Gordon Lightfoot Has Died

May 2, 2023 / Posted by:

Sad news. Legendary singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot has passed away at age 84. His publicist told the CBC that Gordon died last night at a Toronto hospital. The cause of death is unknown, but he canceled all of his 2023 concerts three weeks ago due to “some health-related issues.” 

To say Gordon Lightfoot was a Canadian icon is the understatement of the century. He was born in Orillia, Ontario, in 1938. His mother, Jessie, recognized her son had musical talent and encouraged Gordon to become a child performer. He performed in the church choir, on the local radio, and at age 12, he made his first appearance at Toronto’s Massey Hall. As a teen, Gordon taught himself to play the piano, the drums, percussion, and folk guitar. He’d play concerts in Muskoka and was usually paid with “a couple of beers.” In 1958, Gordon moved to California to study jazz at Hollywood’s Westlake College of Music, but he missed Canada and returned to Toronto in 1960. He lived in Canada for the rest of his life. And that’s a huge deal, by the way, cuz most Canuck celebs eventually move to the U.S. for their careers. But not our boy Gordon!

In Toronto, Gordon became known around folk music-oriented coffeehouses.  He released two singles in 1962, which became local hits. After a little touring and recording, Gordon began to build a reputation as a songwriter. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded his songs “For Lovin’ Me” and “Early Mornin’ Rain.” Elvis Presley and Judy Collins also covered “Early Mornin’ Rain.” In the coming decades, Gordon’s songs would be covered by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Petula Clark, Liza Minelli, Barbra Streisand, and more.

In 1965, Gordon signed a recording contract with United Artists, who released his version of “I’m Not Sayin'” as a single. The next year, he released his debut album, Lightfoot! He recorded four more albums between 1966 and 1969, and singles like “Go-Go Round,” “Spin, Spin,” and “The Way I Feel” were top 40 hits in Canada. But, outside of his home country, Gordon was still best known as a songwriter.

In 1968, weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Jr., Gordon’s song “Black Day in July,” written about the 1967 Detroit riot, was pulled from radio stations in 30 states. The stations claimed the song was “fanning the flames,” even though it was written as a plea for racial harmony. At the time, Gordon said radio stations only cared about playing songs that made people happy, not ones that “make people think.” That year, he left United Artists due to their lack of support and signed with Warner Bros. Records. This is when Gordon’s career really kicked into high gear. In 1970, he released the now-classic “If You Could Read My Mind.”  Gordon wrote it about the dissolution of his first marriage to Brita Indererd Olaisson, with whom he had two kids, Fred and Ingrid. They were married from 1963 to 1973. Decades later, Ingrid asked her father to change the lyrics of the song from “I’m just trying to understand the feelings that you lack” to “I’m just trying to understand the feelings that we lack.” She said, “Wasn’t it a two-way street, Daddy?” and Gordon replied, “You know, you’re right.” After that, he always sang the song with the altered lyrics.

The ’70s were a very successful time for Gordon. He recorded eight albums which included the hits “The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald” (catchy and informative), “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” “Sundown,” and “Rainy Day People.” Those last two were written about his then-girlfriend, Cathy Smith, a Canadian backup singer/groupie/drug dealer. Years later, Cathy became known as the person who injected the dose of heroin and cocaine that killed John Belushi. She ended up serving 15 months in prison for her involvement in his death. Gordon also struggled with addiction, namely alcoholism. He admitted that alcohol abuse ruined many of his relationships and got sober in 1982. After his first marriage, Gordon had two other kids with two girlfriends: Gaylen McGee and Eric Lightfoot. He married Elizabeth Moon in 1989 and had two more kids, Miles and Meredith. Gordon and Elizabeth divorced in 2011. In 2014, Gordon got hitched to his third wife, Kim Hasse. They remained married until his death.

Even though he had his biggest hits in the ’70s, Gordon continued to record and tour.  In the ’90s, he played roughly fifty concerts a year. In the 2000s, he suffered some major health issues. In 2006, he had a minor stroke in the middle of a performance and temporarily lost the use of the middle and ring fingers on his right hand. But a pesky little stroke didn’t stop Gordon from playing music. In 2009, he began a 26-city tour and continued that workhorse concert schedule up until a few weeks ago. To stay in shape and meet the performing demands, Gordon worked out at the gym six days a week. In 2012, he declared that he was “fully prepared to go whenever I’m taken.” 

In 2019, Rush singer Geddy Lee called Gordon“Canada’s poet laureate.” Tom Cochrane said his songs were “works of art, every bit as relevant as classic poetry.” Here are some reactions to his death:

Rest in Peace, Gordon! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna play “If You Could Read My Mind” on an endless loop and weep:

Pic: YouTube

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