By now it’s safe to assume you’ve heard of the death of Gordon Lightfoot who sadly passed away at age 84 on Monday night, May 1 at a hospital in Toronto. According to an official statement on his Facebook page, his death was from natural causes. But the Canadian folk singer-songwriter had some health issues, which last month forced him to cancel his 2023 U.S. and Canadian concert schedule.
Lightfoot was known for melodic, oftentimes personal songs and his distinct soft baritone voice. None other than Bob Dylan once said “I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like,” as noted in this New York Times obituary. He added, “Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”
Obviously, a substantial amount of obituaries have been published over the past few days, so I’m not going to add yet another biographical write-up. Instead of focusing on what was, I’d like to celebrate what remains – Lightfoot’s beautiful music. And with a recording career spanning more than 50 years, there’s plenty of it!
While Lightfoot’s output significantly slowed starting from the mid-’80s, he still released 20 studio albums between 1966 and 2020. His catalog also includes three live albums, 16 greatest hits compilations and 46 singles. According to an obituary by The Associated Press, Lightfoot recorded 500 songs. Based on his studio output, that number looks high to me, but I have to assume they verified it.
In the following, I will highlight six tunes. At the end of the post, you will also find a career-spanning playlist of these and additional tracks. Let’s start with Early Mornin’ Rain, off Lightfoot’s debut album Lightfoot!, which came out in January 1966. Written by him in 1965, the tune about a down-on-luck man far from home, who observes the takeoff of a Boeing 707 plane, became one of his most covered songs. Ian & Sylvia (1965), Peter, Paul & Mary (1965), Bob Dylan (1970), Elvis Presley (1972) and Paul Weller (2005) are among the artists who recorded renditions.
Undoubtedly, one of Lightfoot’s best-known tunes is the gem If You Could Read My Mind. Songfacts notes it’s one of his most personal songs, about the breakup of his first marriage to Brita Ingegerd Olaisson, which Lightfoot acknowledged was due to his infidelity. He recorded the tune for his fifth studio album Sit Down Young Stranger released in April 1970. It also appeared separately as a single and was Lightfoot’s first no. 1 in Canada. It also became his first U.S. single, climbing to no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Similar to Early Mornin’ Rain, If I Could Read You Mind was covered by multiple other artists, such as Glen Campbell, Liza Minelli, Barbra Streisand and Johnny Cash.
Another prominent tune by Lightfoot I simply cannot skip since I loved it from the first time I heard it is Sundown, the title track of his ninth studio album from January 1974. The single topped the mainstream charts in Canada and the U.S., his only no. 1 there; reached no. 4 in Australia; and also charted in the UK (no. 33). According to Songfacts, the tune was inspired by Lighfoot’s worries about his good-looking girlfriend who was out at bars all day while he was working on songs. “As a matter of fact, it was written just around sundown,” Lightfoot said, “just as the sun was setting, behind the farm I had rented to use as a place to write the album.”
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is one of the best story-telling songs I know. Lightfoot included it on his 11th studio album Summertime Dream released in June 1976. The tune is based on an actual shipwreck, namely the sinking of the bulk carrier S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, the largest of the Great Lakes of North America. Caused by a storm, the accident killed all 29 crew members. The tune became Lightfoot’s last big hit, topping the charts in Canada and peaking at no. 2 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. It also received a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year at the 1977 Grammy Awards.
In April 1993, Lightfoot released his 17th studio album Waiting For You, his first since East of Midnight from July 1986, which at the time he had called his final album. His popularity had declined during the ’80s and his albums no longer sold as well as during the ’70s. Waiting For You is considered a comeback. It reached no. 24 in Canada, becoming his highest-charting album since Shadows from 1982. Here’s the opener Restless.
For my final pick, I’m going jump a whopping 27 years, though I’m only skipping two albums. In March 2020, Lightfoot released his 20th and final album, Solo. It came 16 years after his previous studio record. The tracks were from demos he had found from 2001 and 2002. He abandoned his initial plan to orchestrate the songs, deciding they were fine as they were. Remarkably, Solo became Lightfoot’s first album without any additional backing musicians. Here’s the lovely opener Oh So Sweet.
Following is a link to the aforementioned career-spanning Spotify playlist. Hope you will check it out!
Gordon Lightfoot received multiple honors and awards, some of which I’d like to mention. To start with, there are sixteen Juno awards in different categories, including top folk singer, top male vocalist and composer, as well as nominations for five Grammy Awards. Lightfoot was also inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (1986) and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame (2001). In May 2003, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. On June 16, 2014, Lightfoot received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) at their 2014 awards. In 2022, he received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.
Sources: Wikipedia; Gordon Lightfoot Facebook page; The New York Times; The Associated Press; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify