Los Angeles for a time, but was missing Toronto and moved back in 1960. He has lived in Canada since then, though he has done much work in the United States, all under an H-1B visa.

Upon returning to Canada, Lightfoot 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 were local hits in Toronto and received some airplay elsewhere in Canada. “(Remember Me) I’m the One” reached No. 3 on CHUM radio in Toronto in July 1962 and was a top 20 hit on Montreal’s CKGM, then a very influential Canadian Top 40 radio station. The follow-up single was “Negotiations”/”It’s Too Late, He Wins”; it reached No. 27 on CHUM in December. He sang with Terry Whelan in a duo called the “Two-Tones”. They recorded a live album that was released in 1962 called Two-Tones at the Village Corner (1962, Chateau CLP-1012).

In the year 1963, Lightfoot travelled to Europe and in the United Kingdom, and for one year he hosted BBC TV’s Country and Western Show. In 1964 he returned again to Canada, appearing at the Mariposa Folk Festival. During this time he began to develop a reputation as a songwriter. Ian and Sylvia Tyson recorded “Early Mornin’ Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me”; a year later both songs were recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. Other performers recording one or both songs including Elvis Presley, Chad and Jeremy, George Hamilton IV, The Clancy Brothers, and the Johnny Mann Singers. 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 Gordon Lightfoot’s material.

Gordon Lightfoot Career

After a background in barbershop quartets, and as a member of a duo, Lightfoot struck out on his own in the early 60s. He had written perhaps 75 songs, when he was caught up in the country music scene and folk revival of the time; Bob Dylan’s music and a song by Merle Travis, Dark As A Dungeon, combined with his sensitivity, inventiveness and beautiful voice, resulted in his unique songwriting and singing style. In less than two years, between late ’61 and some time in 1963, his sound and his life changed forever. For more about this early period in Lightfoot’s career, read the articles “Early Lightfoot” and “The 1960s”.

However his music was discovered in the year 1964, when he was performing on the Toronto folk scene; Fellow Canadians Ian and Sylvia chose two of his songs, Early Mornin’ Rain and For Lovin’ Me for their next record, aptly named for the first song. See the albums Early Morning Rain and the Vanguard boxed set. In addition to the two Lightfoot covers, both also include Steve Gillette’s Darcy Farrow, which Lightfoot performed live early in his career, and Ian Tyson’s Red Velvet which Lightfoot would record decades later. The Vanguard boxed set also includes Ian Tyson’s classic Four Strong Winds. As an interesting sidelight, the Ian & Sylvia album Northern Journey contains several of their most well known songs, and also Nova Scotia Farewell (aka, Farewell to Nova Scotia), a song that Ian Tyson taught to Lightfoot, and which Lightfoot performed in concert as recently as the 1990s. For those of you lucky enough to hear Gordon perform that tune, hearing Ian’s version is a treat, and the influence is clear.

Later in the year 1965, Lightfoot signed a management contract with Albert Grossman, who also represented a significant number of prominent American folk performers. That same year, he signed a recording contract with United Artists and released his own version of “I’m Not Saying” as a single. Appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and New York’s Town Hall increased his following and his reputation. In 1966, he released his debut album Lightfoot!, which brought him increased recognition as both a singer and a songwriter. It featured many now-famous songs, including “For Lovin’ Me,” “Early Mornin’ Rain,” “Steel Rail Blues,” and “Ribbon of Darkness”. On the strength of the Lightfoot! album, which mixed Canadian and universal themes, Lightfoot became one of the first Canadian singers to achieve real stardom in his own country without having to move to the United States.

On January 1, 1967,Lightfoot was commissioned by the CBC to write the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” for a special broadcast , to start Canada’s Centennial year. In the years 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). During those years, he consistently placed singles in the Canadian top 40, including “Go-Go Round”, “Spin, Spin”, and “The Way I Feel”. His biggest hit of the era was a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, which peaked at No. 3 on the Canadian charts in December 1965. Did She Mention My Name? featured “Black Day in July”, about the 1967 Detroit Riots. Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered the following April 4. Radio stations in 30 states pulled the song for “fanning the flames”, even though the song was a plea for racial harmony. Lightfoot then stated station owners cared more about playing songs “that make people happy” and not those “that make people think.” Unhappy at a lack of support from United Artists, he defected to Warner Bros. Records, scoring his first major international hit in early 1971 with “If You Could Read My Mind”.

In the year 1972 Lightfoot curtailed his touring schedule after contracting Bell’s palsy, a condition that left his face partially paralyzed temporarily. Despite his illness, Lightfoot had several major hits during the 1970s. In June 1974 his classic single “Sundown” from the album Sundown went to No.1 on the American and Canadian charts. It would be his only number one hit in the United States. He performed it twice on NBC’s The Midnight Special series. “Carefree Highway” was the follow-up single from the same album. It charted in the Top 10 in both countries. Lightfoot wrote it after traveling from Flagstaff, Arizona on Interstate 17 to Phoenix.

In late 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 reached number two on the United States Billboard chart and was a number one hit in Canada. Lightfoot continues his practice of meeting privately with the family members of the men who perished in the Edmund Fitzgerald sinking when his touring schedule allows.

Gordon Lightfoot Photo

Gordon Lightfoot Photo

“Sundown” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” continue to receive heavy airplay on many classic rock stations. In 1978, Lightfoot had another top 40 hit on the United States Hot 100, “The Circle Is Small (I Can See It in Your Eyes),” which reached number 33. During the 1980s and 1990s Lightfoot recorded six more original albums and a compilation for Warner Bros./Reprise: Dream Street Rose in 1980, Shadows in 1982, Salute in 1983, East of Midnight in 1986, another compilation Gord’s Gold, Vol. 2 in 1988, Waiting for You in the year 1993, and A Painter Passing Through in 1998.

In April the year 2000 Lightfoot taped a live concert in Reno, Nevada—a one-hour show that was broadcast by CBC in October, and as a PBS special across the United States. PBS stations offered a videotape of the concert as a pledge gift, and a tape and DVD were released in 2001 in Europe and North America. This was the first Lightfoot concert video released. In April 2001 Lightfoot performed at the Tin Pan South Legends concert at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, closing the show. In May he performed “Ring Them Bells” at Massey Hall in honour of Bob Dylan’s 60th birthday.

By January 2002, he had written 30 new songs and was beginning to record the studio album Harmony. In April the first year, his Complete Greatest Hits collection was released, which has since been certified gold in Canada. However, in September 2002, Lightfoot suffered a near-fatal abdominal aneurysm that left him in a coma for six weeks and necessitated a long recovery process. Lightfoot was promoted within the Order of Canada to Companion in 2003. In bestowing the honour, the Governor General praised Lightfoot’s “unique ability to blend contemporary urban music with our traditional roots” and noted that “he has influenced a host of other musicians with his versatility and thought-provoking lyrics… and remains one of Canada’s most beloved musicians.”

Harmony, Lightfoot’s 20th studio album, was eventually released in 2004. He also made an appearance that year on CTV’s Canadian Idol. In 2006, Lightfoot suffered a stroke onstage but was touring again within a year.
Lightfoot was the subject of a death hoax after CTV journalist David Akin reported through his personal social media pages that Lightfoot had died ,in February 2010. While driving home, Lightfoot heard the reports of his death on the radio and immediately phoned the station to confirm he was alive.
In February the year 2012, Lightfoot was awarded a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work in community service. In April, Lightfoot released All Live, a collection of songs recorded live at several of his Massey Hall concerts between 1998 and 2001. In the month of November 2012, Lightfoot performed “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” at the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto.

In the year 2015, Lightfoot produced a cover of Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” by long-time friend Ronnie Hawkins. The two also collaborated on a cover of Lightfoot’s 1970 composition “The Pony Man,” which Lightfoot wrote for his children.In 2015, despite being in his late-70s, Lightfoot continued to tour extensively, performing 67 shows throughout North America . In 2016, he undertook an 11-date tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland, his first tour there in 35 years.

Gordon Lightfoot Personal Life

Lightfoot has been married three times. His first marriage in April 1963 was to a Swedish woman, Brita Ingegerd Olaisson, with whom he had two children, Fred and Ingrid. They divorced in 1973, the marriage ending in part because of his infidelity. Lightfoot has acknowledged that his musical touring and the difficulty of fidelity in a long-distance relationship contributed to the failure of at least two relationships:

The song “If You Could Read My Mind” was written in reflection upon his disintegrating marriage. At the request of his daughter, Ingrid, he performs the lyrics with a slight change now: the line “I’m just trying to understand the feelings that you lack” is altered to “I’m just trying to understand the feelings that we lack.” He has said in an interview that the difficulty with writing songs inspired by personal stories is that there is not always the emotional distance and clarity to make lyrical improvements such as the one his daughter suggested.

After being alone for 16 years between marriages, Lightfoot married Elizabeth Moon in 1989. They had two children: Miles and Meredith. He divorced his second wife in 2011 after a separation that Lightfoot said had lasted nine years.Lightfoot wed for a third time on December 19, 2014 at Rosedale United Church to Kim Hasse. 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.” He calmly stated, “I’ve been almost dead a couple times, once almost for real … I have more incentive to continue now because I feel I’m on borrowed time, in terms of age.”

Lightfoot band members have displayed loyalty to him, as both musicians and friends, recording and performing with him for as many as 45 years. He said in 2016 that he wasn’t planning to return to songwriting later in life as he’d concluded it was “such an isolating thing” for him earlier in his career, affecting his family life.

Gordon Lightfoot Honours and Awards

As an individual, apart from various awards associated with his albums and singles, Gordon Lightfoot has received sixteen Juno Awards—for top folk singer in 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977, for top male vocalist in 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1973, and as composer of the year in 1972 and 1976. He has received ASCAP awards for songwriting in 1971, 1974, 1976, and 1977, and has been nominated for five Grammy Awards. In 1974 Lightfoot’s song “Sundown” was named pop record of the year by the Music Operators of America. In 1980 he was named Canadian male recording artist of the decade, for his work in the 1970s. Lightfoot was chosen as the celebrity captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the NHL’s 75th anniversary season in 1991–1992.

Lightfoot was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. He was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 1998. In May 2003 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour. Lightfoot is a member of the Order of Ontario, the highest honour in the province of Ontario. In 1977, he received the Vanier Award from the Canadian Jaycees. In 2007 Canada Post honored Lightfoot and three other legendary Canadian music artists (Anne Murray, Paul Anka, and Joni Mitchell) with postage stamps highlighting their names and images. On June 24, 2012, Lightfoot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in a New York City ceremony, along with Bob Seger.

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 was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award by SOCAN at the 2014 SOCAN Awards in Toronto on June 16, 2014. On October 23, 2015, Lightfoot was honoured with a 4-meter tall bronze sculpture in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario. The sculpture, called “Golden Leaves – A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot” features Lightfoot sitting cross-legged, playing an acoustic guitar underneath an arch of golden maple leaves. Many of the leaves depict scenes from Lightfoot’s 1975 greatest hits album, Gord’s Gold.

Gordon Lightfoot Video


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