Gordon Lightfoot Dies: ‘Edmund Fitzgerald’ Folk Singer Turns 84


The singer-songwriter, Canadian folk music laureate who rose to major pop fame in the US in the ’70s, died Monday evening at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. He was 84 years old.

Lightfoot’s death was confirmed by his longtime agent, Victoria Lord.

Lightfoot rose to prominence in the mid-60s and also penned folk standards such as “Early Morning Rain” (a big hit for Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia Tyson), “For Loving Me” and “Ribbon of Darkness.” As the ambitious “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, a sort of Northern equivalent of Mickey Newbury’s “American Trilogy.”

While he was acclaimed in his own home and inspired younger Canadian-born artists such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, Warner Bros. Reprise edition (released Young and Mitchell’s breakthrough recordings).

1970 Reprise release “Sit Down Young Stranger”, US #5 hit “If You Could Read My Mind”, a heavily orchestrated ballad; Renamed after the hit, the LP peaked at number 12 in the United States.

Although Lightfoot remained a bigger star at home (he recorded three #1 albums in a row in 1972-74), he maintained a high-profile state throughout the ’70s. Her 1974 album “Sundown” topped the charts in both countries, featuring the ominous title single (the 45th pop single to reach #1 in both Canada and the US) and the upbeat “Carefree Highway” (#10 here). The naval disaster ballad “The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald” was number 2 here in 1976.

Reflecting on the reason for its popularity in an extensive 2019 Rolling Stone profile, Lightfoot explained that audiences embraced their song for its “return of the idiom”. Or that they are that simple… They are all flowing and forward-looking tunes, which is what I look for in my writings. Forward momentum.”

Among Lightfoot’s biggest fans was his contemporary, Bob Dylan, who appeared at the 1986 Juno Awards (the northern equivalent of the Grammys) to induct the musician into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

“Every time I hear a song from him, it feels like I wish it would last forever,” Dylan wrote in the notes for his 1985 career anthology “Biograph.”

While hits for Lightfoot dried up on both sides of the border in the ’80s, he remained a respected figure in public circles. His material has been widely covered by artists ranging from Dylan and Young to Elvis Presley. In 1988, she performed at the opening ceremony of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

His life has never been lacking in drama. While she never mentioned the details of her best-selling song “Sundown” in her interviews, the hit was believed to be inspired by her extramarital affair with Cathy Smith, a Canadian fan and occasional musician, who was later accused of the death of John Belushi from a drug overdose. ; The liaison reportedly led to the breakup of Lightfoot’s first marriage, resulting in a record-breaking divorce settlement that made headlines.

Facial paralysis from Bell’s palsy disabled Lightfoot in the early ’70s. A serious problem with alcohol made him quit drinking in 1982 (I was doing irrational things, he told Rolling Stone), and he abstained for more than 30 years. A ruptured abdominal aneurysm in 2002 led to a six-week coma, prolonged hospital stay, and further surgery, but in 2004 she completed a new album. A minor stroke in 2006 left him unable to play the guitar for most of a year, but he returned to the instrument on stage. He quit smoking after being diagnosed with emphysema in 2018.

Despite these numerous health problems, the indomitable musician continued to tour well into his 80s and went on long trips to the USA and Canada in 2017-19; He told the Los Angeles Times that he would continue to work on the road “as long as all my band members can keep up with me.” In 2019, he announced that he had recorded his 21st studio album.

He was born on November 17, 1938 in Orillia, Ontario, which was then the opening location of the long-running Mariposa Folk Festival. Her mother encouraged her performing career from an early age; He was active in local radio as a teenager and performed at Massey Hall in Toronto as a male soprano. He played guitar, piano and drums in his younger years.

Despite being a promising high school athlete, Lightfoot focused more and more on music in his youth. After studying music at the University of Toronto at the age of 20, he moved to Los Angeles where he studied jazz composition. However, he returned to Toronto two years later. In the early 60s, his interest in folk music deepened and he performed as a soloist in both urban folk ensembles and Toronto’s coffeehouses. He briefly resided in England, where he hosted a BBC country music broadcast.

He made his big break with Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s 1965 version of “Early Morning Rain”; The pair were Canada’s premier folk show at the time and a well-known export in America. That song and “For Loving Me” were also performed by top US folk artist Peter, Paul & Mary, led by powerful executive Albert Grossman, who, like Dylan, would soon take Lightfoot as a client.

He was signed to United Artists Records in 1965, but his four albums for the company, which he released in 1966-68, did little to raise Lightfoot’s profile outside of Canada.

Things changed in the late ’60s and early ’70s when he moved to Reprise, America’s most progressive record label. Pairing him with popular cast members like Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, and John Sebastian, his debut album debuted in the top five with “If You Could Read My Mind,” placing Lightfoot firmly in the top spot. from singer-songwriters.

During the ’70s, Lightfoot left his deepest mark as a romantic balladler, and his solid baritone became a fixture on the American adult contemporary charts, counting three consecutive number-one singles in 1974-75.

But his last major success in the US was an anomaly: the bleak “Edmund Fitzgerald’s Wreck”, which chronicles the sinking of the American freighter on Lake Superior in 1975 that claimed the lives of 29 crew members. Lightfoot, whose interest in sailing led him to the story, would come to regard the song as his best work.

Twice married and divorced, Lightfoot is survived by his third wife, Kim Hasse, whom he married in 2014; Two children from his first marriage with Brita Olaisson; two children by his second wife, Elizabeth Moon; and two children from relations between his first two marriages.

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