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Gordon Lightfoot

A prolific and successful contemporary singer-songwriter in the 70s, Canada’s golden boy of folk was also a hit in the 60s, although it was behind the scenes as a songsmith that he found initial fame.
Born November 17, 1938, Orillia, Ontario, he was nineteen when he spent half a year at the Westlake School of Music in Los Angeles; he ended up working as a jingle writer before he returned to Canada equipped with composition and sight-reading skills. LIGHTFOOT arrived in Toronto, 80 miles southeast of his birthplace and sunk his way deep into the mid-60s folk-club scene, attracting attention from the likes of BOB GIBSON and PETE SEEGER for his low, smooth voice and melodious blend of folk and country. A handful of 45s appeared for various label outlets between ’62 and ‘63, all flops for Gordie, as he was then called, while he partnered Jim Whalen in the Two Tones.
LIGHTFOOT subsequently caught the attention of folkies PETER, PAUL & MARY, who had Top 30 success with `For Lovin’ Me’ a few weeks into 1965; in turn, a number of American musicians began picking up on his songs including Grand Ole Opry star MARTY ROBBINS, who took `Ribbon Of Darkness’ to the top spot in the country charts, while in stark contrast NICO released her own interpretation of `I’m Not Sayin’’. Meanwhile, IAN & SYLVIA (TYSON) introduced LIGHTFOOT’s songs to North American audiences courtesy of their recordings of `For Lovin’ Me’ and `Early Morning Rain’, naming their 1965 set after the latter title. Others such as DYLAN, ELVIS, JOHNNY CASH, JERRY LEE LEWIS (among others) followed suit, while in 1970, FOTHERINGAY covered `The Way I Feel’.
Gordon duly signed to United Artists Records, showcasing his acoustic attributes and silky vox on his debut LP, LIGHTFOOT! (1966) {*8}. Alongside all the aforementioned tracks, several other originals (including `Rich Man’s Spiritual’) appeared with three covers: EWAN MacCOLL’s `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, PHIL OCHS’ `Changes’ and HAMILTON CAMP’s `Pride Of Man’.
A fan of DYLAN rather than another clone, LIGHTFOOT procured Nashville session players Charlie McCoy and Kenny Buttrey from the bard’s “Blonde On Blonde” classic to boost the country feel to his sophomore set, THE WAY I FEEL (1967) {*7}. With a dozen self-penned songs (bar a few collaborations with John Scofield and Jess Klein), Gordon was still on the right track with `Walls’, `Crossroads’, `Canadian Railroad Trilogy’ (the first of many he wrote harking back to the birth of his nation) and a plugged-in revamp of `The Way I Feel’.
Straying a little into cinematic orchestral pop with a hint of baroque (example `Pussywillows, Cat-Tails’), the John Simon-produced DID SHE MENTION MY NAME? (1968) {*7} combined elements of protest through `Black Day In July’ (depicting the 1967 Detroit riots), and the shady-lane-like, `Does Your Mother Know’.
BACK HERE ON EARTH (1968) {*6} was back-to-basics, acoustic-styled Nashville folk, although it failed in comparison with his earlier efforts. Lovelorn songs were always part of LIGHTFOOT’s repertoire, and this set was no exception with `The Circle Is Small’, `Bitter Green’, `Marie Christine’, `Affair On 8th Avenue’ and `If I Could’.
Recorded at Massey Hall, Toronto, earlier in the year (and featuring guitarist Red Shea and bassist Rick Haynes), SUNDAY CONCERT (1969) {*6} showcased the best of his 60s sounds, while there was a handful of recordings exclusive to this LP: `In A Windowpane’, `The Lost Children’, `Leaves Of Grass’, `Apology’ and `Ballad Of Yarmouth Castle’.
A $1m label switch to Reprise Records (where he was paired up with producer Lenny Waronker) resulted in LIGHTFOOT’s first Top 20 for the company, SIT DOWN YOUNG STRANGER (1970) {*7} – although this happened after it was re-promoted as IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND , the title of his inaugural Top 5 gem. With a star guest list that comprised JOHN SEBASTIAN, VAN DYKE PARKS, blues scholar RY COODER and string arrangements by RANDY NEWMAN and Nick DeCaro, the album’s only failure was the chart flop of KRIS KRISTOFFERSON staple `Me And Bobby McGee’, a rare cover version.
Recorded in Nashville again, SUMMER SIDE OF LIFE (1971) {*6} was one of LIGHTFOOT’s most melodic and beautiful albums to date, although it would only just scrape into the Top 40; `Talking In Your Sleep’ and the title track only managed a minor chart placing while Canadian country star ANNE MURRAY did likewise via `Cotton Jenny’. Still a flag-bearer for his country, LIGHTFOOT excelled on thematic dirges like `10 Degrees & Getting Colder’, Love & Maple Syrup’ and half-French-sung `Nous Vivons Ensemble’, the latter basically translating as “we all live together”.
While his next two sets, DON QUIXOTE (1972) {*5} and OLD DAN’S RECORDS (1972) {*5}, varied in style somewhat – the former was defiantly and overtly Canadian folk (bar `Beautiful’ and SHEL SILVERSTEIN’s `On Susan’s Floor’), the latter steely country-rock – it was clear by their declining sales that Gordon would need something extra special.
The chart-topping, million-selling SUNDOWN (1974) {*8}, was just the ticket, featuring as it did the No.1 title track and another Top 10 smash, `Carefree Highway’. Produced by that man Waronker again, the country-folk feel of the set (at times recalling JOHN FOGERTY without the swamp-blues rasp) was matched by a delicate orchestral touch.
COLD ON THE SHOULDER (1975) {*5} tried to repeat the upbeat-meets-laidback country formula, and although `Rainy Day People’ hit Top 30 status (the album hit Top 10), LIGHTFOOT was increasingly shifting gear into soft-rock territory. Contemporaries such as JUDY COLLINS, JONI MITCHELL and JAMES TAYLOR had long-since abandoned their folk roots for something akin to pop – however sophisticated they sounded – why not LIGHTFOOT?
However, `The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald’, taken from the album SUMMERTIME DREAM (1976) {*7}, resurrected the traditional purpose of folk music by reporting a story of an earlier topical event (an ore vessel that sunk in Lake Superior in November ‘75) rather than from a history book. `Race Among The Ruins’ was not so fruitful or indeed rocky, but the set was another million-seller, helped along by the strength of fine ballads such as `Spanish Moss’, `I’m Not Supposed To Care’ and the uptempo `I’d Do It Again’.
Resurrecting a Gordon oldie (`The Circle Is Small (I Can See It In Your Eyes)’) from his back catalogue to maintain Top 40 chart status was always going to be a no-no for some critics, dumping it on to the end of some mediocre album was unforgivable for others. Although it reached No.22 chart-wise, ENDLESS WIRE (1978) {*4} was a jaded, run-of-the-mill set; but for opener and UK hit, `Daylight Katy’, and possibly the title track, this set – and others that followed – would’ve come off the rails far quicker than it did.
A new decade of mediocre AOR albums:- DREAM STREET ROSE (1980) {*4} – containing an old Leroy Van Dyke pearl, `The Auctioneer’; SHADOWS (1982) {*6} – featuring his last Top 50 single, `Baby Step Back’; SALUTE (1983) {*5} – a high point after his divorce; and EAST OF MIDNIGHT (1986) {*3} – his final glossy Warner Brothers effort, proved how slick and AOR-orientated one could become.
Now far from the fringes of the folk music world, a sober, rejuvenated LIGHTFOOT (now 54 years old and free of the demon drink) managed to ink a deal with Reprise once more, releasing rootsy “comeback” album, WAITING FOR YOU (1993) {*5} to a somewhat muted response. Always an out-an-out songwriter, Gordon used that dulcet tone to great effect on a cover of DYLAN’s `Ring Them Bells’, while his most poignant record for some time, `Drink Yer Glasses Empty’, was his finale message to the listener.
Finding himself once again, 1998’s A PAINTER PASSING THROUGH {*6} was LIGHTFOOT back at his plaintive and un-complex best, soft yes, but definitely in a relaxed DYLAN mode, as `My Little Love’ and `Drifters’ more than testify. In between two Nashville-orientated covers, IAN TYSON’s `Red Velvet’ and Steve McEown’s `I Used To Be A Country Singer’, there were rootsy fare like `Uncle Toad Said’. Just when Gordie’s star had faded into folk cult-dom, there was indeed stop press news! – his `If You Could Read My Mind’ was given the Stars on 54 (yes, 54!) hit treatment by hip-hop acts Ultra Nate, Amber and Jocelyn Enriquez.
Maintaining a prolific work ethic (which nearly proved fatal when he suffered a life-threatening, coma-inducing abdominal haemorrhage in 2002), LIGHTFOOT returned in 2004 with re-mastered demos he’d recorded way back in May 2001. HARMONY {*6} was his emotional farewell to fans young and old, signing back in with a fresh cocktail of sentimental and history-biased songs such as `Inspirational Lady’, `Flyin’ Blind’, and close to his chest, the stirring, Native American-minded, `Couchiching’.
Proving that you can’t keep a good man down for too long, 2012 saw Rhino Records release his most recent concert at Massey Hall, Toronto under the title of ALL LIVE {*6}; coalesced from 1998 to 2001. Of further interest to his loyal fanbase was the announcement that Gordon would play several sparse gigs in America between July and October 2013.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Jul2013

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