At 75, Gordon Lightfoot still perfecting his sound

Singer Gordon Lightfoot performs 75 shows a year. He’ll be at the Orpheum on Wednesday.
Singer Gordon Lightfoot performs 75 shows a year. He’ll be at the Orpheum on Wednesday. Invision/AP

Gordon Lightfoot – the singer of “Sundown,” “If I Could Read Your Mind” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – is now 75 years old.

He does 75 shows a year and is scheduled to perform his next concert at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday.

He wants Kansans to know he is resilient, that he nearly died but has fought to make a comeback.

“I want (people) to know I am a professional entertainer. I have a large repertoire. I want them to know I am still trying. I am still working. I am still perfecting my sound,” Lightfoot said in a phone interview.

Lightfoot calls it now “a simple burst artery.” But in 2002, he suffered a ruptured artery in his stomach.

He stopped performing for 28 months. Six weeks of that he was in a coma; 3 1/2 months was spent in a hospital.

What helped him pull through was the creative experience of working on an album, he said. “Harmony” was released in 2004.

“I had the boys in the studio making an album; they were using stuff I had put down a year earlier,” Lightfoot said. “They had material to work with. I was able to hear what they were doing. They were bringing it to me in the hospital. It was an elaborate undertaking, given the circumstances.”

Now that he is older, Lightfoot has noticed a change in his voice.

“It certainly isn’t the high-pitched, warbly voice I had 50 years ago,” he said. “But it is still a strong voice. It is well driven. I try to keep myself in shape. I practice a lot on the guitar. I work on keeping my breathing good.”

And, he still has loyal fans.

Three generations of Robert Rafferty’s family have now treasured Gordon Lightfoot.

Rafferty’s 62-year-old-daughter, Pam Johnson of Abilene, said she wasn’t a fan of Lightfoot’s until 1976 when the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was released. Her father was the ship’s cook.

“When that song came out, he (Lightfoot) became my idol,” Johnson said. “I am proud to tell people I personally know him and he sings a song with my dad in it. I’m anxious to see him again.”

Johnson plans to take Rafferty’s great-grandson, Isaiah Johnson, to Lightfoot’s concert this week. She wants to introduce Lightfoot to one of his newest fans.

Lightfoot said he frequently has descendants of the Fitzgerald’s crew come to concerts and talk with him afterward.

“It is a North American song. It is a popular song,” Lightfoot said. “I wrote it as a folk song for an album. I didn’t think it was going to be big.”

The song took him two weeks to write. He learned on the evening news the ship had gone missing on Nov. 10, 1975. A Newsweek article later inspired him.

“I had the melody and chords. I got the song down and then went through the old newspapers,” Lightfoot said. “Of course, we had no computers then. People hardly had a CD then. But I got the back copies and got it in chronological order. It was important to me to make the story happen the exact way it happened. I try to get everything to rhyme. That’s one of the important things that were done in the old days – was to get the rhyme thing going. I won’t write a single song that does not rhyme.”

Does he still write?

He says he could. But mostly, he concentrates on the shows.