Gordon Lightfoot dominated Canadian AM radio when I was growing up in the 1970s. His success led to excess – both in his personal and professional life. After signing a million-dollar deal with Warner Brothers in 1970, Lightfoot hit the road for touring and hard and fast living. In the studio it led to grander and grander productions that took Gord farther and farther away from his roots and the incedible presence of his voice. A similar thing happened to Glenn Campbell in the 1960s when he was transformed from a country/bluegrass guitarist into a pop-star.
Like many “folkies”, Lightfoot got his start in coffeehouses that featured a beatnik mix of folk, poetry, spoken word, jazz, and blues. His 1966 debut album on United Artists (UAS-6487) featured a track called Oh, Linda that has been indelibly stamped in mind since my childhood.
I can remember sitting on the living room rug (the basement rug came later) and listening to the warm tones from Bill Lee’s bass booming out the right speaker (a tube-based Imperial/Telefunken console stereo), and Lightfoot begging for his lover on the left. The stereo mix has Bill’s bass bleeding slightly into the left channel, with an echo effect on Gord’s voice bleeding to the right. A simple, clever, and powerful configuration.
The recording itself took place in a dank New York city studio in 1964 that you can read more about in the liner notes below.
The first four albums that Lightfoot recorded for United Artists are long out of print, but you can purchase all of those recordings in a single 2-CD set for about $6:
This two-disc, 49-song collection combines Lightfoot’s first four albums into one specially priced package and offers a comprehensive look at the Canadian singer-songwriter before he achieved pop stardom. These late-1960s recordings are more pared down than his better-known 1970s work, showing Lightfoot to be a thoughtful songwriter who was equally comfortable with personal love songs and more political fare. A much stronger folkie sensibility is on display here, which may be a revelation to those only familiar to his glossier folk-pop work, but a boon to his longtime followers. –Marc Greilsamer
Liner Notes from Lightfoot! by John Court
“So you come home from work or whatever to your favorite chair, open a cold beer and energize the telly. There is the ostensible World News and all the unrest it provokes, followed by a suggestion that Ice Blue Something is what we must look to for security in this nuclear Age of Anxiety. And as if that’s not enough of the Big Lie from the Big Eye for one gulp (we must of needs deduce that Katy Winters moves in a fairly odoriferous circle), there is next this purportedly candid footage of some fellow protesting that he gets forty shaves from this extraordinary razor blade. Now we know, you and I,in our placid personal truths, that we won’t get anything like forty shaves ourselves, but that this fellow has cornsilk growing out of his face and therefore possibly is not personally lying; the big grain of salt we must wash down with our beer,though, goes with the protestation that we must also get about forty shaves, or the honers of this extraordinary blade will be unhappy to buy us a pack of Coo-coo brand, the bona fide inferior blade. It can wear you down, this kind of opportunity to have a bad experience with a razor blade and then send away for your free supply of The Inferior. It can wear you down.
Which brings to mind the first recording session for this album, at the risk of mentioning the real-world fact of a phonograph record’s birth pangs. It was a kind of melancholy Fall night that nobody could do anything about, and we were in the small Studio D of a large and impersonal New York recording company. Since there were only to be another guitar and a bass accompanying Gordon, we thought that a small studio might conjure a musical intimacy worth going for. But the moon was pulling too hard on everybody that night, and the color of the walls in this particular studio successfully captured the mood of gloom we thought we’d left outside. Our assistant engineer, an older fella, seemed none too emotionally involved in this kind of music, maybe none too involved even in this business of recording. From all that was apparent, he might have been happier in his work had it been cobbling shoes or trimming trees; he meant no harm, neither did he mean especially well. And anyone not born and bred in New York City can be extremely sensitive to this kind of split hair.
Anyway, the first tune Gordon put down that night was his Rich Man’s Spiritual and in filling out the “take” sheet this assistant engineer guy wrote “Richman’s Spiritual”, by which he probably didn’t mean to suggest anything about the implicit Brotherhood of Man, but only that, if indeed he tuned in on anything at all anymore, he certainly wasn’t going to be able to tune in on that night’s activities. So alien were they to anything that had ever moved him. Now, apart from all else, that’s a reasonably sad circumstance for a man and probably much too common a one in these times of magnified opportunity; that the man with, say, the soul of a baker should get caught up in the role of an assistant sound engineer. And because it’s a sad proposition, there was an essential sadness felt for the man when he went on to transcribe our artist’s name as Gordon Whitefoot rather than ask what was it again. That kind of sympatico can serve to distract even the most insensitive among us, and the night in Studio D had definitely taken on such a cast. But what’s remarkably more, and the single important fact at the bottom of all this meandering, is the privilege to report that, later on, blossoms of a sort were made to grow in such a cold and angular atmosphere. Gordon’s eventual delivery of, among other tunes, his own Early Morning Rain seemed to make just the right use of those grey walls. And the great wealth of feeling he’s written right into that song is about the same shade of grey as was that entire session. Oh, there were many more happy sessions after the first, but it has been mentioned here in morbid detail to demonstrate the shadowy ways in which a real artist can find virtue lurking out the other side of predicament.
Gordon Lightfoot is his name, ladies and gentlemen. Gordon Lightfoot. Remember it well, as certainly you will because it’s that kind of name. He sings them all like he wrote them and in most cases he did. what’s even more important,and not always the case, he usually sings his own songs better than anyone else does. Which fact says a lot about the directness with which they come from the heart, or wherever that place is where artists are most comfortable with their thoughts and themselves. But whether he wrote it or not, when Light-foot the singer takes up a song there is an authority that the ear is quick to accept and relax behind. Gordon’s vocal talent is doubtless a sensational example of that elusive quality that puts a chasm between the amateur and the sheerly professional. Like must also be true for really great bakers and assistant sound engineers, to cloak the whole thing in terms of the necessary doing for the necessary living, and how a good feeling about one lends itself to a good feeling about the other.
Yes, Gordon Lightfoot, with ample gifts and gratitude, has good reason to be a happy guy. A Canadian happy guy with Swedish wife and a season as star of an English-made Country and Western tv show under his wide-buckle belt (as well as his own monthly special currently on Canadian tv). He wears cowboy boots most of the time, like Tyson of lan and Sylvia, his friend and hand-up-the-ladder. And he says “oot” for out, like Tyson and Goulet and Bobbie Burns. But, along with Tyson, he understands about the cowboy and the psychology of open spaces that makes up the mood of life in the biggest part of Canada, as it did and does in the American West.
It’s these guys who have become the poets of that way of life, filtered as it now necessarily is through the Ice Blue democratic news of the world that affects us all, regardless of race, creed or color. And it’s gratifying to see the songs of a Gordon Lightfoot begin to receive the attention they deserve.
For, hung as they so often are on a wide-open-spaces metaphor, they nonetheless deal most poetically with the way life is for all of us, in one way or another. We won’t get hung up here reciting how Peter, Paul and Mary, a fairly well established branch of folk musical royalty, have had two substantial U.S., Canadian, Australian and European hits with Lightfoot tunes (in France, they sing “Tu N’ Aurais Jamais Du M’Aimer” when they mean That’s What You Get For Lovin’ Me). Or that Marty Robbins’ version of Gordon’s Ribbon of Darkness was number one on the Country and Westem charts for several weeks recently. Suffice it to say that, at the very moment of this writing, other artists of awesome stature and diverse interests are recording his originals. And meanwhile, back at the Lightfoot, Gordon’s treatment of the work of his songwriter contemporaries gets and keeps the respect of audiences wherever he is heard.
So, then. Of the fourteen songs on this, the first time out for an important artist, eleven are his own. All fourteen might just as easily have been his own, but in three instances Gordon felt strongly enough about other people’s work to want it included in his first collection. Nor, interesting to note, were the three exceptions chosen simply for reasons of musical variety. The album is not that kind of album, really. And frankly not the sort that is paced fast song-slow song-fast song for maximum and most symmetrical contrast. It is, rather, more like a statement; a collection of thoughts most importantly on Gordon Lightfoot’s mind these days. Ones he was anxious to organize in a single place and record for posterity before getting on to more adventurous projects, longer works in the ballad and talking blues vein, along with occasional and deft forays into the jungle of Top Forty competitions. Elsewhere, the expression “Country and Lightfoot” is already in use among the cognoscenti, and those who predict that a subtle amalgam of ‘Rock and Country is next in sight on the Pop horizon are well aware of the work of Gordon Lightfoot. For that matter, several of the aforementioned tunes on this album are already on their way to becoming standards. It’s just that the guy who wrote tnem would like to take the next little while and sing them for you, like they’re supposed to be sung, before he gets on to the next thing. And that, one supposes, is the logical content of a creative life in the real world. Coo-coo him no blades.”
by Wayne Francis
It was the fall of 1964. Lightfoot enters a downtown New York recording studio on a gloomy evening to begin work on his debut album. They choose a small room in the studio to record, thinking that the smaller room might capture the intimacy of Gordon accompanied only by two guitars and bass.
Rich Man’s Spiritual is the first tune laid down on that night. It is the type of song Lightfoot enjoyed playing live in those days, going back to his days as one half of the Two Tones, when they would close their sets with Children Go Where I Send Thee, the traditional folk spiritual. Lightfoot had also written other songs in that vein such as Where Are All The Martyred Children, but Rich Man’s Sprirtual was clearly his best song of that genre.
Then it was Long River, with Bruce Langhorne, the highly sought after session guitarist of that era, weaving beautifully with Lightfoot’s guitar. This song would be the first on record to document Lightfoot’s fascination with the wild and untamed beauty and solitude that was Canada. And in the last verse we find the singer telling us that he’d “give it all to you, if her love were true”. Ah yes, love and nature. A theme Lightfoot would return to many times in the coming decades, with startlingly beautiful results!
The Way I Feel with its gentle folk guitar arrangement cradling the tender lyrics of lost love and lonliness. That gloomy New York night could have easily provided a perfect backdrop for Lightfoot to convey every ounce of sadness that this song suggests.
Then into For Lovin’ Me. By this time For Lovin’ Me had already been recorded by Ian & Sylvia and made a hit by Peter, Paul and Mary. Now Lightfoot gives us the song in it’s definitive, driving form. While the other recordings of the song by other artists gave the song a delicate interpretation, Lightfoot gives us a harder edged delivery, in a style he continues to play the song in right up to the present.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. A very nice cover of the Ewan McColl classic that later became a hit for Roberta Flack. Lightfoot’s rendidtion is set apart by his stunning vocal.
Phil Ochs’ Changes is next. Lightfoot and Ochs were friends and the already established Ochs was a strong Lightfoot supporter. Ochs wrote Changes while in Toronto and Lightfoot was one of the first to hear and record the song. Check out the article Ochs wrote about Lightfoot in 1965 in Broadside magazine.
And then Early Morning Rain! What more can be said about this song that hasn’t already been said? Covered by the likes of Dylan and Presley, it was written in 1964, but Lightfoot drew upon an experience some six years earlier when he was studying music in Los Angeles in 1958 and he found himself at LAX one early morning, more than a little homesick.
Another tale of bittersweet longing, but in a much more playful style, Steel Rail Blues. Lightfoot early on displayed a restlessness in his writing where he was either trying to get back to home and loved ones, or to escape the same. This tension between these two basic longings give much of Lightfoot’s writing that universal appeal, whereby so many of us can relate in a very direct way.
On Sixteen Miles, Lightfoot showcases a beautifully, effortless melody that on the surface seems so simple, yet it is deceptively discrete. This song finds Lightfoot seeking comfort in the wilderness from “an old love”, not unlike Long River and although he vows he “won’t remember her at all”, we realize that the urge to return will again resurface, setting up the inevitable attempt to reconcile or move on, and another song.
Lightfoot supposedly wrote I’m Not Sayin’ while watching a hockey game on TV. A strong driving melody, with some great guitar licks courtesy of David Rea that Red Shea and Terry Clements would continue to embellish for many years. The subject matter and sentiment here is not far removed from For Lovin’ Me.
Another cover, this time Hamilton Camp’s apocalyptic, Pride Of Man. Lightfoot would continue to perform this song live into the mid 70’s.
For every For Lovin’ Me or I’m Not Sayin’ there must be a Ribbon Of Darkness. Lightfoot’s stance in the former songs is softened by his ackowledgement in songs like Ribbon Of Darkness of the true nature of relationships and the peril and hurt that are the consequence. Lightfoot also demonstrates some fine whistling in this song that would resurface on later songs like Brave Mountaineers and Ghosts Of Cape Horn. Lightfoot often would whistle on many of his early demo recordings to provide an instrumental break when he was playing only guitar without accompaniment.
Oh, Linda was and is a distinct recording in Lightfoot’s long career. Backed only by an interesting bass guitar line, Lightfoot delivers a knock out vocal.
The album closes with the hopeful Peaceful Waters. It comes across as an almost folk music hymn. “May this world find a resting place, where peaceful waters flow.”
Lightfoot! was really Lightfoot’s only true folk album, with the acoustic guitars played by David Rea and Bruce Langhorne, two of the best folk music stylists of the day, along with Lightfoot’s own folk influenced playing and last, but certainly not least, the superb acoustic bass throughout the album, played by Bill Lee (father of film director, Spike Lee). By his next album more Nashville influences are creeping into the sound, and although there would always be a folk aspect to Lightfoot’s music, in my opinion, his first album is his purest folk effort. Lightfoot would comment in the early 80’s that the folk label that persisted with him throughout his career was causing his records, which were much more rock natured by that time, to miss out on radio because programmers still had him pegged as a strictly folk artist.
Lightfoot!, although recorded in late 1964, was not released until January of 1966. The time in between was spent by his management, securing a satisfactory record deal. Although he signed with United Artists, a truly satisfactory record deal would not come about until five albums later, when he made the historic one million dollar signing with Warner Brothers in 1970, the company he has remained with to this day.