Gordon Lightfoot has been credited for helping define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s, and has been hailed as Canada's greatest songwriter and a folk-rock legend.
Lightfoot was born in Orillia, Ontario, on November 17th, 1938. He sang from a very early age, and was a boy soprano. He appeared periodically on local radio in the Orillia area, performed in local operettas and oratorios, and gained exposure through various Kiwanis music festivals. As a teenager, Lightfoot learned piano and taught himself to play drums, percussion and folk guitar.
Lightfoot moved to California in 1958, where he studied jazz composition and orchestration for two years at Hollywood's Westlake College of Music. To support himself, he sang on demonstration records and wrote, arranged and produced commercial jingles. He moved back to Toronto in 1960, and picked up a gig performing with The Swinging Eight, a group featured on CBC TV's Country Hoedown, and with the Gino Silvi Singers.
In 1962, Lightfoot released two singles that were local hits in Toronto and received some airplay throughout Canada: "(Remember Me) I'm the One" and "Negotiations/It's Too Late, He Wins". He also sang as part of a duo called the Two-Tones, with Terry Whelan. Together, they recorded a live album that was released in 1962 called Two-Tones at the Village Corner.
By the mid-'60s, Lightfoot was earning a reputation as a songwriter. His songs were recorded by such artists as Ian and Sylvia Tyson; Peter, Paul and Mary; Elvis Presley; Chad and Jeremy; George Hamilton IV; The Clancy Brothers; the Johnny Mann Singers; Marty Robbins; Leroy Van Dyke; Judy Collins; Richie Havens and Spyder Turner; and The Kingston Trio.
Lightfoot was commissioned by the CBC to write the "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" for a special broadcast on January 1, 1967, to start Canada's Centennial year. Between 1966 and 1969, Lightfoot recorded four additional albums: The Way I Feel (1967), Did She Mention My Name? (1968), Back Here on Earth (1968), and the live recording Sunday Concert (1969). During those years, he consistently placed singles in the Canadian top 40, including "Go-Go Round", "Spin, Spin", and "The Way I Feel". His biggest hit of the era was a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", which peaked at No. 3 on the Canadian charts, in December 1965. Did She Mention My Name? featured "Black Day in July", about the 1967 Detroit Riots.
Lightfoot's success as a live performer continued to grow throughout the late 1960s. He embarked on his first Canadian national tour in 1967, and also performed in New York City. Between 1967 and 1974, Lightfoot toured Europe and Australia.
Lightfood scored his first major international hit in early 1971, with "If You Could Read My Mind". It had sold over one million copies by early 1971, and was awarded a gold disc. The next seven years, 1971 through '78, proved busy and fruitful for Lightfoot's career, as each new album was met with critical acclaim: Summer Side of Life, Don Quixote, Old Dan's Records, Sundown, Cold on the Shoulder, Gord's Gold, Summertime Dream and Endless Wire. It was in this period that Lightfoot recorded many of his most well-known and loved works, including "Sundown", "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", "Carefree Highway" and "The Circle Is Small (I Can See It in Your Eyes)".
During the 1980s and 1990s, Lightfoot recorded six more original albums and a compilation album: Dream Street Rose, Shadows, Salute, East of Midnight, Gord's Gold, Vol. 2, Waiting for You and A Painter Passing Through. Among these albums, you'll find hit Lightfoot songs, such as: "On the High Seas", "The Auctioneer", "Shadows", "Thank You for the Promises", "Baby Step Back", "Morning Glory", "Restless" and "Red Velvet".
Lightfoot kicked off the new millenium with a taped live concert in Reno, Nevada. It was broadcast as a one-hour special by the CBC in Canada, and the PBS in the United States. The video/DVD of the concert marks Lightfoot's first concert video release.
In 2001, Gordon Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" was honoured as one of the Canadian MasterWorks by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada.
In 2003, Borealis Records released Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot, which featured covers of Lightfoot's works from various artists, including The Cowboy Junkies, Bruce Cockburn, Jesse Winchester, Maria Muldaur and The Tragically Hip.
In January 2004, Lightfoot released his 20th original album, Harmony, which included the songs "Inspiration Lady", "Clouds of Loneliness", "Sometimes I Wish", "Flyin' Blind" and "No Mistake About It". Later that year, Lightfoot made an appearance on Canadian Idol, where the six top contestants each performed one of his songs, culminating in a group performance of his "Canadian Railroad Trilogy."
Lightfoot performed at the 100th Grey Cup in November 2012.
In a 2016 interview with The Calgary Herald, Lightfoot said his biggest challenge is putting on the best show he can, adding that he's "very much improved" from his earlier days in how seriously he takes live performance: "At this age, my challenge is doing the best show I can. I'm very much improved from where I was and the seriousness with which I take it."
In late November 1975, Lightfoot read an article about the loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank on November 10, 1975, on Lake Superior during a severe storm with the loss of all 29 crew members. This inspired him to right one of his most well-known works, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", which was released the following year. The song's lyrics were based on facts in the article. It reached number two on the United States Billboard chart and was a number one hit in Canada.