Lightfoot learned at young age to pour emotion into songs

Gordon Lightfoot is still performing despite health problems and personal problems. He'll play next
Gordon Lightfoot will be at Proctors in Schenectady on Wednesday.
Gordon Lightfoot will be at Proctors in Schenectady on Wednesday.

If you could read Gordon Lightfoot’s mind, you’d find surprises among the thoughts of this cheerfully candid Canadian contrarian.

Humble about his achievements, which caused problems he freely acknowledges, he has no bitterness about anything, including personal and business setbacks. A conversationally casual and natural-sounding troubadour, he was well trained in the mechanics of music, a folksinger who loves classical music, jazz and rock ’n’ roll.

“I was a singer as a child and my mother got me into taking piano lessons at a very early age,” he said of his small-town Ontario childhood, speaking by phone from his Toronto office. “The two combined to make me what I am today.”

At 11, Lightfoot moved from his church choir into singing at weddings for $5 and solo singing competitions, winning until his voice changed at 14. Trained by choirmaster Ray Williams, he was accompanied by pianist Mae Wedlock, whose name still amused him so he chuckled when he spoke it.

Singing with emotion

“He taught me the trick of singing with emotion,” Lightfoot said of Williams, who made him sing religious works by Handel and Mozart.

“I was singing some pretty serious songs, and by doing that I was learning how to sing with emotion,” he recalled. “I really didn’t have that great a voice, and I still don’t.”

Excuse me?

“Oh, it has depth and I can control it well,” he explained before recalling his amazement when a Metropolitan Opera singer said he wanted to be just what Lightfoot is: a guitar-playing folksinger.

Singing Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” in a ninth-grade assembly, Lightfoot discovered, “there came the emotion, from working on the religious material,” he recalled. “Once I learned that, I never lost that feel: I was calling up that emotion like crazy.”

After hearing Elvis Presley at 15, Lightfoot immediately bought a guitar and spent summers driving a truck for his father’s linen service by day and singing in dance bands at night. He wrote his first song at 17: “The Hula Hoop Song,” a funny, topical song that pleased him mainly because he managed to complete it.

Wanting to learn how to arrange and commit music to paper, Lightfoot enrolled in Westlake College in Los Angeles after high school and then became a copyist for Toronto studio orchestras and sang in a TV variety show chorus. With partner Terry Whalen, and inspired by folksingers Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan (later Lightfoot’s fan and friend), Lightfoot wrote, sang and recorded an album before deciding to go solo, moving to Sweden and getting married along the way.

Last year, Whalen’s heirs inherited four tape reels of demos the duo had recorded in the early 1960s. When they demanded $100,000 not to release the material, Lightfoot simply paid then destroyed the tapes, rather than angrily launching a lawsuit.

“I didn’t want it to confuse who I am,” he said of the material. “I really prefer to get along with people rather than to fight with them. There were times when I’ve paid a price for being that way, but I don’t care.”

One of those times came when he had to pay for release from his contract with Whelan to sign with folk-rock super-manager Albert Grossman. “It happened because Peter, Paul & Mary did a wonderful version of a song I wrote which I don’t even like!” Lightfoot said. “Lady Luck stepped in for me around about 1965 — I was singing in a bar, here in Toronto, when [Canadian country-rockers] Ian & Sylvia came in to hear my songs one night.”

Turning career around

They decided to record “For Loving Me” — the song Lightfoot didn’t like — then Peter, Paul & Mary recorded it and it went to No. 3. Grossman then managed both acts, plus Bob Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin, Odetta and others; and he encouraged his clients to record one another’s tunes.

Leaving behind his duo with Whelan and his deal with United Artists (which released five Lightfoot solo albums in five years without any hits), Lightfoot signed a four-album, $1.4 million deal with Warner Brothers in 1970.

“It told me I better get to work, and I did,” Lightfoot recalled. “For the next 10 years, all I did was write songs and write the next album, album after album. My marriage went down the tubes, my personal life went crazy and I became an alcoholic.”

A highly functional one, however: He scored his first big hit with “If You Could Read My Mind” in 1969, and “Sundown” (top-selling album and single) hit big five years later. Meanwhile, other singers also scored with his songs, including Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Harry Belafonte, Glen Campbell, Flatt & Scruggs, Richie Havens, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Nanci Griffith and many, many more.

“I never heard a cover I didn’t like!” Lightfoot said with a laugh. Pressed for a favorite, he said, “I love Elvis doing ‘Early Morning Rain.’ ”

He marveled: “If I could have thought, when I was 15 and bought my first guitar in that little town where I grew up, that Elvis Presley some day would record one of my songs, I would never have dreamed that that would ever happen. I went and bought my first guitar because of ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ ”

Sadly, Lightfoot said, “I was to meet him once, in Buffalo. “By the time I got back there, they were gone: They were gone in five minutes.”

Lightfoot lamented: “Arrangements were made, but I just missed him and by the time I got back there, the big voice boomed over the big speakers, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.’ ”

Personal, health issues

A bony-framed man nearing 70, Lightfoot has several times nearly left the building himself, suffering a bout of face-paralyzing Bell’s Palsy in 1972, losing his common-law (second) wife and a young son as he gave up alcohol in 1982 and undergoing three abdominal surgeries as his second legal marriage broke up five years ago. Initially hospitalized for three-and-a-half months, six weeks of that time in a coma, Lightfoot returned to the hospital after five weeks for more surgery and a nine-week stay. Five months after that, he returned for a third operation and stayed 21 days.

Naturally, he completed an album during that time.

“All I had to think about was the music, and I let the getting better look after itself,” he said.

While in the hospital, Lightfoot had some song demos brought to him, found 10 he liked, completed them and released an album, “Inspiration Lady,” in 2004.

“The whole thing took 19 months, and it was 28 months between concerts,” he said. “By that time, I was fighting my way back in grand, old fashion because I play every day and the orchestra [keyboardist Michael Heffernan, bassist Rick Haynes, drummer Barry Keane and guitarist Terry Clements] practices every Friday,” he said. “We have a regular regimen, and we stay in preparation like a baseball team.”

Lightfoot said: “We haven’t played in Schenectady for 15 years, and we’ll be ready.”

Show time for Gordon Lightfoot on Wednesday at Proctors Main Stage (432 State St., Schenectady) is 8 p.m. Tickets are $48, $38, $30 and $20 (Cloud Club Balcony seating). Phone 346-6204 or visit www.proctors.org.

Categories: Life and Arts

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