Entertainment

Lightfoot a stickler for detail

By Brian Kelly, Sault Star

Gordon Lightfoot performs at Massey Hall in Toronto in 2008.

Gordon Lightfoot performs at Massey Hall in Toronto in 2008.

Gordon Lightfoot quickly started work when he learned about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Great Lakes freighter went down during a fierce storm in Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975.

Lightoot was working on material for his 11th album, Summertime Dream, the night the Mighty Fitz sank near Whitefish Bay west of Sault Ste. Marie.

"Because he was an avid sailor and had done a lot of sailing himself on the Great Lakes with his sailboat, he said it really struck him just how devastating that must have been, and how terrifying it must have been, for the sailors because he himself had been in storms on his sailboat,” said Nicholas Jennings, author of the recently released Lightfoot. “He immediately felt he was moved. He was shocked and horrified by this report.”

A melody was quickly created, “like the drone of an old Irish chantey,” Lightfoot recounts in Jennings's book. Reading a Newsweek article a week later about the Fitzgerald's sinking gave him the factual information he craved for songs based on true incidents.

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was born out of a great deal of attention to detail,” Jennings told The Sault Star during a recent telephone interview from Toronto. “That's what he came up with was his own well-researched take on that event and that shipwreck.”

Lightfoot's long-time drummer, Barry Keane, remembers the six-and-a-half minute track was recorded in one try after all the songs for Summertime Dream were done.

"Not only was it a first take, but it was the first time we'd played the entire song and the first time we'd even heard the lyrics,” he says in Jennings's 328-page work.

"I think it was one of those magical moments where Gordon Lightfoot was happy with just how it came out in that first take,” said Jennings.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was a chart-topper for Lightfoot in North America and is a staple in Lightoot's sets as he continues to tour as he approaches his 79th birthday.

Lightfoot's writing, and recording, of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is one of several ties to the Sault area found in Jennings's book.

There's a brief reference to Lightoot playing Algoma Folk Festival in the Sault in the mid-1960s. Other acts included The Travellers, Bonnie Dobson and Alan Mills.

An itinerary for the two-day festival has Lightfoot leading a guitar workshop at the Department of National Defence's armoury on Pine Street. He was allocated 20 minutes for a concert the same day at Bellevue Park.

Lightfoot and then partner Cathy Coonley went to Hornepayne in the late 1970s to see first-hand if Canadian National Railway's claim that its trains were punctual in the Algoma District town were true.

The community gets a nod on Lightfoot's 1980 release, Dream Street Rose. On the High Seas includes the lyric, 'Was it up in Hornepayne where the trains run on time.'

"It really speaks to what a stickler for detail he is,” said Jennings. “He loves to get all the facts straight. He's quite meticulous that way.”

An earlier rail trip to Moosonee in 1965 spurred Lightfoot to write Steel Rail Blues and Sixteen Miles. Steel Rail Blues appears on Gord's Gold. The latter track, says Jennings, marks the first time Lightfoot wrote about the Canadian wilderness with lines including 'Sixteen miles to seven lakes way up among the pines/In some hidden valley where the twirling river twines.'

"He just loves drawing on the power, the beauty of nature and the Canadian landscape,” said Jennings. “He always felt so connected to Canada, to the landscape. He finds it inspirational for his songwriting. He's always drawn from that for his songwriting.”

Lightfoot's four-CD career retrospective from 1999, Songbook, features 14 unreleased tracks including Stone Cold Sober, Never Say Trust Me and Forgive Me Lord.

A track from 2001, Plans of My Own, was released 15 years later after Grant Avenue Studio owner Bob Doidge found the song on his hard drive.

Doidge, along with Lightoot's wife, Kim Hassse, and Lightfoot's office manager at Early Morning Productions, all lobbied the Canadian Music Hall of Fame member to release the track.

Jennings anticipates “there's going to be a few more things” that will be released, but most of the songs Lightfoot cut, but chose not to include on albums, will remain unheard.

"He's such a perfectionist and he holds himself to a very exacting standard,” he said.

Jennnings is keen to see Divorce Country Style, a song Lightfoot has performed in concert, get released.

"I think it's an example of what he can do when he just takes an idea and runs with it,” he said.

Talkin' High Steel details the workers who put up skyscrapers and is another example of a Lightfoot song chronicling the workingman.

Lightfoot's last studio album, Harmony, came out in 2004. Jennings wouldn't count Lightoot out for another disc of new material. Lightfoot still writes “every now and again” with “a few” tracks completed in the last five years.

"If he feels they're of the right quality he just might go back into the studio,” said Jennnings. “You never know. He's a man full of surprises.”

He is confident Lightfoot will continue to tour. His last Sault Ste.Marie date was in December 2011. A Michigan Sault appearance followed in June 2014. The singer-songwriter wraps up a Canadian fall tour with dates in St. Catharines and Burlington this week.The St. Catharines concert takes place at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre's Partridge Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 8.

"He's going to keep on performing until he no longer can physically muster the strength to get up on stage and do it,” said Jennings. “He doesn't see any reason to quit as long as he can continue to deliver a quality show and there's still a demand for it and there is.”

Lightfoot and Jennings made a verbal agreement the biography wouldn't come out until after the singer's death.

"He thought that would be best in terms of some of the things that he knew would get revealed about some of the darker episodes of his life – the indiscretions, the affairs, the drinking, just how troubled his life became, really, due to his alcoholism and just all those long, long nights year after year on the road,” said Jennings.

Publisher Penguin Random House didn't want to wait that long, arguing Canada's sesquicentennial in 2017 would be the perfect time for a book about the musician who penned Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Jennings is grateful Lightfoot agreed to move up the publication date.

The pair attended a private book launch at The Private Tavern in Toronto this fall. Lightfoot tribute act, The Way We Feel, Lightoot's daughter, Meredith, and The Good Brothers performed. Lightfoot joined the latter act to perform Alberta Bound to close out the night.

"There was so much love in the room for the man and the music,” said Jennings.



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