If you’re going to have a breakthrough single, then you might as well make it a song that’ll substantial enough to become one of the most iconic tracks of your entire career. Gordon Lightfoot didn't actually plan this when he released “If You Could Read My Mind,” but it certainly worked out that way.
Lightfoot was already popular on the Canadian folk circuit when his 1970 debut album made him into an American star. Originally entitled Sit Down Young Stranger, the LP was quickly retitled to match the name of his hit single, which isn’t exactly the worst move from a marketing standpoint. The album, which ultimately climbed to No. 12 on the Billboard 200, was kind of an all-star affair, having been recorded in Hollywood by producer Lenny Waronker with the musical assistance of such friends as Ry Cooder, John Sebastian and Van Dyke Parks, as well as orchestration by Randy Newman on a couple of tracks.
The song was inspired by Lightfoot’s then-recent divorce, with the singer-songwriter penning the lyrics while sitting alone in his house in Toronto that summer. It’s one of those songs that has continued to be covered regularly over the years, but one of the most devastating versions might be Johnny Cash's, recorded during one of his last sessions.
Seriously, give it a listen: it’ll break your heart.
“If You Could Read My Mind” topped the charts in Lightfoot’s native Canada and hit No. 5 on the Hot 100, but it did top one chart in America: the adult contemporary Singles chart...and, hey, a chart is a chart is a chart, particularly when your song is sitting at the top of it, like Lightfoot’s was.
Before we go, we’d be remiss if we didn’t offer up a quick plug for the documentary about our man Gordon and his career, particularly since it shares its name with the song that brought us here today.