In a career spanning more than five decades, Gordon Lightfoot's list of accomplishments is a lengthy one. Lauded as one of Canada's greatest songwriters, Lightfoot has earned the country's highest civilian honour, captured 16 Juno awards, been inducted into songwriting halls of fame on both sides of the border and can count Bob Dylan as one of his many fans. Set to turn 79 years old this year, Lightfoot's love of performing has yet to truly wane, as he still plays between 75 and 80 live dates per year in Canada and the United States.
Lightfoot's dedication to live performance is a common thread that runs through Nicholas Jennings' Lightfoot biography, chronicling how the reticent troubadour went from Orillia, Ontario choirboy to national icon. Through interviewing the musician himself in addition to his family members, friends and industry peers, Jennings' chronological look at Lightfoot's life and career is fair and detailed in showing that through his highs and lows, the show had to go on.
Jennings begins with Lightfoot's introduction to music, singing for nickels at family gatherings at a young age and being rewarded with toy cars from his parents for singing in his community church's junior choir. Choral solos and talent competitions eventually led Lightfoot to his first appearance at Toronto's fabled Massey Hall at age 12, a venue he would come to play over 150 more times throughout his career. A move to the United States to study music in Hollywood was short-lived, with Lightfoot traveling back to Toronto in 1960 to begin making a name for himself playing in coffee houses and having songs in rotation on local radio.
Jennings faced a challenge digging into Lightfoot's personal life in the wake of his rising stock as a solo artist, writing about infidelity and alcoholism in the life of someone known to be fairly private. In the book's early stages, Lightfoot's troubles are framed as events that led to some of his most incisive songwriting, but as his problems with the bottle worsened into the 1980s, Jennings becomes more blunt on the effects alcohol was having on the artist's health and life during that time period. Jennings then fairly notes that Lightfoot took steps to reconcile with his children in his later years, conscious of the effect that his songwriting success had on interpersonal relationships.
These stinging moments are juxtaposed with plenty of good testament to Lightfoot's moral compass and character. Jennings writes of Lightfoot's environmental advocacy, playing benefit concerts to preserve forests and First Nations territories. He paid his sidemen annual salaries, with those players having taken the stage alongside him for over four decades. He continues to meet with blood relatives of those memorialized in his 1976 song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
In detailing Lightfoot's career arc, Jennings takes time to occasionally slip in some factoids for those who don't yet know their Sunday Concert from Sundown. Early in his career, Lightfoot nearly became a member of the Church of Scientology. "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was nearly featured in an episode of The Simpsons before they learned that Lightfoot's licensing agreement required the show's producers to obtain permission from family members of all 29 men lost in the disaster. Lightfoot had an opportunity to play alongside Dylan in Toronto during a tour stop by the latter in 2013, though it never came to fruition. He also still owns his first-ever recording: a 10-inch 78-RPM disc of him singing "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" in fifth grade, cut by his elementary school music teacher.
For "Lightheads" and newcomers to Lightfoot's legacy alike, Jennings' Lightfoot will surely live up to its billing as "the definitive biography" of the Canadian icon, should the man himself not sit down and write one himself in between his many remaining performances. (Viking Canada)