Gordon Lightfoot has been called Canada’s greatest songwriter with the songs to prove it.
“I have a very well-selected program of material that I play, which includes the hits,” Lightfoot told WTOP. “We’re doing like 65 shows a year. … We play all over North America. … My stage show and my road show and how we go about doing it and how we engineer the whole project is one of the really thrilling parts because it’s fun staying prepared.”
Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1938, he grew up listening to opera and classical music.
“The first music I heard was classical music at a very early age,” Lightfoot said. “I used to sing myself to sleep as a child, singing along with classical music. … My aunt and uncle were into it, they had [records] of Jan Peerce, the famous opera singer, I would hum along with that stuff. By the time I got to be 5 or 6 years old, I was getting into regular radio.”
Lightfoot says he was lucky to have parents who encouraged his musical passion.
“My mother recognized I had musical ability and was getting me interested in joining the church choir and taking piano lessons,” Lightfoot said. “I was about 10 years old by the time I started studying piano and vocals. … My mother, Jessica, was the person who inspired me most. My dad, Gordon Sr., was quite interested in what I was doing, too.”
As a teenager, he learned theatricality by performing in high school musicals.
“As soon as I got to high school, I was involved in musical productions,” Lightfoot said. “I got a job in a band and the story goes on from there. I lived in Toronto. I went to music school when I was 19 down in California. I flew there to learn how to manuscript music, became a copyist, and I was working for publishers who recognized by songwriting ability.”
He got his start writing hits for other artists, including Marty Robbins, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, The Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul & Mary.
“I was shopping them around for five or six years and I finally got a bite from Ian & Sylvia, one of the well-known entities of the folk revival, a husband-and-wife duet,” Lightfoot said. “They were the first ever to record my songs. They knew Peter, Paul & Mary, so they got two of my songs to Peter, Paul & Mary, who had a hit with a song called ‘For Lovin’ Me.'”
His success writing for Peter, Paul & Mary is what established him in America.
“That was my entrée into the industry in the United States,” Lightfoot said. “We had to be able to succeed south of the border as Canadians. … If it didn’t make it first in the United States, the media there, music radio, you weren’t going to make it, so I found my way in there through my songwriting and I got into a recording contract myself down in the U.S.A.”
In 1966, he recorded his own hit, “Early Morning Rain,” about a loner on a drizzly runway.
“I would go to the airport and watch the aircraft … it gave me the inspiration for that song,” Lightfoot said. “When the first Boeing 707 was introduced … I remember incorporating the name into that song, which was to be ‘Early Morning Train’ at the beginning, but I had the foresight to change it to ‘Early Morning Rain.’ … That song was written in two hours.”
Few have written more poetically about relationships ranging from divorce in “If You Could Read My Mind” (1970) to romance in “Beautiful” (1972) to trysts in “Sundown” (1974).
“I’ve been on both sides of that coin,” Lightfoot said. “It’s like a roller coaster, the ups and downs of relationships. … I understand what it’s like to be out of a relationship and I understand what it feels like to get into a relationship. … A couple of divorces, you get some feeling into your writing … it sneaks up on you later when you’re feeling better.”
More hits followed with “Carefree Highway” (1974) and “Rainy Day People” (1975).
“A lot of the tunes happened very quickly when you buckle down and get into it: ‘Carefree Highway,’ ‘Home from the Forest,’ ‘Ribbon of Darkness’ … all of which were written very quickly,” Lightfoot said. “I was worried my level of talent had not emerged to its full extent during those early albums, yet we had quite a bit of success. I kept trying to improve.”
In 1976, he recorded his most recognizable hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” about of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975.
“I first read about it in the newspaper the next day,” Lightfoot said. “A week later, I read about it in one of the periodicals, Newsweek, and I said, ‘Geez, they’re only giving this half a column?’ It wasn’t being taken seriously at all. I was working on some melodies … so I applied the story of the Fitzgerald to lyrics and chords that I was already working with.”
The song was 6 minutes and 30 seconds, so it had to be trimmed for the radio.
“A record producer at Warner Bros. called it a fluke,” Lightfoot said. “They also wanted an editing job done on it. … The record company was trying to get it cut down to the point that they could get it into Top 20 radio. … There were seven quite long instrumentals, so I took eight bars out of the middle of each and it worked. … I didn’t lose any of the verses.”
After the “Edmund Fitzgerald,” Lightfoot continued to crank out material that may be lesser-known to the masses but is actually more impressive to Lightfoot himself.
“By the time I got up to album No. 10 or 12, I was starting to get the results that I expected of myself in my songwriting, but it had gotten to the point that it didn’t matter anymore. It seemed like after ‘The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald,’ that might seem like my last hit, but I made five or six great albums after that. … My best album was ‘East of Midnight.'”
The 83-year-old musician most recently released the documentary “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” (2019) and his newest feature album “Solo” (2020).
“One of these days I’m gonna get with the 21st century; I don’t do the internet, I don’t even have a cell phone,” Lightfoot said. “Touring is smooth, but there comes a time when it starts making you tired. … My wife travels with me, she looks after the oxygen because I have emphysema. … I’ve got 240 [songs]. It doesn’t matter to me if I never make another.”