Gordon Lightfoot, the popular singer-songwriter known for “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown” and for songs that tell stories about Canadian identity, died Monday. He was 84 years old.
The musician died at a Toronto hospital, said representative Victoria Lord. His cause of death was not immediately available.
One of the most recognizable voices to emerge from Toronto’s popular Yorkville club scene in the 1960s, Lightfoot recorded 20 studio albums and wrote hundreds of songs, including “Carefree Highway,” “Early Morning Rain” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
In the 1970s, Lightfoot earned five Grammy nominations, three platinum records, and nine gold records for albums and singles. He played in more than 1,500 concerts and recorded 500 songs.
He toured late in life. He canceled upcoming shows in the US and Canada last month, citing health concerns.
“We have lost one of our greatest singer-songwriters,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted. “Gordon Lightfoot captured the spirit of our country in his music, and in doing so helped shape Canada. May his music continue to inspire generations to come and may his legacy live on forever.”
Once called a “rare talent” by Bob Dylan, Lightfoot has been covered by dozens of artists, including Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Anne Murray, Jane’s Addiction, and Sarah McLachlan.
Most of his songs are deeply autobiographical, with lyrics that frankly explore his own experiences and explore issues surrounding Canadian national identity. The “Canadian Railway Trilogy” represented the construction of the railway.
“I just write the songs about where I am and where I’m from,” he once said. “I take situations and write poems about them.”
Lightfoot’s music had a style of its own. “It’s not country, it’s not folk, it’s not rock,” he said in an interview in 2000. But it has strains of all three.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” for example, is a haunting tribute to the 29 men who died in 1975 when the ship sank on Lake Superior during a storm.
Although Lightfoot’s parents recognized his musical talent early on, he did not go on to become a renowned balladeer.
He started singing in his church choir and dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. At age 13, the soprano won a talent contest at the Kiwanis Music Festival, held at Toronto’s Massey Hall.
Lightfoot said in a 2018 interview, “I remember the excitement of being in front of the crowd. It was a springboard for me…”
The appeal of those early days continued and in high school his barbershop quartet, The Collegiate Four, won a CBC talent competition. He picked up his first guitar in 1956 and began making music by writing songs in the following months. Perhaps distracted by his taste in music, he failed algebra the first time.
After taking the class again, he graduated in 1957.
By then, Lightfoot had already written his first serious composition: “The Hula Hoop Song,” inspired by the game that took the culture by storm. Attempts to sell this song failed, so at the age of 18 he went to the United States to study music for a year. The trip was financed in part with money saved from a job delivering linens to the resort in his hometown.
However, life in Hollywood was not a good fit, and it wasn’t long before Lightfoot returned to Canada. He vowed to move to Toronto to pursue his musical ambitions, taking any available job, including a position at a bank before landing a gig as a square dancer on CBC’s “Country Hoedown.”
His first gig was at Fran’s Restaurant, a family-run restaurant downtown that warmed to his popular sensibilities. It was there that he met fellow musician Ronnie Hawkins.
The singer lived with some friends in a dilapidated building in Yorkville, then a bohemian area where future stars like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell would learn their trade in smoky clubs.
Lightfoot made his popular radio debut with the single “(Remember Me) I’m the One” in 1962, which led to a string of hits and collaborations with other local musicians. When he began playing the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario, that same year, Lightfoot forged a relationship that made him the festival’s most loyal artist.
In 1964, he gathered positive in the city, and the public began to gather in larger numbers. The following year, Lightfoot’s song “I’m Not Sayin'” was a hit in Canada, helping to spread his name in the United States.
A couple of covers by other artists didn’t hurt either. In 1965, Marty Robbins’ recording of “Ribbon of Darkness” reached No. 1 in the US charts, while Peter, Paul and Mary covered Lightfoot’s composition “For Lovin’ Me” in the song Top The, which Dylan said once he wished he had. recorded, since covered by hundreds of other musicians.
That summer, Lightfoot played at the Newport Folk Festival, the same year Dylan rocked crowds when he dropped his folk persona and strummed an electric guitar.
When the popular music boom came to an end in the late 1960s, Lightfoot had already made his transition to pop music with ease.
In 1971, he made his first appearance on the billboard with “If You Could Read My Mind.” It reached number 5 and has since spawned dozens of versions.
Lightfoot’s popularity soared in the mid-1970s when both his single and album, “Sundown”, topped the charts, the first and only time he had ever done so.
During his career, Lightfoot collected 12 Juno Awards, including one in 1970 when he was named Gold Leaf.
In 1986, he was inducted into the Canadian Recording Industry Hall of Fame, now the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He received the Governor General’s Award in 1997 and was inducted into Canada’s Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.