We are four weeks away from Christmas, which is good in one way ’cause ‘tis the season, and not so good in the automotive and racing world because hardly anything is going on anywhere except in the Middle East, where there are still two Grand Prix races on the calendar.
So I’m going to write today about a national treasure, Gordon Lightfoot. Tonight, he will wrap up a three-night stand marking the reopening of Massey Hall. I promise, though, that there will be an automotive reference, or two, to make this column legal to appear in Wheels.
I first saw Lightfoot at the Mariposa Folk Festival in his hometown of Orillia, Ont. He was singing duets with his pal Terry Whelan and they were on a program with folk-music greats like Ian & Sylvia, Mary Jane and Winston Young, Ed McCurdy, Oscar Brand, The Travellers and others.
I had a job on the Orillia Packet & Times, a daily that went out of business a few years ago, and in late spring or early summer of 1963 Lightfoot came into the office and I interviewed him. He was as class an act then as he is now. He’d been to music school in Los Angeles, went to the U.K. where he had a short-lived TV show, and was back in Canada appearing on CBC shows like “Singalong Jubilee.” He was starting to write songs and had great ambition.
I never got to know him, per se, but he recognized me for a while afterward. It was a thrill to go see him sing at Steele’s Tavern or some other downtown Toronto night club and have him stop by my table on the way out to say hello. I loved to hear him sing the late Hamilton Camp’s “Pride of Man.” In fact, the last time I saw Lightfoot up close and personal was a night in 1965 when Camp was playing a club called the Gate of Cleve on Dupont Street and I was sitting right at the back. A hand tapped my shoulder, suggesting I move out of the way so more people could get in, and I turned to look right into the face of Gordon Lightfoot. He tapped my shoulder again and said, “Hey, how’re ya doin’?”
“I’m on the Globe now,” I said.
“I’ll look for your stuff,” he said.
And that was that.
But like millions of Canadians, I followed his career as if he was my next-door neighbour. He was writing wonderful stuff but drinking pretty heavily and I remember being shocked one time while reading an article on him in Maclean’s (or maybe it was Saturday Night) in which he said he put away 40 ounces of vodka a day. But it didn’t seem to slow him down and he kept churning out the hits and singing in the clubs and in concert.
One of the songs that audiences loved, which he never recorded, was called “Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud Talkin’ Blues.” His biographer, Nicholas Jennings, wrote a blog a few years ago about the song and how it came to be.
Lightfoot, according to Jennings, has had several marriages. He liked to party with Ian Tyson (the booze wrecked Ian’s marriage to Sylvia Fricker/Tyson too) and according to Jennings, we owe the song to Lightfoot’s rockabilly buddy Ronnie Hawkins, who kept drinking but stayed married.
After moving from Arkansas to Toronto, Hawkins was soon very successful and very wealthy. He wandered into a Rolls-Royce dealership on Bay Street and was ignored by a snooty salesman. Hawkins, who was wearing cowboy boots, a buckskin jacket and had long hair and a cowboy hat, suggested the logo “R-R” stood for rock ‘n’ roll and that he wanted the car. Eventually, after being rebuffed several times, he left the dealership, went to his bank, withdrew $18,500 cash and went back and bought the car.
Now the reason I took you all on this trip down Memory Lane is because I have a suggestion. A very worthy suggestion.
The arena where the Leafs and Raptors play started life as the Air Canada Centre, or ACC. Now it’s Scotiabank Arena. Skydome became Rogers Centre. I know Rogers have used their properties for advertising purposes but my point is that it is not really that big a deal for building names to be changed.
Massey Hall has been “Massey” Hall forever. True, it was paid for by a foundation fronted by Hart Massey of Massey-Harris (later to become Massey-Ferguson) but it is now operated by a public corporation that also manages Roy Thomson Hall. Of all the performers who have appeared there over the years, the one who stands out is Gordon Lightfoot. Lightfoot has performed nearly 165 concerts there and was the last artist to appear before its most recent renovation. As we all know, he was the artist who reopened it on Thursday night.
If you go out on the street and ask the first 10 people you meet to tell you, “Who is Massey?” I would wager that none of those 10 people would know. For that very reason, it’s time the place got a new name. I can’t think of anything better than Gordon Lightfoot Hall, can you?
I’ll tell you this: ask those same 10 people about Gordon Lightfoot and first, they’d know who you were talking about and, second, they would probably be able to rattle off a half dozen of his most famous songs.
Gordon Lightfoot Hall. Let‘s do it.
Norris McDonald, a past Wheels editor in chief, covers the Canadian automotive and global racing scene for the Star. He is a member of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame. email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @NorrisMcDonald2.