Published Apr 30, 2012When Gordon Lightfoot sang at Massey Hall in 1952 at age 13, earning a Kiwanis Festival first prize as a result, little did he know that it would be the first of 150 appearances ― and counting. Massey Hall has figured prominently in the careers of many renowned artists, from jazz legend Charlie Parker to Neil Young, but no name has become as synonymous with the 117-year-old Toronto landmark as Lightfoot's.
The author of dozens of songs that have become ingrained in our national identity has, by his own admission, felt his creative drive significantly diminish over the past decade. Yet, that hasn't stopped him from performing at a consistent pace, a 75-shows-a-year schedule that still includes multiple nights at Massey Hall every 18 months. It's fitting, then, that Lightfoot's new album, All Live, is a collection of recordings from relatively recent Massey Hall performances, making it a nice companion piece to his Sunday Concert album, recorded there in 1969, just as his career was taking off.
"We started recording concerts again at Massey Hall in 1998," Lightfoot explains while chatting in one of the 3,000-seat venue's dressing rooms. "It was the first time we'd done that since 1975, after all of those tapes ended up being destroyed. When I recovered from my health scare in 2004, we finished the album Harmony, and then the idea came up of making a live album out of all of these tapes that had accumulated over the years. I didn't want it to turn out to be a posthumous album, so I took a long time going through everything myself and picking out the best performances."
The always-meticulous Lightfoot limited his choices for All Live to songs recorded prior to the 2002 emergency abdominal surgery that left him in a coma for six weeks. He says that the recordings after that suffered from the loss of timbre in his voice, while adding that he also feels the album features some of the best work by his long-time guitarist Terry Clements, who died in 2011 following a stroke.
The ravages of time are indeed inevitable, but there remains something life-affirming about Lightfoot's devotion to the Massey Hall stage that has always brought out his best. It was a relationship he says began under inauspicious circumstances in early 1965. "The first Massey Hall show I ever played was put on by a concert promoter named Johnny Bassett, whose father owned the television station CFTO and was publisher of the [long-defunct] Toronto Telegram newspaper. Johnny had heard me play at Steele's Tavern and the Riverboat, and he and [Riverboat owner] Bernie Fiedler cooked up an idea to put me in here. I thought about it for a couple of days, and said sure. For the past three or four years I'd been playing bars and coffee houses, but at that moment Peter, Paul & Mary had a hit going with my song 'For Lovin' Me,' so to my surprise I was able to sell out the show without having an album yet."
Lightfoot continues, "I remember the night vividly. I had just gotten my trio together with [guitarist] Red Shea and [bassist] John Stockfish and we were full of ideas. Getting to perform in that kind of atmosphere was a huge boost of confidence for us, and we went on to make five albums in five years."
Even as Lightfoot's popularity peaked during the first half of the 1970s with his chart-topping American hits "If You Could Read My Mind," "Sundown," and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," he rarely performed anywhere else in Toronto besides Massey Hall. As ticket demand grew, it just meant that more dates were added, as was the case in 1978 when he did an astounding run of ten sold-out shows in nine days. The hall's acoustics and Lightfoot's voice have proven to be a natural combination that he's been reluctant to mess with, but more importantly he says that the Massey Hall shows grew to represent something more than just concerts.
"It became almost like a family reunion. One night [country singer] Marty Robbins would be there, or Harry Belafonte, or even Christopher Walken. Doing the meet-and-greets afterward have become just as much a part of the show, and I honestly do appreciate it whenever somebody has something nice to say about what we do. We love the work, and even if I might feel a little tired, I always look forward to the show. It's in my blood."
Observing Lightfoot as he sits in the front row looking up at the Massey Hall stage, it's hard to gauge the memories of those 150 nights. But what immediately springs to mind is something completely unexpected. "There was one night when a baby bat fell from the ceiling right next to me," he says. "It was just a tiny thing and Joan Baez's sister Mimi came out and tried unsuccessfully to keep it breathing."
There's also the question, given his association with Massey Hall, of whether he has ever been consulted as to how the building could be improved. "No," he says with a laugh, "and I hope they never decide to start doing renovations in the middle of one of my shows." That time will again come as Lightfoot's latest Massey Hall concerts are slated for November.