The singer-songwriter, a Canadian folk music award winner who crossed over to major pop fame in the United States during the 1970s, died Monday night at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. He was 84 years old.
Lightfoot’s death is confirmed by his longtime agent, Victoria Lord.
Lightfoot topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974 with “Sundown” and also had Top 5 hits 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 their chart heyday in the mid-1970s.
Lightfoot rose to prominence in the mid-1960s, writing such popular standards as “Early Morning Rain” (a hit for Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia Tyson), “For Loving Me” and “Ribbon of Darkness” as well as a “Rail Trilogy”. The ambitious Canadian, sort of the Northern equivalent of Mickey Newbury’s American Trilogy.
While he was acclaimed at home and an inspiration to younger performers in Canada such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, success in America eluded him until he signed with Warner Bros. Republishing imprint (which released Young and Mitchell’s amazing recordings).
His 1970 debut Sit Young Stringer contained the US #5 hit “If You Could Read My Mind,” a heavily sung ballad. Retitled after his hit, the LP rose to No. 12 in America.
Although Lightfoot remained a bigger star at home (scoring three consecutive No. 1 albums from 1972 to 1974), he maintained a high-profile status in the United States throughout the 1970s. His 1974 album “Sundown”—which contained the ominous title (the only Top 45 pop hit to reach #1 in both Canada and America) and his album “Carefree Highway” (#10 here)—topped the charts in both countries. The marine disaster song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” hit #2 in the US in 1976.
Reflecting on why he’s so popular in an extended Rolling Stone profile of 2019, Lightfoot explained that audiences have embraced his songs because of a “shift of phrase. Or the fact that they’re so simple…they’re all tunes that move along and have forward momentum, which is what I look for in my writing.” Momentum straight ahead. “
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 by him, it’s as if I wish it would last forever,” Dylan wrote in the notes to his 1985 career anthology Autobiography.
Although Lightfoot’s hits dried up on both sides of the border during the ’80s, he remained a respected figure in popular circles. His material has been covered extensively by artists from Dylan & Young to Elvis Presley. In 1988, he performed at the opening ceremony of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
His life was not short of drama. Although he never elaborates on his best-selling song “Sundown” in interviews, it is widely believed that the song was inspired by his extramarital affair with Cathy Smith, the Canadian group and musician who was later charged in John Belushi’s drug overdose death. ; The connection led to the dissolution of Lightfoot’s first marriage, which ended in a headline-grabbing divorce settlement.
Facial paralysis caused by Bell’s palsy that struck Lightfoot in the early 1970s. A serious problem with alcohol led him to quit drinking in 1982 (“I was doing irrational things,” he told Rolling Stone), and he remained a teetotaler for more than 30 years. In 2002, a ruptured abdominal aneurysm resulted in a six-week coma, prolonged hospitalization and further surgery, but by 2004 he had completed a new album. A minor stroke in 2006 left him unable to play 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 slew of health issues, the indomitable musician continued to tour well into his 80s, taking extended tours in the US and Canada 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 on November 17, 1938, in Orillia, Ont. , later the inaugural site of the long-running Mariposa Folk Festival. His performing career was encouraged by his mother from an early age; He was active on local radio as a youth and, as a boy soprano, performed at Massey Ballroom in Toronto. In his teens, he played guitar, piano, and drums.
Although a promising high school athlete, Lightfoot increasingly focused on music in his teens. At the age of twenty, 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 1960s, his interest in popular music deepened. He has performed both in urban folk bands and as a soloist in Toronto coffeehouses. He resided briefly in England, where he hosted a BBC country music television station.
His big breakthrough came with Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s 1965 version of “Early Morning Rain”. The pair were then the most prominent pop act in Canada and a famous export in America. This song and “For Loving Me” were also covered by the famous American actor Peter, Paul & Mary, who, like Dylan, was 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 advance Lightfoot’s profile outside of Canada.
Things changed when he moved to Reprise, the most progressive American label of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His debut album — which he paired with fellow hip A-listers like Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman and John Sebastian — kicked off with his top five hit “If You Could Read My Mind,” which firmly established Lightfoot as the number one singer-songwriter.
During the 1970s Lightfoot made his deep mark as a romantic player, and his powerful baritone became a staple of the adult contemporary charts, scoring three consecutive singles in the mid-1970s.
But his last major American hit was an anomaly: the somber “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” recounting the 1975 sinking of the American freighter Honorary on Lake Superior, which claimed the lives of 29 crew. Lightfoot – whose interest in sailing led him to the story – considered the song his best work.
Lightfoot has continued to tour in recent years, including a critically acclaimed stop at the Stagecoach Festival in California in 2018.
A documentary about 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 the Best Canadian Screen Documentary Awards.
Twice married and divorced, Lightfoot is survived by his third wife, Kim Haas, whom he married in 2014; two children from his first marriage, to Britta Oleson; two children with second wife Elizabeth Moon; and two children from relationships between the first and second marriages.