"Playing in bars had its advantages. You could try out all kinds of new things and make all kinds of mistakes and hardly anyone noticed. Sometimes you could hold the audience by throwing in some off-colour humour and following it with a good up-tempo country tune or a bawdy ballad. Sometimes they'd be watching the hockey game on TV with the volume turned up so you couldn't sing over it. So you just sat down, waited for the period to end and got a few songs in during the intermission. But that was OK. It was paid rehearsal."
The act consisted of one man with a guitar attempting to captivate an audience that wanted to drink and have a good time. He was a little naive, having been raised in the small town of Orillia, Ontario (home of Stephen Leacock), but he had a facility for knowing when they were listening and when they were not. He sang songs he thought would quiet them down or please them. There was never a doubt in his mind that they might even be interested. He had sung before people from the time he was seven years of age. He got his chops on the barroom/coffeehouse circuit. He was not an overnight sensation. He caught on gradually.
"Playing in bars had its moments. There was lots to do just staying out of trouble. I knew six guitar chords and some variations. I had some piano theory, which helped with the writing, but usually I just played by ear. I played everyone else's songs and a few of my own. I saw a lot of my friends go down the tubes in those days but somehow I managed to survive. The excesses of all-night partying were taken for granted. But most of all I remember getting people off by singing. At some point I decided to make a go of it, and there were people who gave me a hand up the ladder."
In 1965 Gordon Lightfoot as playing upstairs at Steel's Tavern in Toronto when Ian and Sylvia Tyson came to hear his act. They picked two of his songs, Early Morning Rain and For Loving Me for inclusion on their album-in-progress for Vanguard, passing them on to Peter, Paul, and Mary, who made them hits. Marty Robbins had a Number One country hit with Ribbon of Darkness. Lightfoot shifted gears. For a time he was managed by John Court and Albert Grossman and made five albums for United Artists in four years. His concert following increased rapidly. He appeared at Town Hall in New York for the first time in 1967. His following continued to grow. He was signed to Warner/Reprise in 1970 and made his first Gold Album, If You Could Read My Mind.
"When I think of having recorded six albums for Warner Brothers I sometimes don't believe I could have done five for U.A. and written all those songs. People always ask me, as I'm sure they do other writers, what the formula is. I have never been able to simplify the answer, except to say that there is a willpower, a drive, that makes one sit down at the table and get it done. The songs don't just pop off the top of your head while you're walking down the street! There is no special trick to it. It's a kind of energy that will not be suppressed. You do it or you don't do it at all."
Lightfoot is now preparing for his first concert tour of Europe, an area to which his popularity was extended by the album Sundown. It's still an act without gimmicks. He works with four backup musicians whose individual talents are formidable and who also take part in all his recording sessions. So far, there is no drummer on live performances -- just guitars, steel guitar and bass. With a small entourage, a low profile, he travels the globe. He rests. When it's time, he writes his songs and records them. There are 115 of his own songs on records by him, and recordings of his work by other major artists, some of whom are his idols. His style has never been categorized, but the influence is folk. All of the songs in this special package from the old U.A. albums have been re-recorded (he doesn't like his early work). Gordon Lightfoot worked as a single during the first five years of his career -- up until 1965, when it became possible for him to form his own band. At that time it consisted of three members: Red Shea on lead guitar, John Stockfish on bass and Lightfoot on rhythm guitar. Rick Haynes took over for John in 1968 and Red turned it over to Terry Clements in 1970. Presently the band consists of five members, with the addition of Pee Wee Charles on steel and the return of Red Shea, sharing lead guitar with Terry Clements. Lightfoot plays six and 12 string guitars and Haynes remains on bass. Throughout the making of his eleven original albums to date, Lightfoot's stage band has been the nucleus of the studio ensemble, around which the rhythm and orchestral sections have been built. This accounts for the consistency of their live performances with the recordings. In addition, the group stays well-honed with about 70 concerts a year. John Stockfish still appears on some recorded selections; Jim Gordon (drums) is heard on the albums as well. Lightfoot takes tremendous pride in the abilities of his backup band and attributes much of his success to them. Pictured here are those most responsible.