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Canadian folk music icon Gordon Lightfoot, whose evocative and poetic songs are etched into the musical landscape of Canada, has died at the age of 84, according to his longtime publicist Victoria Lord.
Lord says Lightfoot died at a Toronto hospital on Monday evening. The cause of death was not immediately available
Born in Orillia, Ont., Lightfoot was hailed as Canada’s folk troubadour for his soulful music and stirring lyrics. In songs such as The Canadian Railroad Trilogy and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, he explored the country’s history, geography and culture.
“He is our poet laureate, he is our iconic singer-songwriter,” said Rush singer Geddy Lee in the 2019 documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind.
“Gordon’s songs are works of art, every bit as relevant as classic poetry,” Tom Cochrane said during his salute to Lightfoot at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame gala in 2003.
“But even more importantly, Gordon Lightfoot led the way and he showed us … that you can be true to your roots. You can draw on your influences at home and country and you can incorporate those inspirations into the fabric of your work and still be internationally successful.”
From teen promise to folk fame
A childhood performer on local radio and at regional music festivals, Lightfoot wrote his first song, The Hula Hoop Song, in 1955, while still in high school.
“A lot of the images in my songs are drawn from this kind of country,” the singer-songwriter said of Orillia, in a 1967 interview with CBC-TV’s Telescope.
“I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve seen some nice country. I don’t think any of it will ever stay with me or impress me as much as this country here in Muskoka… It’s the country I grew up in.”
After graduating high school, Lightfoot moved to Los Angeles to study at the Westlake College of Music. He returned to Canada in 1959 and worked a variety of jobs in Toronto. He was a choral performer, a dancer on CBC’s Country Hoedown and a folk singer in the Two Tones with Terry Whelan.
In the 1960s, inspired by the music of Bob Dylan, Lightfoot became part of Toronto’s burgeoning folk scene. He developed his songwriting and began working on a debut album. Lightfoot! emerged in 1966.
At the same time, Lightfoot started what would become a highly anticipated, annual concert stand at Toronto’s Massey Hall. Launched in 1967, it happened every year until the mid-1980s, then dropped down to about once every 18 months. In 2005, Lightfoot resumed the Massey Hall event as an annual tradition.
After earning accolades at home in the late 1960s, Canada’s troubadour broke through internationally in the 1970s after signing with Warner Records in the U.S., making a splash at the start of that decade with the release of the single If You Could Read My Mind, now a folk standard.
Lightfoot followed that up, over the next six years, with what became many of his best-known songs, such as Beautiful, Sundown, Don Quixote, Carefree Highway, Rainy Day People and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Some of those songs were written after his first marriage ended during a mercurial, years-long relationship with Cathy Smith, who was later convicted for providing drugs to John Belushi after his overdose death.
“It was one of these relationships where you get a feeling of danger coming into the picture,” Lightfoot said in 2019’s If You Could Read My Mind.
Lightfoot took to the road in the 1970s, touring the U.S. from Alaska to Hawaii and playing a host of European concert dates, including Amsterdam, Munich, Frankfurt, the Montreux Festival in Switzerland and sold-out gigs at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Despite the decline of folk in the late 1970s and ’80s, Lightfoot continued to make his distinctive music, though he also made forays into acting, appearing in the film Harry Tracy with Bruce Dern and Helen Shaver.
In 1987, the much-admired songwriter made headlines when he filed a lawsuit against Michael Masser, who composed the tune The Greatest Love of All. The song became a massive hit after being recorded by Whitney Houston.
Lightfoot claimed Masser’s song stole 24 bars of melody from If You Could Read My Mind. The case was settled out of court, with Masser issuing a public apology.
In the course of his long career, Lightfoot conquered several illnesses, including a bout of Bell’s palsy and, in his early performing years, alcoholism. He beat the addiction in the 1980s.
In September 2002, the country was on tenterhooks when news broke that Lightfoot had been airlifted to hospital with severe stomach pains, just as he was about to take the stage for a concert in Orillia. The singer had suffered a ruptured artery in his stomach, had to go through several rounds of surgery and was in a coma for six weeks.
After three months in hospital, Lightfoot approached his recovery gamely, vowing to complete a new studio album and return to the stage. He released the album Harmony in 2004 and made his comeback performance that same year at the Mariposa Festival.
Though he suffered a minor stroke in 2006, which temporarily left him without the use of some fingers in his left hand, he persisted with a regimen of regular guitar practice and gym workouts aimed at keeping him in shape for the road.
Songs covered by some of music’s biggest stars
He took the premature report of his death in 2010 in stride, and later performed a high-profile Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame concert with The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie while maintaining his own touring schedule.
In addition to early adopters like fellow folkies Ian and Sylvia Tyson, and Peter, Paul and Mary, a wide range of artists recorded Lightfoot’s music, including his idol Bob Dylan. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Petula Clark, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Liza Minelli, Barbra Streisand, Sarah McLachlan and Anne Murray.
“I never heard a cover of one of my songs that I didn’t like,” Lightfoot told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette newspaper in 2008.
“Sure, I heard some strange versions occasionally, but they always seemed to do a good job. I would be amazed that people would enjoy my songs enough to want to record them, and it inspired me and made me want to work harder.”
Lightfoot received an array of tributes recognizing his contribution to Canadian music and culture. There were cover albums, honorary degrees, a postage stamp and even a guitar created in his name. He won a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 1997 and was invested as a Companion of the Order of Canada — the order’s highest level — in 2003.
A multiple Grammy nominee with more than 15 Juno Awards under his belt, Lightfoot was inducted into many halls of fame, including the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
“I know he’s been offered this award before and he’s never accepted it because he wanted me to come up here to give it to him,” Dylan quipped onstage during the 1986 Juno Awards gala. “He’s somebody of rare talent.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada has lost “one of our greatest singer-songwriters.
Lightfoot “captured our country’s spirit in his music — and in doing so, he helped shape Canada’s soundscape,” Trudeau said in Twitter post.
We have lost one of our greatest singer-songwriters. Gordon Lightfoot captured our country’s spirit in his music – and in doing so, he helped shape Canada’s soundscape. May his music continue to inspire future generations, and may his legacy live on forever. To his family,…
A consummate entertainer to the end, Lightfoot doggedly refused to give up live shows. He toured the U.K. for the first time in 35 years in 2015, and two years later was part of Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations in Ottawa.
He released Solo in 2020, a collection of studio recordings that he had kicking around in the vaults for several years. In 2010, he vowed to keep playing up to 70 gigs a year “because I love doing it.”
Lightfoot is survived by his wife, Kim, six children — Fred, Ingrid, Galen, Eric, Miles and Meredith — and several grandchildren.
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