Gordon Lightfoot was a legendary songwriter, and his songs would end up being recorded and covered by massive names in the industry. Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, and Johnny Cash were all notable names to sing tracks by him. His life was dedicated to folk music, with him eventually being recognized as one of Canada’s greatest singers and songwriters.
The world lost one of its brightest music talents when he passed away in 2023, but what was the actual cause of his death? In this article, we’ll dive into the incredible career of Lightfoot and discuss the reasons behind his passing.
The Beginning Of Gordon Lightfoot’s Career
Lightfoot was born in Orillia, Ontario, on November 17, 1938. His mother recognized that he had some level of musical talent early in his life and ended up schooling him to become a child performer. His first public performance came in the fourth grade, as he sang the Irish-American lullaby Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral.
He would go on to sing in the choir of Orillia’s St. Paul’s United Church under choirmaster Ray Williams. Lightfoot credited Williams with having taught him to sing with emotion and to have confidence in his own voice. At the time, Lightfoot was a boy soprano, and he sometimes appeared on the local town’s radio station singing operettas and oratorios.
The Kiwanis music festivals helped him gain some level of public exposure, and he would turn a competition win into a performance at Massey Hall in Toronto. In his career, he would perform in the hall over 170 times.
As a teenager, he became a self-taught instrumentalist. He learned to play the drums and other percussion instruments on his own, holding concerts at a resort in his hometown. Throughout high school, he continued to perform, though he would move to Los Angeles in 1958 to study jazz composition and orchestration at Westlake College of Music.
He had to support himself in California, so he turned to singing on demonstration records and helped create commercial jingles. He would end up returning to Canada in 1960, moving to the city of Toronto, and becoming a long-term resident of the city. Once there, he often performed with the Singin’ Swingin’ Eight and became a household name in Toronto’s folk music circles.
In 1961, he released two singles that were recorded under the watchful eyes of Chet Atkins in Nashville. Both became modest radio hits in Canada, helping set the tone for the rest of Lightfoot’s career. In 1963, he began traveling Europe, spending a year in the UK, hosting the BBC TV The Country And Western Show.
The year 1965 was when he started his career in true earnest. He signed a management contract with Albert Grossman, one of the most prominent agents of American folk artists. He also signed a recording contract with United Artists, who immediately released another one of his first singles.
His debut album would be released in 1966 under the title Lightfoot! Many of his most famous songs appeared on the album, including songs like Early Morning Rain, Steel Rail Blues, and For Lovin’ Me.
Within a year, other artists began picking up his tracks and recording cover versions of them. Peter, Paul, And Mary had their own turn with Early Morning Rain and For Lovin’ Me. Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Clancy Brothers, and numerous other notable names quickly jumped on the trend and began singing his songs.
Gordon Lightfoot’s Peak and Legacy
His peak is hard to define. His career ran for over 65 years, and he toured for almost all of it. He was even touring as late as a month before his eventual death in 2023.
In 1970, he signed a record deal with Warner Bros. and scored his biggest hit single If You Could Read My Mind. The track sold over one million copies in its first year despite the album it came on initially selling poorly. A re-issue of the album reached the number five spot on Canada’s album charts and was a huge turning point for his career as a solo artist. From that point until the 80s, he released seven more albums that cemented his place as one of the preeminent singers and songwriters of the era.
He didn’t stop during the 80s though, recording a further six original albums and producing another compilation album for Warner Bros. His music styles shifted over time, but often still held onto the pop-folk elements that he had laid down in the earlier years of his career. The 90s saw another shift from him though, as he transitioned back to acoustic music and released two more albums.
His lifetime of work would earn him a place as one of the icons of the folk rock scene. His best-known hit would come in 1971 in the form of If You Could Read My Mind. And while he may not be the best-known songwriter in popular music circles, His 400-song catalog is an extensive look at the absolute skill and talent he brought to the table. It was so influential that he fundamentally changed music from the 70s onward, at least in the Western world.
The early 2000s saw another 30 tracks produced by him, but it also marked the beginning of his health issues. He would undergo several vascular surgeries and survive a six-week coma. After recovery, he immediately returned to touring and writing music.
In the 2010s came his final works. He performed at big events such as Canada’s 150th Birthday celebration and the 100th Grey Cup. In 2016, he took a hiatus from music, stating that he was not planning to return to songwriting. This ended up not being true, as he returned in 2020 with a new studio album, 54 years after his debut album was released.
He also earned a prodigious number of awards throughout his career. Sixteen Juno Awards would be given to him for being the top folk singer for the years 1965 to 1969 and 1973 to 1977, the top male vocalist for a number of years, and two awards as the top male composer. He would earn ASCAP awards for songwriting on five separate occasions and was nominated for a total of five further Grammy Awards.
He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, and Canada’s Walk of Fame in 1988. In May 2003, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. He would also earn an induction into the Order of Ontario, the Vanier Award, and get his face on Canadian postage stamps. He would eventually be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 as well.
One of the coolest honors he received was a four-foot bronze sculpture in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario. Named Golden Leaves – A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot, it was designed to show him sitting cross-legged and playing a guitar.
How Exactly Did He Die?
There are some questions surrounding Lightfoot’s death, but most of those questions have been drummed up by earlier events. In February 2010, he was the victim of a death hoax on Twitter.
A then-CTV journalist by the name of David Akin posted on both Twitter and Facebook that Lightfoot had died. It was obviously news to Lightfoot since he was sitting in on a dental appointment at the time his death was reported. Of course, since the news came from what many would have considered a reputable source, many people believed he had truly died.
Lightfoot had to dispel the rumors of his death and did so with swiftness. He quickly phoned Charles Adler of CJOB, the very radio station he had heard talking about his demise. He then did an extensive interview, explaining that he was alive and well and convincing listeners that he, the one on the phone, had in fact not died that day.
That death hoax is the biggest reason I believe people have questions about how Lightfoot actually died. It also probably has to do with his declining health coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic. Some may blame it on his earlier problems with alcohol. However, the official coroner report for his death stated that he died of natural causes.
He was admitted to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center and was receiving care when he eventually passed. He ended up canceling a portion of his 2023 tour to undergo treatment for health issues, though nearly all of those were undoubtedly brought upon him by old age. At the time of his death, he was 84 years old, and no matter how healthy a lifestyle you live, 84 years is a long time to be alive.
He had sort of died a couple of times in the past—an odd statement I know. In 2002, he underwent surgery for a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm and spent six weeks in a coma. At the time, it was unknown whether or not he would survive the ordeal, but he did.
He then resumed touring but suffered a stroke in 2006. He would end up recovering and continue touring. Lightfoot often discussed his workout regime that saw him exercising six days a week. This was a trend that continued up until his health issues placed him in the hospital, but it’s likely that his physical fitness is what allowed him to continue touring to such an advanced age in the first place.
He was ready for his death though. He had stated in 2013 that he was ready whenever it ended up being his time. At that point, he had no idea that he would be able to continue touring and producing music for another decade, spreading his immense talents to wide audiences across the world for just a little bit longer.
Many artists, both in the music world and the entertainment world overall would fondly remember him after his passing.
Bob Dylan had this to say about Lightfoot:
“I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like. Every time I heard a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”
Alexander Carpenter, the professor of musicology at the University of Alberta had quite a bit to say about Lightfoot after his passing.
“[Lightfoot was] quintessentially Canadian …the reality that Lightfoot was a musician who had a much wider influence on the popular music scene of the 70s, well beyond Canada’s borders. He was a songsmith and a musician who toiled for his entire career – spanning nearly six decades – to bring words and music together in meaningful and enduring ways.”
After his death, Lightfoot was the subject of numerous tributes in his hometown of Orillia. Several shows and tributes would sell out in the days after his death. A public visitation was held at St. Paul’s United Church that saw more than 2,400 people show up to pay their respects to the departed songwriter. A private funeral was held for him at the same church days later, burying him next to his parents at St. Andrew’s and St. James’ Cemetery.
The loss of Lightfoot reverberated throughout the music world. As one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the last five or six decades, him no longer producing music will be sorely missed.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.