Review: 'Lightfoot' by Nicholas Jennings

"My life has been quite complicated."

Gordon Lightfoot 2017

Over his entire career, Gordon Lightfoot chose to avoid any public knowledge about his personal life.  Small parts of it have been played out in public...his first divorce, his million-dollar record contract, his drinking, his drunk driving charge, Cathy Smith and his almost career-ending health problems.  Books have been written about him without his cooperation and he doesn't acknowledge reading them. Author Nick Jennings spent decades pursuing the opportunity to present Lightfoot's biography with his agreement, which was given - then taken away -  and given again. This is the definitive book on Gordon Lightfoot's life and lengthy career.

Growing up in the small town of Orillia, Lightfoot's father, Gordon Sr., a child of the Great Depression, was a quiet and private man, while mother Jessie was always supportive of Lightfoot's musical interests. Early on, Gordon Jr. left Orillia to attend Westlake College of Modern Music in Hollywood. There he learned the tools of songwriting that would lead to the core of his career: personal songs, yet songs that the general public can relate to, be they about lost love, true love, cheating or human nature.

He returned to Canada and landed a spot on Tommy Hunter's CBC Television a singing dancer.  Dancing was not his forté, to put it mildly, but the exposure to television was excellent training for later on.  He met guitarist Laurice Milton "Red" Shea, who recorded and toured with him for decades. He also joined the burgeoning Yorkville music scene and began to concentrate on performing and writing.  Ian and Sylvia were the first to record one of his songs. Starting at Steele's Tavern on Yonge Street's "music row," sandwiched between A&A Records and Sam the Record Man, he began to build a loyal fan base. Steele Basil paid him a salary of $219 a week and food to take back to his basement apartment which he shared with his young Swedish wife, Brita.

Bernie Fielder, owner of the Yorkville club The Riverboat Coffee House, convinced Lightfoot to perform at his venue instead of Steele's, and soon he was filling the 'Boat twice a night for a week. After some 'Boat dates, with the support of Johnny Bassett Jr., heir to The Toronto Telegram newspaper and CFTO Television, Lightfoot performed his first storied Massey Hall concert.  He has continued this practice and has played Massey Hall more than 150 times, more than any other artist except The Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

On the recording side, he signed a contract with Warner Brothers in Los Angeles, which led to the release of only one single, "I'm Not Sayin'."  His then-manager Albert Grossman switched him to United Artists. He recorded five albums for UA, ending with his first live release Sunday Concert. All five albums surpassed 100,000 sales in Canada.

Unfortunately, there was no gold record certification system here at the time, or all his UA records would have been certified platinum. He then signed with Reprise Records, a Warner Bros. label originally started by Frank Sinatra.

A press conference in his office, which Lightfoot did not attend, led to the announcement of his million-dollar deal.  His first release under the new contract was called Sit Down Young Stranger. Again, it soared to platinum in Canada, but US sales were disappointing. Seven months after its release, a Seattle disc jockey started playing "If You Could Read My Mind," and Reprise issued it as a single. It became a massive hit worldwide, and the song was covered by literally hundreds of artists including Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash and other luminaries, as well as other songs in his catalogue, particularly "Early Morning Rain."  Lightfoot is most proud that Elvis recorded it.

During this time, his marriage to Brita started to fall apart.  He had become somewhat of a ladies' man, hanging out with Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins and Ian Tyson. He also met Cathy Smith, a beautiful, but wanton, young lady.  This on-and-off relationship would last for many years and be the inspiration for many of his later songs. Brita left him, taking their two children Fred and Ingrid. She moved them to France. This action led to a court case where Brita was awarded their home, a sum of money and support.

He hated songwriting, but his strict upbringing gave him the discipline to write when he had a recording session in the near future. He often used bennies to assist in the process as well as Canadian Club Whisky and caffeine. Choosing a location with nothing but a coffeemaker, a music stand or recording device and a chair, he would write for 36 hours straight and then crash. His on-and-off relationship with Ms. Smith was the inspiration for many of his songs, including "Sundown." He also had relationships with many other women, some he married, some he did not. He has six children by four different women. As he told me recently on the street, "I've got a lot of family to take care of."

Lightfoot recorded a number of successful albums, particularly Sundown, which led to him having the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 singles and retail album charts.

Many years ago, he agreed with his band to limit performing to about 70 nights a year. He kept this up for decades until he collapsed on stage at the Orillia Opera House. He was airlifted to a hospital in Hamilton where he remained in an induced coma for many days. He survived, got back into physical shape, and renewed his touring schedule.  He continues to do so until today, with four nights at Massey Hall coming up in November. He gave up alcohol decades ago and goes to the gym almost every day when he is home in Toronto.  I suspect he will continue this until he dies onstage.

The only missing chapter would be about those who perhaps took advantage of him...Grossman, Artie Mogull, (lawyer) Al Stewart and others.  Perhaps he just chose not to go there. 

Nicholas Jennings' 'Lightfoot' (Penguin Random House, 336pages) is on general release next Tuesday, Sept. 26. Copies can be purchased online here.

Alexander Mair worked with Lightfoot promoting all his UA recordings as Vice President of the Compo Company, now Universal Music Canada, from 1964 to 1968.  At Lightfoot's request, he left Compo to set up Early Morning Productions Limited, an umbrella company for all Lightfoot's activities, including setting up and running his publishing companies.  This relationship lasted from 1968 to 1976. In 1974, Mair launched Attic Records with Warner promo wiz Tom Williams.  Lightfoot was not involved in Attic.

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