Gordon Lightfoot - Biography

By J Poet

Gordon Lightfoot is a quiet legend with Gold and Platinum albums in Canada and the US, 17 Junos (Canadian Grammys) and the Governor General’s Award for furthering Canadian Culture. He is one of the most successful singer/songwriters of his generation. Lightfoot’s influences touch on American folk and pop, but his deepest musical impulses come from his native Canada. He never felt the need to move to the US to be closer to the “industry.” “The fountain from which I drink is the Scottish fiddle and folk music combined with the mainstream pop and American country music,” Lightfoot said in a 2005 interview.


Lightfoot grew up in Orillia, just north of Toronto, singing and playing piano.  In high school, he joined a swing band to play dances and sing standards, but he was just as interested in writing his own songs. “I’d started writing, but I didn’t know how to write them down in musical notation. I knew I needed more theory. After high school I talked my parents into letting me go to Los Angeles, to study music at Westlake College. I was going to go to L.A. and become a jazz musician.” Lightfoot supported himself by becoming a studio singer. He did some commercials for long forgotten products and performed as a back up singer on various TV shows none of which made any impression. He was also getting more interested in folk music and less interested in pop and jazz, the music that had brought him to Westlake.


He returned to Canada where he made two traditional folk albums. “I started out on one of the first Canadian indie labels,” Lightfoot recalled. “Then I married a Swedish girl and moved to Europe. In London I got a job on a BBC summer TV series called The Country and Western Show.  The British didn’t have the slightest clue as to what American country music was all about. They had people singing numbers from Broadway shows like Annie Get Your Gun.  I did seven shows for them singing songs by guys like Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins.”


In 1965, back in Canada, he played bars and coffee houses in the Toronto area. Ian and Sylvia saw him and put Lightfoot’s “For Lovin’ Me” and “Early Morning Rain” on heir Early Morning Rain LP (1965, Vanguard). Peter, Paul and Mary also had a hit with “That’s What You Get for Lovin’ Me”. The success of those songs led to a management deal with Albert Grossman who got Lightfoot signed in America. He made his international debut in 1966 with Lightfoot (United Artists).


He made three more modestly successful albums for United Artists: The Way I Feel (1967), Did She Mention My Name (1968) and Back Here on Earth (1968) before Warner Brothers signed him to Reprise in 1969. His first album for the label, Sit Down Young Stranger, was released in 1970 in the heyday of the pop singer/songwriter movement typified by James Taylor. Stranger’s first single, “If You Could Read My Mind” became a monster hit and the album was quickly re-released under that title. The album kicked off Lightfoot’s superstar decade, roughly from 1970’s If You Could Read My Mind (gold) to 1978’s Endless Wire (Warner). The eight albums he made then – Summer Side of Life (1971, gold), Don Quixote (1972, gold), Old Dan's Records (1972, gold), Sundown (1974, platinum), Cold on the Shoulder (1975, gold), Summertime Dream (1976, platinum) and Endless Wire are full of beautifully crafted songs that capture ordinary moments and make them transcendent. Even when his songs were wrapped up in lush string arrangements, he always gave you the feeling that he was singing directly to you. His songs captured the vulnerability of new love and the tortured recriminations when the loss of love becomes evident. The albums less is more approach kept the singer and the song in the foreground. “Most of the records were done live, with the band in the studio, as you can probably tell from the drum leakage on the vocal tracks.” Lightfoot explained. “A lot of the tunes were first takes. I suppose the proper way to do it would be to isolate all the instruments, so everything is crisp and clear and mix it later on, which is what I did in the early days, but it’s not really necessary. If I used a big pop producer, the albums might sound better on a technical level, but you’d loose that melancholy feeling you get, what I call the folk feeling.  Part of that sound is because it’s under produced.”


Warner resigned Lightfoot in 1981, even though Dream Street Rose (Warner, 1980) didn’t fare as well as Endless Wire. He made five more records for the label before he finished he contractual obligations in 1999 – Shadows (1982), Salute (1983), East of Midnight (1986), Waiting for You (Reprise, 1993) and A Painter Passing Through (1998). There were good songs on every album, but they lacked the consistency that marked his 70s work. 


In 2002 he began work on what he says may be his last album, Harmony (2004, Spin Art). He was on a short concert tour between sessions when an abdominal artery that burst in September of 2002. It nearly killed him. While he was in the hospital, recording on the album continued. He’d already laid down the basic tracks and supervised the overdubs from his hospital bed.


The album came out a few weeks after he got out of the hospital. Lightfoot considered calling the album Soiled Linen, after the bin of hospital laundry that was usually outside his hospital room, but settled on Harmony, the opening track and one of the album’s most stunning songs.


Harmony is his 20th album, is only the sixth album of new material he’s done since 1982. “As I’m getting older,” Lightfoot said, “I find the creative life slowing down and the personal life becoming more evolved. I’m not sure there will ever be another album at this point. When I was younger, I knew the work had to be done. Now I feel like hanging with the people I love, and who love me, instead of going into isolation in a recording studio.”


Harmony has all the hallmarks of a classic Lightfoot album, packed with tales of longing, true love gone wrong and nostalgic memories of days gone by. There’s so much regret that some reviewers even assumed the songs were written after Lightfoot’s brush with death. The sparse arrangements keep the listener’s attention focused on Lightfoot’s subtle acoustic guitar playing and his tender, almost whispered vocals. Harmony is the most consistent collection he’s put out since his pop heyday, and if it does turn out to be his last set, it’s a perfect cap to a long and illustrious career. in 2012 he released a new Lp, a live record simply titled All Live.



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