Gordon Lightfoot, whose rich, warm baritone vocals sang the soundtrack of a generation, died on May 1, 2023, in Toronto. He was 84. Lightfoot, always modest, embodied the life of a folk troubadour, traveling the backroads and highways of Canada and the US, playing his 12-string and singing his stories of love and loss and hope.
Born on November 17, 1938, he played guitar, piano, and drums in high school, becoming a part of the Singin’ Swingin’ Eight, a troupe that performed on the show “Country Hoedown.” He soon became a part of the growing folk scene in Toronto, playing in the folk clubs and coffee houses where Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young performed.
In the early 1960s, Lightfoot gained a reputation as a songwriter. Ian and Sylvia recorded Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me” in 1964, and numerous others, including Peter, Paul, and Mary, Elvis Presley, and Judy Collins recorded these songs, too. When country singer Marty Robbins recorded Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness” in 1965, Lightfoot’s reputation as a songwriter grew rapidly. His appearances at the Newport Folk Festival and Town Hall in New York boosted his status as a singer and a performer. In 1966 Lightfoot released his debut album Lightfoot!, which contains “Early Morning Rain,” “For Lovin’ Me,” “Steel Rail Blues,” and “Ribbon of Darkness.”
During the 1970s, Lightfoot released his most popular and beloved songs, and his straight-ahead storytelling, beautiful melodies, and haunting lyrics embedded themselves in the hearts and souls of listeners. “If You Could Read My Mind,” about the dissolution of his first marriage, was released in 1970, selling over a million copies and going gold. Through the rest of the decade, he released seven albums which contain the songs that continue to be played on radio today and for which he may be best remembered: “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Rainy Day People,” “Daylight Katy,” “Beautiful,” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Lightfoot wrote “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after reading a Newsweek story about an iron ore carrier, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, that sank on November 10, 1975, in Lake Superior during a storm, killing all 29 crew members. Although the song was over six minutes long, it became a hit on pop radio and illustrated Lightfoot’s penchant for telling a mesmerizing tale in song.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Lightfoot continued to travel and perform, releasing six more original albums, as well as the compilation Gord’s Gold, Vol. 2. The albums featured the beautiful melodies and powerful lyrics for which Lightfoot had become known.
In 2002, Lightfoot suffered from an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which left him near death. Following two years of recovery, he released the album Harmony, and began performing live again. In 2020, Lightfoot released his twenty-first studio album, Solo, and he continued performing on and off from 2005 through early 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic interrupted his schedule.
Gordon Lightfoot may have passed now down a carefree highway, but he leaves us with mellifluous vocals, exquisite melodies, and stunning lyrics that live forever.
Gordon Lightfoot – “If You Could Read My Mind”
Gordon Lightfoot – “Early Morning Rain”
Gordon Lightfoot – “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
Gordon Lightfoot – “Sundown”
Gordon Lightfoot – “Carefree Highway”
Gordon Lightfoot – “Rainy Day People”