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RIP Gordon Lightfoot, dead at 84. Here’s why he mattered so much.

By now you’ve heard the news of Gordon Lightfoot‘s passing at the age of 84. There’s also a good chance that you’ve been moved to review Lightfoot’s insane accomplishments. No? Let me school you.

First, for those who may not be a fan (or if you’re a younger music fan who missed Lightfoot at his commercial peak in the 1970s), this is every bit as sad as the death of Gord Downie. Without that first Gord, there would have been no Gord Downie.

For everyone else, Lightfoot is revered as one of the world’s greatest singer-songwriters. His songs have been covered by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Barbra Streisand, Neil Young, Glen Campbell, The Grateful Dead, Nico, Olivia Newton-John, Jimmy Buffet, Sarah McLachlan, John Mellencamp, Johnny Mathis, Paul Weller, The Tragically Hip, Jim Croce, and about a dozen other big names.

The biggest, though, was Bob Dylan, the greatest singer-songwriter of the 20th century. I quote Zimmy: “I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like. Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever…. Lightfoot became a mentor for a long time. I think he probably still is to this day.”

Yes, Lightfoot was considered a mentor by BOB DYLAN.

Sidebar: In 1987, he sued songwriter Michael Masser, accusing him of stealing 24 bars of “If You Could Read My Mind” for “The Greatest of Love of All,” which had just been recorded by–wait for it–Whitney Houston. The case was settled out of court; the settlement did not include Lightfoot’s name being added to the writer’s credits. Still, given the success of the single (top 10 in a dozen countries and sales of over 2.5 million copies PLUS the royalties derived from its parent album, which sold somewhere north of 25 million), the settlement must have been pretty sweet.

Meanwhile, for a guy who wrote a lot about trains and shipwrecks (and peppered his songs with Canadianisms), he sure sold a lot of albums. Millions of them globally. There were all the hit singles that climbed to the top of the American charts: “Early Morning Rain” (also a hit for Elvis), “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Rainy Day People,” and the masterful “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Lightfoot was given just about every honour a Canadian could receive including a couple of doctorates, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, induction in the Songwriters Hall of Fame plus the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (Dylan did the induction), and a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal.

There was even a whiff of Hollywood scandal. Back in the early 70s, he got himself into an entanglement with a Toronto scenester named Cathy Evelyn Smith. Gordon knew there was something dangerous about her and wrote both “Sundown” and “Rainy Day People” about her. Smith made her way to Los Angeles in 1976 where she became a drug dealer who listed both Keith Richards and Ron Woods as clients. She later became infamous as the person who helped John Belushi inject that fatal speedball in March 1982.

Years ago when I was on a walkabout between jobs, I auditioned for an on-air position at the CBC. It had to be in-person during the same hours I’d be working if I got the job. I’d been allowed to prepare for the audition as if it were a real radio show, so I was in control of everything.

Halfway through, the woman conducting the audition broke in. “Okay, now let’s see how you think on your feet. I’m going to give you a scenario and you just go with it, okay? Here it is: Gordon Lightfoot has just died. Break the news.”

Wow, I thought to myself, That’s the most CBC thing EVER.

Tonight, though, it’s real. Gordon Lightfoot has passed away at the age of 84. Fans had a bad feeling last month when all dates on his 2023 schedule were canceled, a collective “uh-oh.” Lightfoot never canceled shows unless absolutely necessary.

Lightfoot had been in frail health for years. In 2003, between shows in his hometown of Orillia, his aorta suddenly ruptured in his abdomen. He was airlifted to Hamilton’s McMaster Medical Centre and spent the next six weeks in a coma. Imagine the doctor who had to perform the tracheotomy on the neck that contained one of Canada’s most-treasured voiceboxes. It was three months before he could go home and a full two years before he returned to normal. It was something of a miracle he pulled through.

He returned to work, writing songs, recording albums, playing gigs, and even appearing on Canadian Idol. But then on September 14, 2006, he suffered a minor stroke in the middle of a show, leaving him unable to use the middle and ring finger of his right hand for a while and necessitating that another guitarist sub in for his parts.

We thought he was dead a second time in February 2010 when a Twitter hoax declared him dead. He heard about his demise on the radio on the way back to his hotel the dentist while in Winnipeg. Gordon had to call up Charles Adler, a talk show host on CJOB, to prove that he wasn’t dead yet and was actually feeling much better.

The next years were among Lightfoot’s most productive, playing dozens of shows including the 100th Grey Cup, Canada’s 150th birthday celebration, and tours across North America and the British Isles. The worst health scare he had was an injury while working out in the gym in the middle of a tour (To stay as healthy as possible, he put in gym time six days a week.) That was enough to pull a couple of shows.

Then came COVID. Lightfoot, frail and in his 80s, still managed to put out his 21st studio album in 54 years. And then on December 18, 2020, he performed a paid live stream at a quarantined El Mocambo in Toronto.

There was a bonus segment of that concert. After it was over, fans were able to purchase a little overtime with Gord in a sit-down interview with me. His frailty was even more apparent up close, even though he’d seemed in strong voice during the show. But he was determined that no matter what–not even a Global pandemic–was going to stop him from fulfilling his touring obligations which began the following May. And as far as I remember, he played as many of those shows as COVID restrictions would allow.

But then earlier this year, ahead of another ambitious tour schedule, every show was canceled with no promises of make-up dates. That was a sure signal that something was very wrong.

The four-metre bronze statue of Gord in his hometown of Orillia will see a lot of visitors for the next while. And what’s to become of Massey Hall without the traditional Lightfoot residencies? It’s unimaginable that they won’t happen anymore.

Some of his last words were to his manager, Bernie Fieder: “We had a good run.”

Yes, Gord, you did. A very good run.

BONUS: Rick Beato with a musicians’ perspective on Lightfoot.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38413 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “RIP Gordon Lightfoot, dead at 84. Here’s why he mattered so much.

  • Just terrific! Alan!

    On hearing about the passing of GordonLightfoot, I was musing about what I would say on my music-type blog… then I saw your caring review about GL. It’s so great to find (on my prep for this project) how many views there are, but you hit the nail on the head:’Why he mattered so much.’
    A CBC interview with Jim Cuddy asked him to comment on (esp as Canadains) ‘What we’ve lost.’

    Allowing for my personal view, I think I’m falling somewhere in between
    Thanks for the schooling . I needed that!… as a Canadian and a musician,! Glad I came across your site.


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