Gordon Lightfoot Dies: ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ & ‘Sundown’ Singer-Songwriter Was 84

Gordon Lightfoot Dies: ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ & ‘Sundown’ Singer-Songwriter Was 84

May 2, 2023

Gordon Lightfoot, the honey-voiced Canadian singer-songwriter who had giant U.S. hits with “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” died today at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. He was 84.

His longtime publicist Victoria Lord revealed the news to Canadian media outlets including the CBC but did not provide a cause of death. Revered in Canada, Lightfoot had been scheduled to play Los Angeles-area clubs several times during the past two years but had postponed the dates at least twice.

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Born on November 17, 1938, in Orillia, Ontario, Lightfoot had been part of the Canadian folk scene for several years before he burst onto the international music charts in late 1970 with with “If You Could Read My Mind,” a gorgeous, ethereal track featuring his acoustic guitar and supple but assured vocal. Inspired by his divorce, the song hit No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 drawn from his Reprise LP Sit Down Young Stranger, which later was reissued as If You Could Read My Mind. It reached No. 12 on the Billboard 200.

He released three more Reprise albums — Summer Side of Life (1971), Don Quixote (1972) and Old Dan’s Records (1972), all of which were huge hits in the Great White North — and singles to middling U.S. chart before roaring back with the 1974 LP Sundown. the album spent two weeks at the summit here, and its title track became Lightfoot’s lone No. 1 on the Hot 100 and went gold.

Lightfoot wrote the song about his tumultuous, extramarital and occasionally violent relationship with Cathy Smith, who years later admitted to injecting John Belushi with the heroin and cocaine “speedball” that led to his death at age 33. Its dark lyrics masked by a lilting, bluesy melody: “Sundown you better take care/If I find you been creepin’ ’round my back stairs.” Lightfoot’s Sundown LP also hit No. 1 in the U.S. and Canada. Smith, who died in 2020, is credited as a backup singer on one track, “High and Dry.”

Sundown, his first of three platinum albums, also spawned the top 10 U.S. hit “Carefree Highway.”

Lightfoot’s 1975 LP Cold on the Shoulder made the U.S. Top 10, and its single “Rainy Day People” reached the Top 30. But he had one more stateside smash to deliver.

That would come in the unlikely form of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a mournful, six-minute story song adorned with mournful electric guitar and folksy melody that often crammed several extra syllables into a line. Based on the shipwreck of the titular American ship — “As the big freighters go, she was bigger than most” — on Lake Superior in 1975 that cost 29 sailors’ lives. Reprise trimmed about 30 seconds from the album version, but it still became one of the longest singles to reach the U.S. Top 5, peaking at No. 2 for two weeks behind Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night.”

It came from the album Summertime Dream, which peaked at No. 12 stateside and went platinum.

The album and singles success came after Reprise issued the compilation disc Gord’s Gold, which went double-platinum remains his best-selling set in the U.S.

Lightfoot wouldn’t reach those chart heights in America again, though his 1978 LP Endless Wire went gold. He continued to record and tour into the 2020s. His 2019 North American tour included a stop at the Grove in Anaheim where he played more than two dozen songs over two hours at age 80.

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