Music News & Reviews

What makes a song endure? Gordon Lightfoot says he knows

Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot Courtesy of the artist

Musicians win all kinds of awards, but few find themselves on a stamp, one of the highest honors a nation can bestow on one of its artists.

That’s where Gordon Lightfoot landed in 2007 when the Canadian Post selected him, Anne Murray, Paul Anka and Joni Mitchell to have their names and images on stamps.

“When that came across my desk, I said, ‘Go ahead, let them do. It sounds like fun,’ ” Lightfoot said. “That was great. It was a honor. I don’t know how to say thank you, but to work on my craft and be ready to go out there and perform.”

So, at 79, Lightfoot continues to play about 70 shows a year. About a dozen of them are in an annual trip to the U.K. The rest are on 10-to-12-show runs through parts of the United States and Canada.

The show, Lightfoot said, is a good one, two hours plus of all the songs his fans want to hear and some lesser known nuggets from his extensive catalog, played with his four-piece band.

“We have a good, solid little band,” Lightfoot said. “It’s quite different than what you would think. It’s not folk. It’s more like folk rock.”

The shows, of course, include Lightfoot’s enduring classics – “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “Rainy Day People” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – songs that continue to resonate after 40 years.

So what makes a song endure?

“I was taught it’s a combination of a good song, a great arrangement and a great vocal,” Lightfoot said. “The vocal is very, very important. What makes a song endure is its content and the level of performance on it. It’s got to be a really good song to have that kind of staying power and a great singer, the vocal, that’s the flagship.”

A song has to get exposure before it can connect. And sometimes that doesn’t happen.

“Songs don’t always pop right out. It can be a sleeper,” Lightfoot said from his Toronto home. “I had one album that sat for eight months before the song got pulled out. That was ‘If You Could Read My Mind.’”

“If You Could Read My Mind” became Lightfoot’s breakthrough hit in 1970, starting him on a career-making decade.

By that point, the then-32-year-old had already spent more than half his life studying, writing and making music.

“I got really interested in music by the time I was in grade four in public school,” said Lightfoot, who grew up in Orillia, Ontario. “I was about 10 years old when I started singing in public. I sang 'Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral,' the Irish lullaby over the school p.a. system for parent’s day. I had a vocal coach, I took piano lessons. I studied the keyboard. I use a keyboard very often in my writing.”

A star track-and-field athlete and nose guard on the football team in high school, Lightfoot moved to Los Angeles in 1958 to study jazz composition and arrangement at Westlake College of Music, where he supported himself by singing on demos and writing, arranging and playing on commercial jingles.

Returning to Canada, Lightfoot settled in Toronto, the home of Canada’s music industry, eventually landing a job writing and arranging scores tor 15- and 18-piece orchestras that performed on the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

A fixture in the local folk clubs, Lightfoot had a pair of hits in Toronto and Montreal and, by 1963, had traveled to Europe, where he ended up hosting BBC-TV’s “Country and Western Show” for a year.

By 1965, Lightfoot had become known as a songwriter, his “Early Morning Rain,” recorded by Ian and Sylvia Tyson, then Peter, Paul & Mary, starting a run that saw Lightfoot compositions done by Marty Robbins, Judy Collins, Richie Havens and The Kingston Trio.

He’d also signed a record deal himself and released his debut “Lightfoot!,” which contained many of his early famous songs, in 1966. That album and the four that followed made Lightfoot a star in Canada.

But it wasn’t until he moved to Warner Brothers Records, which finally recognized him as a singer as well as a songwriter and then stumbled upon “If You Could Read My Mind” that Lightfoot hit in the U.S.

Not coincidentally, Lightfoot’s first marriage began to fall apart in the late ‘60s (that’s the subject of “If You Could Read My Mind”) and ended in 1973.

“As my first marriage failed, I was able to devote all my time to songwriting,” Lightfoot said. “It’s a very isolating experience, writing songs. You have to shut people out of your life. I had to work very hard at it.”

Lightfoot made nine albums in the ‘70s, records that included his biggest hits, chart toppers “Sundown” and the journalistic account of the 1975 sinking of a ship on Lake Superior, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Lightfoot continued to write and record albums through the ‘80s and ‘90s until he suffered an abdominal aneurysm in 2002. He’s released just two albums since then – 2004’s “Harmony” and a 2012 live disc.

Now a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Lightfoot no longer writes new songs.

“I can write more stuff, but I’m not under contract, so I have no obligation,” he said. “And I know how it feels to sell records in the millions. I learned how to do that in the ‘70s and I appreciate it.”

Gordon Lightfoot

Where: The Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento

When: 8 p.m. April 23

Tickets: $39-$69