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Friday, February 25, 2000
A voice of the 60s folk scene sings on 

MUSIC PREVIEW

GORDON LIGHTFOOT: 8 p.m. Thursday. John Harms Center, 30 N. Van Brunt St., Englewood. $30, $36, $43. (201) 567-3600.

By JIM BECKERMAN
Staff Writer

Gordon Lightfoot, like his music, is adaptable.

It's all the same to him whether he's playing in his native Canada, where he's something of a national hero, or in the United States. "People are so much alike on both sides of the border," he says.

And it's all the same to him whether his music is rendered as folk, rock, country-western, or disco ("If You Could Read My Mind" was featured in the movie "54").

"Bad or good, I really appreciate that they tried to do it," he says.

His musical open-mindedness comes as no surprise.

Though Lightfoot, 61, became the unofficial bard of Canada with such epics as "The Canadian Railroad Trilogy" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," inspired by the 1975 sinking of an ore carrier in Lake Superior, his musical background goes beyond the folk-rock scene.

"Is it of any interest to say that I sang a Tony Bennett song in Grade 9?," he asks wryly.

Lightfoot also studied classical piano; performed in operettas, plays, and barbershop quartets; learned orchestral arranging at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, and wrote band arrangements for the Canadian Broadcasting Co. 

That, he says, was his real university.

"I would get a call at 11 o'clock in the evening, and they would say, have the parts ready at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning," he recalls of this grim period in the early 1960s.

"So you'd have 18 parts to copy and 14 hours to do it in. It was tough. But then, when it came time for me to write [my] songs, I was able to write the lead sheets in an expedient way. I got to understand chords and got so I could write in all the keys."

So when he turned his attention to Toronto's budding folk scene, encouraged by friend Ian Tyson of Canada's folk duo Ian and Sylvia, he already had a more thorough musical grounding than most of his peers.

Lightfoot went on to become one of the most important voices of the Sixties folk revival, with such song hits as "Early Morning Rain," "Alberta Bound," "Remember Me," "I'm Not Saying," and "Black Day in July."

But he also was part of the mainstream music business -- if only because he was signed to Reprise, the label founded by Frank Sinatra. "I had a very profound respect for Mr. Sinatra," he says.

In fact, Sinatra nearly recorded several of his songs.

"There was talk of it, and an attempt was made to do 'If You Could Read My Mind,' but it wasn't working for him," Lightfoot says. "Another time, I got a phone call from Frank Sinatra, and he asked me to put together a package for him, and I did; I put together five tunes that are in my catalog, but they didn't rise to the occasion either. I was very honored, though, that he would have asked."

If Sinatra never recorded a Lightfoot tune, there were plenty who did. Among them: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Peter Paul & Mary, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, and Glen Campbell. "I guess the songs are playable," he says modestly. "They're songs that can be interpreted."

More surprising to Lightfoot is the fact that he is still out there, plugging away on road trips like the one that will bring him Thursday to the John Harms Center.

With his longtime band -- guitarist Terry Clements, bassist Rick Haynes, keyboardist Mike Heffernan, and drummer Barry Keane -- he'll be mixing old standbys with newer material, including songs from his last album, "A Painter Passing Through," released in 1998.

"It's something I don't want to lose as long as I've got my health, until I'm ready to keel over," he says. "I'm gonna try and do it as long as they'll have me."

Years ago, the idea of Lightfoot touring into his 60s might have seemed an open question. His drinking and domestic troubles, which had reached a crisis in 1982 -- the year he gave up alcohol -- threatened to sink his career as thoroughly as the Edmund Fitzgerald.

"I never thought I'd be playing this long," he says. "In the old days, I have to tell you, a lot of times it was the party at the end of the rainbow that was more important than the performance. I'm very regretful of that. I've changed my lifestyle a bit, looked after myself better in order to perform better."

Copyright 2000 Bergen Record Corp. 

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