Kiwanis Festival 1952

Tuesday, February 29, 2000
Toronto Star
by Valerie Hauch, Staff Reporter

If you mention Kiwanis just in passing to Lightfoot...

The way he feels about the Kiwanis festival might stun a lot of people in the hard-bitten, mercurial music world where Gordon Lightfoot holds legendary status.

He's internationally acclaimed, this Canadian singer/songwriter who grew up in Orillia and whose tunes have been recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and Barbara Streisand.

And Lightfoot has no shortage of prestigious awards garnered over an illustrious career that's produced such enduring hits as "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald", "Early Morning Rain" and "The Way I Feel".

But the two little plaques he won in Toronto at the Kiwanis Music Festival in 1951 and 1952 - and which he still has - are especially dear. They mark a turning point in the life of a young teen whose voice had not even changed.

In fact, because he was still singing soprano in 1952, Lightfoot entered the Boys, Unchanged Voices vocal category and came first. As a result the "very excited" small town choir singer was among those chosen to perform at Massey Hall on one of two nights featuring "stars" from the festival.

"It was an experience that stayed with me the rest of my life", he says over the phone, taking time out from a hectic schedule preparing for a U.S. tour that will include 50 shows this year.

"I knew it right then. It made me know what it was I wanted to do with my life. My voice had not changed and already I was committed to a life as a singer."

It may have been about 48 years ago, but Lightfoot, 61, remembers a lot of details about that special night - even the name of the "wonderful pianist" who accompanied him - Mary Wedlock - and how it was all arranged by his local United Church choir master, Ray Williams.

Stepping onto the Massey Hall stage - he'd sung solo in the town choir before, but had never performed in front of such a big audience - the young Lightfoot was "quite nervous", but soon relaxed.

"I knew the song so well .. it was easy to do the song" having practiced three or four times a week for some time before the competition, he recalls.

The tune, "Who is Sylvia?", was "one of those classical songs from the 19th century, a lovely song," says Lightfoot.

He even remembers eating with his dad and mom (who also sang and played piano by ear) at the then-legendary, now-gone Savarin restaurant on Bay St. Later, with his dad at the wheel of the family car, they drove back to Orillia.

At the previous year's Kiwanis festival, in which he placed first in the solo class for boys under 13, and third in boys with unchanged voices, he sang "Alpine Song" and "Under the Greenwood Tree".

Since then, he's sang and composed countless melodies himself, but Lightfoot has never forgotten the songs he sang at the Kiwanis. "I could sing all three of them," he says, "I swear, those times are etched, they're so strong in my mind."

Needless to say, he remains "a fan of the Kiwanis festival," just like his friend, former touring partner and fellow Canadian musical superstar, Liona Boyd.

Like Lightfoot, the first musical competition for the internationally renowned classical guitarist took place on a Kiwanis stage back in the 1960's.