Canadian Musician Profile: Gordon Lightfoot

With a career spanning more than five decades, 71-year-old Gordon Lightfoot has influenced the likes of Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and Sarah McLachlan.

A national treasure

Considered a national treasure by artists like Robbie Robertson of The Band, Gordon Lightfoot has been awarded the Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honour. He has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

Honoured repeatedly at the Juno Awards, Lightfoot is also a member of the Order of Ontario. His face has been immortalized on a Canadian postage stamp and he has a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.

Gordon Lightfoot’s musical career has spanned more than five decades. He has more than 200 recordings. His songwriting has influenced countless artists and has defined the modern folk-pop sound that many young artists aspire to today. Canadian rockers, The Guess Who, recorded a song “Lightfoot” in 1968 as tribute to his work and he is a favourite songwriter of both Bob Dylan’s and Robbie Robertson.

Gordon Lightfoot : Groomed for success

Groomed to perform at a young age by his mother, who recognized his talent, Lightfoot sang is first concert at Massey Hall in Toronto at the age of 12. Since then, Massey Hall has become a favoured venue for him and he favours playing its stage on his birthday. Lightfoot has, in fact, performed solo on that stage more than any other other artist.

Under the care of choirmaster Ray Williams, in the choir of Orillia’s St. Paul’s United Church, Lightfoot fine-tuned his voice and learned to instill emotion and confidence into his singing. A soprano until after he was twelve, he won competitions particularly geared toward boys whose voices had not changed.

Later, Lightfoot taught himself to play drums and percussion and learned to play piano.

“If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot

One of Lightfoot’s most popular songs is “If You Could Read My Mind”, which he wrote in response to his disintegrating marriage.

In an interview with Nancy Naglin he said, “When you’re away from the woman, continually confronted by other women, you suddenly find yourself in a weak moment. Then you’ve gone and stepped over the traces and you gotta go home and confront your old lady. It’s a two-way street. You’re going to have to offer her the same deal. You can’t ask the woman to be faithful if you’re not going to be faithful to her. That’s where it’s broken down for me twice.”

It was an acknowledgment of his infidelity with Cathy Smith, former backup singer, groupie and girlfriend of John Belushi who died after she administered a lethal dose of heroin.

At the request of his daughter, Ingrid, Gordon made a minor adjustment to the lyrics of “If You Could Read My Mind” altering the words “I’m just trying to understand the feelings that you lack” to “the feelings that we lack”. He cites difficulty with emotionally distancing himself when writing songs of a personal nature and says that changes such as the one suggested by his daughter can be improvements because of this.

“If You Could Read My Mind” has been covered countless times by musicians from all genres including Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Don McLean, Glen Campbell, Olivia Newton-John and Liza Minnelli. Most recently, Stars on 54’s house remix has had great success on the airwaves.

Medical difficulties

In 2002, Lightfoot suffered an illness and was forced to undergo surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Recovery and follow-up would be lengthy and it wouldn’t be until 2004 that he would return to performing, staging an exciting and successful comeback, but in September 2006, he suffered a small stroke while performing. This affected the use of his right hand.

For a short time, he had to use a guitarist to play the more complicated riffs, but by 2007 Lightfoot was able to return to playing his guitar music the way he had originally written it.

Lightfoot death hoax

On February 18, 2010, a Twitter message stated that Gordon Lightfoot had died. Long-time friend, Ronnie Hawkins received a phone call confirming this and his wife began to make some very difficult phone calls. Canwest reporter, David Akins broke the news citing anonymous sources close to Lightfoot.

En route to his office, Lightfoot heard the news himself.

“I was quite surprised to hear it myself driving in… to my office,” he said. “I haven’t had so much airplay for weeks.”

His manager, Bernie Fielder, confirmed it was a hoax to a much relieved nation. It seemed it had started with a Tweet and had spread unbelievably fast.

Back to life and touring

This year, Gordon Lightfoot is touring the United States and has dates set for a tour of his beloved Canada for 2011, including Massey Hall next May.

At 71 years old, Gordon Lightfoot is Canada’s most beloved musician, a national treasure and the most influential folk singer of his generation and the one following.

By Alexandra Studio [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons