Singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian folk music laureate who crossed over to major pop fame in the U.S. during the ‘70s, died of natural causes on Monday evening at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. He was 84 years old.
Lightfoot’s death was confirmed by his longtime agent, Victoria Lord.
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Lightfoot topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974 with “Sundown” and also had top 5 songs with “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” All three songs reached No. 1 on the adult contemporary chart, as did “Carefree Highway” and “Rainy Day People,” during his mid-’70s chart heyday.
Lightfoot rose to prominence in the mid-‘60s, penning such folk standards as “Early Morning Rain” (a major hit for the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia Tyson), “For Loving Me” and “Ribbon of Darkness,” as well as the ambitious “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” a sort of Northern equivalent to Mickey Newbury’s “American Trilogy.”
While he was acclaimed at home and served as an inspiration for such younger Canada-bred performers as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, success in America eluded him until he signed with Warner Bros.’ Reprise imprint (which released Young and Mitchell’s breakthrough recordings).
His 1970 Reprise debut “Sit Down Young Stranger” contained the No. 5 U.S. hit “If You Could Read My Mind,” a heavily orchestrated ballad; renamed after its hit, the LP rose to No. 12 in America.
Though Lightfoot remained a bigger star at home (where he logged three consecutive No. 1 albums from 1972 to 1974), he maintained a high profile stateside throughout the ‘70s. His 1974 album “Sundown” — which contained the ominous title single (his only pop 45 to reach No. 1 in both Canada and America) and the upbeat “Carefree Highway” (No. 10 here) – topped the charts in both countries. The maritime disaster ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” hit No. 2 in the U.S. in 1976.
Reflecting on the reason for his popularity in an expansive 2019 Rolling Stone profile, Lightfoot explained that audiences embraced his songs because of “the turn of the phrase. Or the fact that they’re so simple… They’re all tunes that move along and have a forward momentum, which is what I look for in my writing. Forward momentum.”
Among Lightfoot’s greatest admirers was his contemporary Bob Dylan, who appeared at the 1986 Juno Awards (the northern equivalent of the Grammys) to induct the musician into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
“Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever,” Dylan wrote in the liner notes to his 1985 career anthology “Biograph.”
Though the hits dried up for Lightfoot on both sides of the border during the ‘80s, he remained a revered figure in folk circles. His material has been widely covered, by artists ranging from Dylan and Young to Elvis Presley. In 1988, he performed at the opening ceremony of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
His life was never lacking in drama. Although he never addressed the specifics of his best-selling song “Sundown” in interviews, that hit was widely believed to be inspired by his extramarital affair with Cathy Smith, the Canadian groupie and sometime musician later charged in the drug overdose death of John Belushi; the liaison reputedly led to the breakup of Lightfoot’s first marriage, which ended in a headline-making, record-setting divorce settlement.
Facial paralysis from Bell’s palsy sidelined Lightfoot in the early ‘70s. A serious problem with alcohol led him to quit drinking in 1982 (“I was doing irrational things,” he told Rolling Stone), and he remained abstemious for more than 30 years. In 2002, a ruptured abdominal aneurysm led to a six-week coma, extended hospitalization and further surgery, but by 2004 he had completed a new album. A minor stroke in 2006 led him unable to play the guitar for the better part of a year, but he returned to the instrument on stage. After being diagnosed with emphysema in 2018, he quit smoking.
Despite this multitude of health problems, the indomitable musician continued to tour into his 80s, and undertook long U.S. and Canadian treks from 2017 to 2019; he told the Los Angeles Times that he would continue to work on the road “as long as all my band members can keep up with me.” In 2019, he announced that he was recording his 21st studio album.
Lightfoot was born Nov. 17, 1938, in Orillia, Ont., later the inaugural site of the long-running Mariposa Folk Festival. His mother encouraged his performing career from an early age; he was active on local radio as a youth, and, as a boy soprano, performed at Toronto’s Massey Hall. By his teen years, he was playing guitar, piano and drums.
Though a promising high school athlete, Lightfoot focused increasingly on music in his teens. At 20, after studying music at the University of Toronto, he moved to Los Angeles, where he studied jazz composition. However, after two years he returned to Toronto. In the early ‘60s, his interest in folk music deepened. He performed in both urban folk ensembles and as a soloist in Toronto’s coffee houses. He briefly resided in England, where he hosted a BBC country music telecast.
His big breakthrough came with Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s 1965 version of “Early Morning Rain”; the couple was then Canada’s most prominent folk act and a well-known export in America. That song and “For Loving Me” were also covered by the top U.S. folk act Peter, Paul & Mary, who, like Dylan, were handled by the powerful manager Albert Grossman, who soon took Lightfoot as a client.
He was signed to United Artists Records in 1965, but his four albums for the label released from 1966 to 1968 did little to heighten Lightfoot’s profile outside Canada.
Things changed when he decamped for Reprise, America’s most progressive label of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. His first album – which mated him with such hip roster mates as Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman and John Sebastian – lifted off with the top-five “If You Could Read My Mind,” which firmly established Lightfoot in the top rank of singer-songwriters.
Through the ‘70s, Lightfoot made his deepest mark as a romantic balladeer, and his sturdy baritone became a fixture on the American adult contemporary charts, where he tallied three consecutive No. singles in the mid ’70s.
But his last major U.S. hit was an anomaly: the somber “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a recounting of the 1975 sinking of the titular American freighter on Lake Superior, which claimed the lives of 29 crewmen. Lightfoot – whose interest in sailing led him to the story – would come to consider the song his best work.
Lightfoot continued to tour in recent years, including a much-praised stop at California’s Stagecoach Festival in 2018.
A documentary on the singer, “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind,” directed by Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, was released in 2019. It was nominated for several awards in Canada, including best feature-length documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards.
Twice married and divorced, Lightfoot is survived by his third wife Kim Hasse, whom he wed in 2014; two children from his first marriage to Brita Olaisson; two children by second wife Elizabeth Moon; and two children from relationships between his first two marriages; and several grandchildren.
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