Gordon Lightfoot obituary | Music

Gordon Lightfoot, the singer and songwriter, who has died aged 84, became one of Canada’s best loved musical figures, winning 16 of his homeland’s Juno awards. He scored eight Top 5 albums in Canada during the 1970s (including the 1975 compilation Gord’s Gold), four of them reaching No 1, and Sundown (1974) topping both the Canadian and the US chart.

He was held in huge esteem and amassed an impressive track record of having his songs covered by many of the leading artists of his era. The melancholy and lonesome Early Mornin’ Rain would become one of his signature compositions, covered by many artists including Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Paul Weller. Dylan, who would perform various Lightfoot songs in his own concerts, commented: “I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like. Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.” Marty Robbins took Lightfoot’s Ribbon of Darkness to the top of the US Country chart in 1965, Harry Belafonte delivered a dramatic rendition of Oh, Linda, and Peter, Paul and Mary had a US Top 30 hit with For Lovin’ Me.

If You Could Read My Mind became his most celebrated song, a plangent meditation on the breakup of his marriage to his first wife, Brita Ingegerd Olaisson; they later divorced. His own version reached No 1 in Canada and No 5 in the US – his other chart-topping singles were Sundown, also a US No 1, and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – but the song went on to spawn more than 100 cover versions by such luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Olivia Newton-John, Glen Campbell, Liza Minnelli and Herb Alpert. “It was a kind of unrequited love song, partly due to love’s rollercoaster,” Lightfoot reflected.

If his personal life fuelled his art, he suffered for it too. In the early 70s his relationship with the backing singer Cathy Smith caused him a great deal of anguish – “men were drawn to her, and she used to make me jealous,” he confessed – but also prompted the writing of Sundown (when Smith was out partying without him) and Rainy Day People, a US Top 30 hit. Smith was later jailed for administering the cocaine and heroin mixture that killed John Belushi at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood in 1982.

Born in Orillia, Ontario, Lightfoot was the son of Gordon Lightfoot Sr and Jessie (nee Trill), who ran a laundry service. Jessie was quick to spot her son’s musical potential, and by the time he was 10 he was singing in public. As a boy soprano, he sang in local oratorio productions and in the church choir, and performed at music festivals. Aged 12, he appeared at Massey Hall, Toronto, after winning a singing competition. In his teens he learned to play the piano, drums and folk guitar, and was also a gifted track and field athlete.

At 18 he went to Westlake College of Modern Music in Los Angeles, where he studied orchestration and music theory. He left California for Toronto to launch himself on a musical career, working as a bank clerk to help pay the rent.

He was a member of the Singin’ Swingin’ Eight, who appeared on the Country Hoedown TV show, and played folk music in coffee houses. His first commercial recordings were released in 1962. His own composition, This Is My Song, which he performed with his singing partner Terry Whelan, appeared on the live recording Two Tones at the Village Corner, and several months later he released (Remember Me) I’m The One, another original though somewhat middle-of-the-road song, billed as Gord Lightfoot. It reached No 3 on Toronto’s CHUM radio chart. A follow-up, It’s Too Late, He Wins/Negotiations, took him to 27 on the CHUM chart.

Falling under the influence of the up-and-coming Dylan and a fellow Canadian singer-songwriter, Ian Tyson, Lightfoot began developing a more poetic, folk-style sound. In 1963 he travelled to Europe, putting in a stint as host on BBC TV’s Country and Western Show.

On his return to Canada in 1964, his reputation received a major boost when his songs Early Mornin’ Rain and For Lovin’ Me were both recorded by Ian and Sylvia Tyson and Peter, Paul and Mary. He signed a deal with Albert Grossman, the influential manager of Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, and released his debut album, Lightfoot!, in January 1966. This was for the United Artists label, but it was when he switched to the Warner Bros label Reprise at the start of the 70s that his career took off. His first Reprise release, Sit Down Young Stranger, reached No 12 in both Canada and the US, kicking off his spectacular run of 70s success.

His sales tailed off in the 80s, though he was constantly in demand as a live performer, and he enjoyed some belated chart success with the album Harmony (2004), which reached No 13 in Canada. However, the demands of the touring lifestyle found him dependent on whisky and pills. He would undertake arduous sailing and canoeing trips to dry out, and in 1982 finally gave up alcohol and took up daily gym workouts.

He survived a number of medical emergencies. In 1972 he was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy. In 2002 he almost died from a ruptured aneurysm in his abdominal aorta, and four years later suffered a minor stroke that temporarily impaired his guitar-playing. In 2019 he suffered a hematoma in his left leg, requiring surgery.

Lightfoot was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. In 1997 he received the governor general’s performing arts award, and he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2003. In 2012 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

His second marriage, to Elizabeth Moon, ended in divorce, and he then married Kim Hasse in 2014. She survives him, along with his six children, Fred and Ingrid from his first marriage, Gaylen and Eric from relationships between his first two marriages, and Miles and Meredith from his second.

Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr, singer and songwriter, born 17 November 1938; died 1 May 2023

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