It’s hard to believe Gordon Lightfoot has been playing Massey Hall for 45 years.
“I can’t believe it myself,” he exclaims over the phone from his Bayview home. “I performed there when I was 12 after winning a contest, and didn’t see the inside again for 15 years.”
It was in March 1967 that Lightfoot’s first two sold-out concerts took place at the Grand Ol’ Lady of Shuter Street. And now, over 150 performances later, he will celebrate his 74th birthday there with four more shows on November 14, 15, 16 and 17.
Not bad for a man who’s had more than one serious health scare.
He keeps up his stamina by hitting the gym four days a week. After his abdominal aneurism in 2002, he was back at the gym after just 19 months.
“It had me worried for about six months,” says Lightfoot, of his health issue. So close to the edge was Lightfoot during that time, he had visions of his own demise.
“I had a hallucination of my funeral one day,” he says. “There was an odour of flowers in the air, and [I heard] people speaking in hushed conversations.”
Luckily for Lightfoot, his family and hordes of fans, this experience —along with a Twitter-based death hoax that sprang up in 2010 — was a false alarm.
Right after he recovered from the aneurism, Lightfoot was made a companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honour for a civilian, by then–Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.
He is also a member of the Order of Ontario.
Born in Orillia in 1938, Lightfoot started working in his dad’s dry cleaning plant when he was 14.
“I wanted to go to work,” he says. “When I turned 16, I started driving a truck and worked all through high school.”
It was around this time that he “started to get the bug” to write songs. His first song was about the Hula Hoop fad. He took the song to BMI Music.
“[It] was the place to go here in Toronto, down on Gould Street,” Lightfoot recalls. “William Harold Moon and Bailey Bird said, ‘Leave your name with the receptionist and we’ll call you.’ They were interested because it was a topical song.”
Many of his songs that would follow adhered to a topical style, and his music was often influenced by actual events.
In 1967, he was commissioned by the CBC to write “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” for their Centennial celebrations.
“I learned songs like a sponge at the beginning,” he says. “I wanted to get to the point where I could do all my songs like Bob Dylan does.” (Dylan would also later cite Lightfoot as one of his favourite artists.)
Part of Toronto’s fabled folk scene of the 1960s, Lightfoot began performing at the Riverboat, a coffee shop in Yorkville.
He held his own beside other musical greats, including Ian and Sylvia, who first heard him play at Steele’s Tavern on Yonge Street, as well as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Al Cromwell and the Sparrows (later Steppenwolf).
Lightfoot remembers them all: “A lot of those people disappeared, and they were really good,” he says, solemnly.
Did he realize how influential he and his contemporaries would become?
“You really wonder, but you can’t take the dream away. Keep plugging, keep trying, see if something gives. I was lucky.”
Since his debut, Lightfoot has received 16 Juno Awards and has been nominated for five Grammys. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. This past June, he was also inducted the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in New York City.
In 1998 he received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
That same year, his song “If You Could Read My Mind” was covered in the film 54, starring fellow Torontonian Mike Myers.
“One day we got a call from [Myers], and he told Barry, our manager at the time, that he would like to use [the song], but he wanted to use it as disco,” explains Lightfoot.
“Barry asked me how I would feel. I knew I would like it — Viola Wills did it in disco 25 years earlier when disco was just starting. I still own the 45. Every once in a while I put it on.”
It would seem an odd pairing: a 1970s folk-rock song, redone for disco. But that didn’t bother Lightfoot.
“Of course,” he adds, “I like everything that anybody does [with my music]. I really appreciate it.”
Disco or rock, the ’70s era was a big party for Lightfoot, but that stopped in 1982 when he gave up alcohol. A relationship ended at the same time, and with the help of a doctor, he cleaned house.
“It was miraculous,” he admits. “Well, one day I had a couple of beers with Stompin’ Tom Connors. Sometimes you have to! They call it a bonus.” He’s been on the wagon ever since.
Parties today may be sober for Lightfoot, but they’re exciting nonetheless.
In addition to his November concerts at Massey Hall, he’s just released a new album: Massey Hall Moments — All Live. Recorded between 1998 and 2001, the disc celebrates his legacy at the hall: he’s performed at Massey more in its 117-year history than any other individual artist.
“One of the great things about Massey Hall is that we can get all the families together,” says Lightfoot. “Mostly it’s in the [private] meet and greet, which occurs after each performance — sometimes with over 100 people. It’s a great time for family participation with members of the band.
What’s next for this local legend?
“I just see what life has to offer,” he says. “The rest of the time, it’s all family.”
Despite his fully packed schedule, Lightfoot still finds time to support causes near to his heart. He has a scholarship fund for the Great Lakes Maritime Academy at Northwestern Michigan College — something that came about through his relationship with the families of Edmund Fitzgerald survivors.
“I get involved in doing small stuff, helpful things,” he says, adding, “I keep a low profile about it, too.”
When asked what role his music ultimately plays in the shaping of a Canadian identity, he replies in that same modest manner.
“The best things I can do is just stay here, in Canada, and be a part of this country and represent it well whenever I go abroad. And be proud.”