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Gordon Lightfoot Still is Going Strong

The Canadian guitarist/singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, in the words of Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, is a “national treasure.” His catalog of well-known songs is long, as is the list of successful and highly talented musicians for whom he has written or who have covered his songs.

Some of Lightfoot’s hits are “Carefree Highway,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Rainy Day People” and “If You Could Read My Mind.” Elvis, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, The Irish Rovers and Tony Rice are among the many who have performed his work.

Lightfoot, who will turn 80 in November, is from Orillia, Ontario. Wikipedia says that his father owned a dry cleaning company. His mother realized that he was talented and saw that he was trained in music from a very young age.

It’s impossible to sum up such a life and career in a few paragraphs. Some highlights: Lightfoot excelled in both sports (football and track) and music in high school. He taught himself to play guitar.

Gordon Lightfoot on one side, a beehive on the other.

He moved to California in 1958 and studied jazz composition and orchestration for two years. Lightfoot recorded demos and commercial jingles in Hollywood, but didn’t like California, according to AllMusic. He moved back to Canada and settled in Toronto. Lightfoot joined the Swinging Eight, the in-house vocal group for Country Hoedown, a popular program. He also formed a duo with Terry Whalen.

Lightfoot spent a considerable amount time in Europe in the early 1960s, where he hosted the “Country and Western Show” on the BBC. Things began to happen when he returned to Canada in 1964. Ian & Sylvia Tyson, a successful Canadian act, heard Lightfoot. They used some of his songs and pointed him out to their manager, Albert Grossman, who gave him a contract.

Beginnings are the most interesting elements. Once an artist “makes it,” the bios do what they have to do: Start listing album names, labels and personnel. It’s very important stuff, but only of real interest to people truly interested in that artist. Wikipedia does a great job, as usual, of tracing Lightfoot’s career. Those with a deeper interest should check out “Lightfoot,” a biography by Nicholas Jennings that was published last year.

Lightfoot’s career very nearly didn’t last as long as it has. In January 2002, he was in his hometown playing a two-nighter. Before the second concert, he suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Lightfoot was in a coma for six weeks and nearly died. He survived the ordeal and gradually worked his way back. He resumed performing in July 2004.

Lightfoot had another brush with death, though this one was more comic (albeit dark). In February of 2010, a journalist posted on Facebook and Twitter that Lightfoot had died. He heard of his “death” while driving home from the dentist. He called radio station CJOB to say that the announcements were fake.

There is a lot of interesting material about Lightfoot on the Internet. Check out this compilation of the original liner notes he wrote for the songs included in “The Gordon Lightfoot Songbook.” It’s always interesting to find out what an artist thinks of his or her work.

A fan named Valerie Magee runs a nice site. She also apparently beat Lightfoot – or, more accurately, his management – to the URL (www.gordonlightfoot.com) that usually belongs to the artist.

Lightfoot’s personal life seems to not have been smooth sailing, as often is the case with people who are highly creative and travel so much. He has been married three times and has six children. The first marriage ended at least partly due to his infidelity. “If You Could Read My Mind” deals with the disintegration of the marriage. As of the time that the Wikipedia profile was written, Lightfoot worked out six days per week. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986.

The Chicago Sun Times’s Jeff Elbel posted a nice story on Lightfoot last month, as papers usually do when an act of note comes to town. The man seems to still be taking care of himself:

Lightfoot remains lean, fit and in fine spirits, although the richness of his voice is somewhat weathered by time and natural forces as he approaches his 80th birthday in November. “Hi, I’m Gordon Lightfoot, and the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” the singer wisecracked at the Stagecoach Festival in Indio, California, this spring. In that spirit, Lightfoot has dubbed his North American run the “The Legend Lives On” tour. The title is drawn from 1976 single “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

That introductory line likely hints at the hoax death announcement. Check out the photo, which I can’t reproduce. Lightfoot looks terrific.

Below is “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle” and above is “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” performed in 1972. His wonderful voice was – and hopefully still is – remarkably rich and easily identifiable. It’s great to read that Lightfoot still is touring. Indeed, as this schedule shows, he is not slowing down one bit and will celebrate his 80th birthday between gigs.

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