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Gordon Lightfoot Interview: From Elvis to Dylan: An Intimate Portrait of a Legendary Singer/Songwriter

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Image attributed to Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot

After 50 years of hit song making and international album sales well into the multi millions, it’s safe to say that esteemed singer-songwriter and musician Gordon Lightfoot resides with some very exclusive company atop the list of all-time greats. His song catalog is incredibly vast and includes such immortals as “Early Morning Rain,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Carefree Highway,” “Sundown,” “(That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me,” “Canada Railroad Trilogy,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Rainy Day People,” just to name a few.

The legendary Canadian-born artist is currently involved in the “Gordon Lightfoot – 50 Years on the Carefree Highway” tour which features well-known hits as well as some deep album cuts for the diehard fanatics. All of which are woven together with some of Lightfoot’s own behind the scenes stories and personal anecdotes about his historic 50-year musical career.

“There was a Canadian duo who were the first ever to record any Gordon Lightfoot song, and that was Ian and Sylvia. They are legendary, but many people probably wouldn’t know of them now because they’ve not been together as a duo for years and years. It was through them and Peter, Paul and Mary that I got the management deal, and I was very fortunate that it took place. Ian and Sylvia came to see me playing in a bar one night, and that’s how two of the songs got started. Those two were “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me,” and eventually both songs were recorded by Elvis Presley.”

Lightfoot has recorded 20 albums and has 5 Grammy nominations, and his radio hits in the USA have earned five number ones, five top 10s and thirteen top 40 hits. In Canada, he earned sixteen number ones, eighteen top 10s and twenty-one top 40 hits. Other great artists who have recorded his songs include Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Hank Williams, Jr., Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand, Peter Paul & Mary, Glen Campbell and Toby Keith.

In 2012, Lightfoot’s legacy was further enhanced when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in Canada, he was decorated with the Governor’s General Award and the Companion to the Order of Canada Honor of Merit and has won 17 Juno Awards – Canada’s equivalent to the Grammy Awards.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you having a great time on tour?

Gordon Lightfoot: Well, we always get excited when it’s time to go out and play the music because we really enjoy doing that. We know that the people enjoy it, too, and we get a good response. I love the work that we do.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Still enjoying life on the road?

Gordon Lightfoot: Sure. I love it. It’s a method. It’s a system. It’s a way that you learn through the years on how to have enough people. You’ve got to have people coming out to see you to handle it. It’s a truck, a bus and an aircraft. That’s what it takes. We do them fast, too. We do them in tight little groups because we here in the other world have families that we have to take care of like everybody else does. Life in general takes place back in the city.

Everybody lives here in Toronto. We have our little headquarters here, and we go back and forth into the States all the time. Of course we play in western Canada, across Canada. But we’ve played in every state in the United States actually. I bet you I’ve played in four or five hundred places down there mostly in concert halls preferably in the amphitheaters. It’s nice to do the amphitheaters in the summertime. The tour is broken up into six or seven segments, and we go out and do each segment as it comes up, and the rest of the time, we’re back here with our families again.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Cool. Did you begin your music career in Canada?

Gordon Lightfoot: I worked up to the point where I came down to go to an American school. It was highly unusual for a kid like myself to do that growing up in a very small town up in Canada. But I did that because I was interested in jazz. I had been writing some songs in high school, so I wanted to go there and take notation which I did for a couple of semesters, came back to Canada and drove a truck again for several months (laughs). The whole story is so typical, you know. But I would say it started after I came back from music school in LA at Westlake College. I studied notation and how to transpose and learn everything there was to know about the keyboard because I use it all the time when I’m writing my songs. It’s etched in my mind.

I’m not really a piano player, but I know the keyboard, and that’s what allows me to write my music. We always had to write it. Back in the older days, we used to have to write our own lead sheets and do all that sort of thing in order to register the stuff at the Library of Congress. We had to do it by hand, and I wanted to know how to do that, so I went to school to learn it. I was about 19 years old. I did it right after I left high school.

I had written a song in grade 12, and I really didn’t know enough about notation to be able to write the music onto the manuscript. So I used what I had learned as a child when I took piano lessons. I began a singing career at 10 or 11 years old singing at weddings and entering competitions. I was a boy soprano of quite some high renown for a few years.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were your parents supportive in the early days of your music career?

Gordon Lightfoot: Oh yeah. It had to happen. It really did. I started so early that they knew that something was going to happen. My mother was basically the quarterback of this thing. My dad did his part, but mother was the quarterback, and she made sure that when I started singing that I also took piano lessons at the same time. That was very helpful. It gave me enough knowledge to be able to write that song in high school, but it didn’t teach me enough, so I went to school to learn more.

When I got back to Toronto, I had a day job and an office job for 14 months, which I enjoyed. It was hard to find, but I drove a truck and worked in a bank for 14 months. They didn’t want to lose me. I told them I was leaving because I had a chance to join a choral group on a television show.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I can’t believe it has been over 40 years since I first heard “If You Could Read My Mind,” one of my favorite songs. Was that your first huge hit in the United States?

Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah. There had been some hits by other people like Marty Robbins, Peter, Paul and Mary, wonderful hits, wonderful recordings. But “If You Could Read My Mind” was my first on my sixth album actually. It was when I switched over from United Artists to Warner Bros.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The song appeared on Sit Down Young Stranger, and I believe that was your bestselling album. The name was renamed shortly after release to If You Could Read My Mind.

Gordon Lightfoot: And my manager was Albert Grossman, the famous Albert Grossman who was depicted in the Inside Llewyn Davis movie, but he was called Bud Grossman and was the owner of the Gate of Horn in Chicago. Albert Grossman, my manager, owned that club and came to New York and managed Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, myself and Odetta. Later he had Janis Joplin, The Band, Richie Havens and several other great artists. I was very fortunate. It was my songwriting that got me into that position also.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve stated that you had problems with alcohol in the 1970s. Did you ever become involved with LSD or cocaine?

Gordon Lightfoot: No. I didn’t do any of that stuff. I was an alcoholic really basically right up until 1982. At that point in time, because of the prodding by my sister (who ran my office) and finding a doctor and having a relationship breakup all at the same time, I stopped for good. 1982. Not to mention the fact that it was probably ruining my career. One of my children … he and his mother … we all broke up. They went their way, and I went mine. That was when I stopped drinking all at the same time and had the help of a doctor.

Most of these doctors you figure they can’t do it, but I was lucky. I found a person who knew how to do it, and he did it. He made me go back each and every week for the first two months. For the one time I feel off the wagon, he threatened to put me on Antabuse (laughs). I said, “Oh my goodness, please no!” And he tore up the prescription.

I admitted to him that I had a beer after a show, and I also had an Irish coffee, but I told him I hadn’t had anything for several days. But that was the last drink I ever had until I recovered from an illness that almost killed me. I’ve had, let’s say, a few glasses of wine in the last ten years.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): “Sundown” was written during a personal relationship with a girlfriend?

Gordon Lightfoot: I was on a roll at that time. I was writing on a farm and was with the lady I lived with at the time named Cathy Smith. The two of us were together at that time. Much later she was involved in this Belushi business long after we had broken up. I need to point that out. But she was out with the girls one night, and I was home writing songs (laughs). I was writing songs because I was writing an album. Cathy was out with the girls, and she was supposed to be hanging out with me when I was writing my tunes. She said, “Gordon, I’m going out with the girls.” That was the night I wrote “Sundown.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wrote “Black Day in July,” that referred to the 1967 Detroit riot which began when police executed a raid on a drinking club and ended with the national guard being called to diffuse the rioting, vandalism, looting and violence. When you were writing the song, did you have any idea it would be banned by many radio stations in the United States?

Gordon Lightfoot: Well, it was written as a folk song for an album. It came out so good that it sounded like a single. I didn’t have anything to do with it. The record company released it as a single, and when it got to a certain level in radio, they said, “We’re sorry, but we can’t handle this. We can’t play this.” I fully understood because it could’ve been upsetting.

I never thought it should be released as a single anyway mainly because it was none of my business, and yet I was playing in Detroit a lot at that time. The first time I ever worked on a work permit was in Detroit, and then I played several times at the coffeehouses there. The whole thing went down right amongst all these engagements I was doing down there. I felt right about writing the song because I was going there, but still …

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand. Were you friends with Pete Seeger, Gordon?

Gordon Lightfoot: About five years ago, he was playing, and he came up here to the Hugh’s Room in Toronto. It’s a special folk club, and Pete and I had cherry pie together out on the back patio. The only other time I saw him was when he was working with Arlo. I went down to see the two of them in concert. I also met him twice at the Newport Folk Festival. Never hung out with him, but I considered him a friend. When we had that cherry pie, I knew we were friends.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was the music business like for the singers and songwriters in the 60s and 70s?

Gordon Lightfoot: We were treated a heck of a lot better than Llewyn Davis was in that movie (laughs). It really was such an interesting time for meeting many people down in New York in the Greenwich Village area. I spent a lot of time down there whenever I’d go to New York because that’s where my manager’s office was. Remember when I told you Albert Grossman owned the Gate of Horn in Chicago? He was the kind of manager who could make record deals for people. He managed Bob Dylan, and I came to know Albert through Peter, Paul and Many who recorded one of my songs.

There was a Canadian duo who were the first ever to record any Gordon Lightfoot song, and that was Ian and Sylvia. They are legendary, but many people probably wouldn’t know of them now because they’ve not been together as a duo for years and years. It was through them and Peter, Paul and Mary that I got the management deal, and I was very fortunate that it took place. Ian and Sylvia came to see me playing in a bar one night, and that’s how two of the songs got started. Those two were “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me,” and eventually both songs were recorded by Elvis Presley.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love Elvis Presley’s version of “Early Morning Rain.”

Gordon Lightfoot: So do I. It’s got such a nice feel to it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you attend Woodstock?

Gordon Lightfoot: I might have, but no, I did not. The opportunity was there. Bob Dylan was to perform his first concert in the Isle of Wight Festival that weekend. That weekend, Dylan appeared at the Isle of Wight if you can imagine that. God, they had a huge crowd over there.

Woodstock went on, and everybody thought Bob Dylan was going to be there, but no, he did not appear there. He’d already made an album since his motorcycle mishap and was nursing himself back to health. Everybody figured he wasn’t back to health yet, but he was over performing at the Isle of Wight on the same weekend as the Woodstock Festival.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you think of a young Canadian artist named Justin Bieber?

Gordon Lightfoot: About 2 ½ years ago, I sat down and listened to his first album called My World. The production of the songs and the album were professional beyond belief to me. There were perfect songs, perfect vocals, great beats, great sounds. It’s no wonder the kid took off really. It was all in that first album. I remember he was a street musician in Stratford when he was ten years old, so he was out busking when he was ten. I believe that the mother has been very helpful in lining up people to work with him, but now all hell has broken loose (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It has indeed.

Gordon Lightfoot: It was very well for a while, but at least no one has gotten killed yet. My goodness, I’d better knock on wood as they say, which I’m doing right now.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve had some health issues over recent years.

Gordon Lightfoot: There were two things. The first one was the worst. It took 2 ½ years to get over that. For the stroke, it only took about five or six months. Besides that, it was an ischemic attack, a TIA. It messed up my right hand, and of course that certainly messed up my finger picking because I love finger picking the guitar, and I’m good at it. It was very frustrating at the time, but we found a way to fake it.

I couldn’t hold a flat pick either, and we found a way to work our way through it and got someone to open for me. It was Spider John Koerner. He used to be a part of the folk group Koerner, Ray & Glover that almost had hit singles. He came out for me for five nights because there were only a few of the songs I was really able to play at all. It went on for five or six months, and it gradually came back.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever thought about retiring?

Gordon Lightfoot: You know, I’m grateful for the opportunity to perform. I really am. I enjoy the work and the people who work with me enjoy the work as well. We’ve been on kind of an improvement trip dealing with intonation and things so that everything becomes the sum of its parts and that it just keeps getting better. It’s like wine. It’s like aging wine.

The bottom line is that we’re excited about doing it because we know what it’s going to sound like when we get out there. We have 12 standards that we must do every night, but the rest of it is all rotated in from other areas. We do songs from albums that weren’t necessarily hit singles like “Beautiful,” “Rainy Day People,” “Baby Step Back,” “Blackberry Wine” and “In My Fashion.” There really isn’t a song in the whole show that hasn’t got some kind of a beat going on with it. It’s a happy show. It’s a happy sounding show. We really like doing the work. I’m very sincere about that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So that would be a “no” on the question of retiring (laughs).

Gordon Lightfoot: (laughs) Yes. That’s right.

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