TORONTO– Gordon Lightfoot, the legendary Canadian folk singer-songwriter whose hits including “Morning Rain” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” told the story of Canadian identity being exported around the world, died Monday. He is 84 years old.
Representatives for Victoria Lord said the musician died in a Toronto hospital. The cause of death was not immediately available.
Considered one of the most well-known sounds to emerge from Toronto's Yorkville folk club scene in the 1960s, Lightfoot recorded 20 studio albums and wrote hundreds of songs, including “Carefree Highway” and “Sundown”.
Once called a “rare talent” by Bob Dylan, dozens of artists have covered his work, including Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Anne Murray, Jane's Addiction and Sarah McLachlan.
Most of her songs are highly autobiographical with lyrics that candidly delve into her own experiences and explore issues surrounding Canadian national identity.
His 1975 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” chronicles the death of a Great Lakes ore carrier, and his 1966 “Canada Railroad Trilogy” describes the building of a railroad.
“I just write songs about where I am and where I come from,” he once said. “I take situations and write poetry about them.”
Often described as a poetic storyteller, Lightfoot is acutely aware of his cultural influences. It's a role he takes very seriously.
“I just wanted to stay there and be a part of the totem pole and keep the responsibilities that I had acquired over the years,” he said in a 2001 interview.
While Lightfoot's parents recognized his musical talent early on, he had no intention of becoming a famous ballad singer.
He started singing in his church choir and dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. At the age of 13, the soprano won a talent contest at the Kiwanis Music Festival, which was held at Toronto's Massey Hall.
“I remember the thrill of being in front of a crowd,” Lightfoot said in a 2018 interview. “That was a stepping stone for me…”
The traction in those early days stalled and by high school, his barbershop quartet, The Collegiate Four, won a CBC talent competition. He picked up his first guitar in 1956 and began dabbling in songwriting in the following months. Perhaps distracted by his taste in music, he flunked algebra the first time. After taking classes again, he graduated in 1957.
By then, Lightfoot had written his first serious composition – “The Hula Hoop Song”, which was inspired by a popular children's toy that was sweeping culture. Attempts to sell the song were fruitless so at the age of 18, he went to the US to study music for a year. The trip was funded in part with money saved from a job delivering linen to resorts around his hometown.
However, life in Hollywood did not add up, and it wasn't long before Lightfoot returned to Canada. He promised to move to Toronto to pursue his musical ambitions, taking any jobs available, including a position at a bank before doing a gig as a square dancer on CBC's “Country Hoedown”.
His first gig was at Fran's Restaurant, a downtown family-owned restaurant that warmed to the sensibilities of its people. It was there that he met fellow musician Ronnie Hawkins.
The singer lived with some friends in a cursed building in Yorkville, then a bohemian area where future stars including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell would learn their craft in smoke-filled clubs.
Lightfoot made his popular radio debut with the single “(Remember Me) I'm the One” in 1962, which spawned a number of hit songs and partnerships with other local musicians. When he began playing the Mariposa Folk Festival in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario that same year, Lightfoot forged a relationship that made him the festival's most loyal returnee.
By 1964, he was gathering positive word of mouth around town and spectators began gathering in growing numbers. The following year, Lightfoot's “I'm Not Sayin'” became a hit in Canada, which helped spread his name in the United States.
A few covers by other artists wouldn't hurt either. Marty Robbins' 1965 recording of “Ribbon of Darkness” reached No. 1 on the US country charts, while Peter, Paul and Mary brought Lightfoot's composition, “For Lovin' Me,” into the US Top 30. The song, which Dylan once said he wished he had recorded, has since been covered by hundreds of other musicians.
That summer, Lightfoot performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the same year Dylan rocked audiences when he shed his folkie persona by strumming the electric guitar.
By the time the folk boom ended in the late 1960s, Lightfoot had made the transition to pop music with ease.
In 1971, he made his first Billboard chart appearance with “If You Could Read My Mind.” It hit No. 5 and has since spawned many covers.
Lightfoot's popularity peaked in the mid-1970s when his single and album, “Sundown”, topped the Billboard charts, his first and only time to do so.
During his career, Lightfoot collected 12 Juno Awards, including one in 1970 when it was called 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 the Canadian Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2001.