Oh man, this one hurts.
Gordon Lightfoot, the legendary Canadian folk singer who became an international superstar with hits like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Sundown,” and “If You Could Read My Mind,” has passed away at the age of 84.
Born in Orillia, Canada, Lightfoot learned to play piano and drums as a teenager and would play concerts in the resort town of Muskoka, getting paid in “a couple of beers.”
After teaching himself to play guitar in high school, Lightfoot moved to California to study jazz composition at Westlake College of Music, supporting himself by singing on demos and writing and producing jingles for commercials.
Lightfoot returned to Canada, but recorded and released two songs at RCA in Nashville produced by the legendary Chet Atkins. The songs were local hits in Canada, and by 1963 his recording and touring career had earned Lightfoot a reputation as a skilled songwriter.
In 1965 he signed a recording contract with United Artists, and released “I’m Not Sayin'” as his first single with his new production and distribution company. And in 1966 he released his debut album Lightfoot!, containing many of the hits like “Early Mornin’ Rain” and “Ribbon of Darkness” that would become his signature songs.
Lightfoot was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to write the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” for the country’s centennial celebration, and the song would go on to define Lightfoot’s folk storytelling legacy as one described by his biographer Nicholas Jennings as “synonymous with timeless songs about trains and shipwrecks, rivers and highways, lovers and loneliness.”
One of those shipwreck songs, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which was inspired by and tells the story of the shipwreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald that claimed 29 lives on Lake Superior in 1975, would reach #2 on the US Billboard charts and the top spot in Canada. But it also left perhaps the most enduring legacy of Lightfoot’s career, still receiving heavy airplay today – and even going viral on TikTok recently as a new audience discovered the magic of Lightfoot’s storytelling.
Throughout his career, Lightfoot had five albums reach the top of the Canadian charts, and one that hit #1 in the United States. He also had 11 songs hit #1 on the charts as an artist, but his songs were also recorded by legends like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and many, many more.
Lightfoot continued a rigorous touring schedule to the end, with a 2023 tour scheduled that would take him across the United States and Canada. But last month, Lightfoot announced that he would be forced to cancel his tour due to “health-related issues.”
His death was confirmed by a representative, Victoria Lord, who announced that Lightfoot passed away at a Canadian hospital on Monday night. No cause of death was immediately released.
Lightfoot is survived by his wife, Kim, six children — Fred, Ingrid, Galen, Eric, Miles and Meredith — and several grandchildren.
It’s impossible to overstate the influence that Lightfoot had on not only folk music, but also country and rock music, and the number of songwriters who cite him as one of their biggest influences and inspirations.
Singers and songwriters with the talent of Gordon Lightfoot don’t come around very often. And unfortunately, his loss is going to leave a hole that will be impossible to fill.