Gordon Lightfoot is one of Canada’s best-known singer/songwriters but what’s fascinating about the man behind the music is how Orillia shaped his life.
It is portrayed in a biography written by music journalist Nicholas Jennings, whom Lightfoot gave permission and contributed to the new book about his life, Lightfoot (Penguin Random House Canada Ltd).
Born in Orillia on Nov. 17, 1938, Lightfoot became interested in music at a young age through his mother, Jessica, and her three sisters who loved nothing more than to sing and harmonize at family gatherings. They bribed Lightfoot with a nickel to sing, and he realized he had a good voice and could do something with it. He was enrolled to sing in the junior choir at St. Paul’s, and began training as a soprano with the choir director, and was also enrolled with his sister, Bev, in piano lessons. It wasn’t long before Lightfoot was singled out to do solos at Easter and Christmas church services.
“Orillians had their first exposure to the purity of Gordie Lightfoot’s voice,” Jennings writes. “It led to paid gigs at service club functions around town…With each public performance, young Gordie’s reputation grew. Before long, it seemed the whole town knew about the local boy with the golden voice.”
But his father, Gordon Sr., had concerns, wondering whether all the attention would go to his son’s head.
Serendipity led to Lightfoot being called to the principal’s office just before his tenth birthday. Lightfoot thought he had done something wrong, but his music teacher had him go to the principal who had a recording device. Accompanied on the piano by his music teacher, Lightfoot sang Irish Lullaby, popularized by the legendary Bing Crosby. It was recorded onto a 10-inch, 78 rpm disc, which Lightfoot still owns.
“He would go on to record music for the next 60 years using the industry’s most sophisticated equipment in the world’s finest studios,” Jennings writes. “And Lightfoot’s first recording, although crude, was the catalyst.”
He sang at Massey Hall in Toronto, competing and winning in a competition for kids 13 and under. He won it again the next year.
That was also the year Lightfoot and his cousin, Peter Townsend, escaped a harrowing experience after falling into the freezing cold water off of Carthew Bay in the northwest corner of Lake Simcoe while ice fishing in the winter. They managed to climb out, but as Jennings writes: “Even at 14, Lightfoot was showing the kind of dogged determination that would carry him out of Orillia and into international stardom, seeing him through the ups and downs of a large, messy, wonderful and sometimes troubled life.”
In Grade 9, his science teacher at Orillia District Collegiate Institute recruited him to be part of a barbershop quartet, The Collegiate Four, which appeared on and won a televised CBC talent program.
Not long afterwards, nature took its course and Lightfoot’s voice dropped into a baritone, which promptly led to his removal from the band because that position was already filled. He formed a new quartet, The Teen-Timers, but as the band became increasingly busy with gigs, Lightfoot’s father became annoyed having to drive his son and his group. That led to a confrontation with his father, who had a stubborn streak, but the patriarch realized his son was serious and they settled their dispute.
As Jennings writes, “Gordie was beginning to use the Lightfoot bullheadedness to further his music career.”
He did, however, receive some ribbing from his classmates, who wrote under his yearbook photo: “WANTED: Gord Lightfoot for singing to the endangerment of the public’s eardrums.”
The Teen-Timers disbanded after Lightfoot’s final year of high school, but Lightfoot’s career was about to move in a significant way when he and a friend from Orillia applied to a music academy in Hollywood, California. He returned home long before graduation, but had outgrown Orillia and, at the age of 21, headed for the bright lights of Toronto.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But what’s interesting beyond learning about how Lightfoot became a prolific songwriter, authoring songs such as Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, Sundown, If You Could Read My Mind, Rainy Day People, Carefree HIghway and Beautiful, to name a new, was how he never forgot his roots. He often returned to Orillia for concerts to benefit local programs, including the Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, where his father had been cared for before his death.
“There wouldn’t be a Pussywillows, Cat-Tails without Orillia,” he told an interviewer.
It was in September, 2002 in Orillia, where he was scheduled to play benefit concerts on behalf of the Sunshine Festival Theatre Company and the Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, that his career took a sudden turn and he almost died. Hours before the second show, he had to be rushed to Soldiers’ Hospital, his blood pressure soaring and about to go into a convulsion. One of his bandmates, Rick Haynes, remarked, “There is not gonna be a show. We’ll be lucky if he lives.” Lightfoot had massive internal bleeding and required emergency surgery. He had suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm, a rupture of the vessel that supplies blood to the body, something that could be fatal. He survived, but it took a long time to overcome some of the physical damage.
What I found most interesting in the book is how Lightfoot battled alcoholism, broken marriages and a general shyness when it came to doing interviews. This was not an easy life or an easy career. But more than that, he carried a chip on his shoulder early in his career because no one in his hometown thought he would make it in the music business. He said it was only through “goddam will” and “a lot of drive” that he succeeded.
“I was clumsy, square, awkward, shy, insecure, couldn’t talk to people,” he says in the book.
Such is the price he paid to be great.