Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot dead at 84

Gordon Lightfoot studio portrait
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives)

Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot has died at the age of 84. The news was confirmed by a short statement on his official Facebook page, which simply read, "Gordon Lightfoot passed away this evening in a Toronto hospital at 7:30 p.m. More info to come."

Lightfoot was born on November 17, 1938, in Orillia, Ontario, and started a long career in music performing on local radio shows and in singing competitions. A gifted pianist, drummer and guitarist, he studied composition and orchestration at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles before returning to Canada, where he became part of the same Toronto folk circuit that launched the careers of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen.

In the early 1960s Lightfoot become a popular entertainer in Canada, but it was not until his songs Early Morning Rain and For Lovin’ were covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary that he reached an international audience, catapulting him into the same rarified air as Bob Dylan, who called Lightfoot one of his favourite songwriters.

"I felt honoured other established artists wanted to record my songs," Lightfood said in 2015. "Anyway you look at it I was making a name for myself in the industry."

As the popularity of folk music declined and was replaced by the British invasion, Lightfoot began writing ballads for a wider audience, scoring a succession of hits with songs like Sundown, Carefree Highway, Minstral of the Dawn, Rainy Day People, and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, his songs continued to be covered by others, including Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, John Mellencamp, Glen Campbell, The Grateful Dead, Nico, Paul Weller, The Replacements and Jim Croce.

Best known of all Lightfoot's songs was the folk classic If You Could Read My Mind, originally released in 1970 and subsequently recorded by over 100 other artists including Herb Alpert, Perry Como, James Last, Johnny Mathis, Don McLean, Liza Minnelli, Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand and Andy Williams.

In later years Lightfoot suffered health problems, and in 2002 spent more than a month in a coma after suffering an abdominal aortic aneurysm. "I woke up from that hearing Minstral of the Dawn, he told Country Weekly News in 2019. ”For six weeks, I was unconscious, and my sister was getting them to play stuff to see if it would jog my brain enough to wake me up.”

Last month, Lightfood cancelled his upcoming Canadian schedule after experiencing "health related issues."

"We have lost one of our greatest singer-songwriters," tweeted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "Gordon Lightfoot captured our country’s spirit in his music – and in doing so, he helped shape Canada’s soundscape. May his music continue to inspire future generations, and may his legacy live on forever."

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.