The melody master
Canadian folk-rock icon plays his enduring hits
Gordon Lightfoot is a songwriter. That is his identity. The Canadian folk/rock musician has written some of the most memorable songs in the history of popular music (try humming “Sundown” and see how many days it sticks in your head); he’s been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame; he’s even been recognized in his home country—along with fellow Canadian songsmiths Anne Murray, Paul Anka and Joni Mitchell—with his face on a postage stamp. With that said, it might come as a surprise to most to hear that Lightfoot no longer writes new songs.
“I can write more stuff, but I’m not under contract, so I have no obligation,” he said in a recent interview from his Toronto home. “And I [already] know how it feels to sell records in the millions. I learned how to do that in the ’70s, and I appreciate it.”
But just because he’s not required to write new tunes doesn’t mean Lightfoot has retired. At 78, he continues to play about 70 shows a year—about a dozen for his annual trip to the U.K., and the rest via a handful of 10- to 12-show runs through parts of the United States and Canada. He’ll be rolling into the Paradise Performing Arts Center on Monday, June 19.
“We have a good, solid little band,” Lightfoot said, explaining how it’s not just the singer/songwriter on a stool performing folk songs. “It’s quite different than what you would think. It’s not folk. It’s more like folk rock.”
The shows, of course, include Lightfoot’s 1970s classics—“Sundown,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Rainy Day People” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”—songs that remain in the pop canon after 40 years. So what makes a song endure?
“I was taught it’s a combination of a good song, a great arrangement and a great vocal,” Lightfoot said. “The vocal is very, very important. What makes a song endure is its content and the level of performance on it.”
Of course, a song has to be heard before it can connect, and sometimes a record label won’t choose the right song to make into a single.
“Songs don’t always pop right out. It can be a sleeper,” Lightfoot said. “I had one album that sat for eight months before the song got pulled out. That was ‘If You Could Read My Mind.”
That song, from the album Sit Down Young Stranger, became Lightfoot’s breakthrough hit in 1970, starting him on a career-making decade.
At that point, the then-32-year-old had already spent more than half his life studying, writing and making music.
“I got really interested in music by the time I was in grade four in public school,” said Lightfoot, who grew up in Orillia, Ontario. “I was about 10 years old when I started singing in public. I sang “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral,” the Irish lullaby over the school P.A. system for parents’ day. I had a vocal coach, I took piano lessons. I studied the keyboard—I use a keyboard very often in my writing.”
Lightfoot moved to Los Angeles in 1958 to study jazz composition and arrangement at Westlake College of Music, where he supported himself by working on commercial jingles.
Returning to Canada, he settled in Toronto and worked in the music industry in various capacities, including writing songs for other acts. His “Early Morning Rain” was recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary, among many others, and it started a run that saw his compositions done by the likes of Marty Robbins, Judy Collins, Richie Havens and The Kingston Trio. It wasn’t until he moved to Warner Bros.—which recognized him as a singer as well as a songwriter—that Lightfoot hit in the U.S.
Lightfoot made eight albums in the 1970s, records that included his biggest hits. And though he recorded a few more albums in the decades that followed, it’s those early tunes that have endured, finding a place in the pop-music canon and on the stages in front of loyal fans.
“It’s got to be a really good song to have that kind of staying power and a great singer—the vocal, that’s the flagship,” he said.