Gordon Lightfoot’s hit pop ballad If You Could Read My Mind has been covered by hundreds of such top international artists as Herb Alpert, Glen Campbell, Perry Como, James Last, Johnny Mathis, Don McLean, Liza Minnelli, Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand, and Andy Williams.
The heartfelt song stormed to the top of the charts in 1971, earning Lightfoot a gold record and his first No. 1 hit in the U.S. For Lightfoot, who had written the entire album in an empty Toronto house, working seven days a week, 12 hours a day for a month, the success was well deserved. A U.S. hit had so far eluded him, although his recordings were popular in Canada. But If You Could Read My Mind proved – to Lightfoot and following generations of Canadian songwriters – that a Canadian could have a hit record in the U.S. without moving there.
Lightfoot had just been released from United Artists and signed to Warner’s Reprise label, later explaining, “I was inspired to write a lot of new tunes at the time. I had a new record contract.” He completed the hit song in one short afternoon.
Lightfoot recorded If You Could Read My Mind in Los Angeles with producers Lenny Waronker and Joe Wissert, and Red Shea on guitar, for the album “Sit Down Young Stranger.” His compositional skills, honed at Hollywood’s Westlake College of Modern Music, and his poetic skill combined to create what Waronker called “a highly sophisticated, beautiful song.”
Despite the producer’s enthusiasm, the label instead released Me and Bobby McGee (written by Kris Kristofferson) as the first single from “Sit Down Young Stranger.” It wasn’t until several months later that Seattle’s KJR Radio began playing If You Could Read My Mind. Their disc jockey was inspired by the poignant melody and imagery-rich lyrics exposing the songwriter’s emotions regarding the failure of his marriage, in the now-famous line:
“I don't know where we went wrong
But the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back.”
Listeners responded with requests and other radio stations followed. As Waronker explained, “It became our unexpected hit, and a very pleasant surprise.” Warner immediately released the song as a single (Reprise 0974), and reissued the album under the new title “If You Could Read My Mind.” The rerelease quickly went gold, catapulting Lightfoot onto the international scene.
In February 1971, Lightfoot’s single became Billboard’s No. 1 Adult Contemporary hit and the Hot 100’s No. 5. In Canada, it was No. 1 on RPM’s Top 100, and CHUM Radio’s No. 6. Lightfoot captured the 1971 Juno for top male vocalist and a Grammy nomination for best male pop vocal performance (James Taylor was the eventual winner).
Among the many Canadians who have recorded If You Could Read My Mind are Carroll Baker, Boss Brass, Connie Kaldor, Diana Krall, Duane Steele, The Travellers, and Neil Young. It was also performed on 2004’s “Canadian Idol” TV show.
The song enjoyed a disco metamorphosis twice: as recorded by Viola Wills (No. 2 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart in 1980), and by Stars on 54 in the film 54, with tinges of gospel and soul (No. 3 Dance Club and No. 52 Hot 100). As producer Frank Berman told an interviewer, “We love Gordon Lightfoot’s songwriting, and particularly this song was one of our favourites. It was quite a challenge to create something new and still be true to the original.”
In 1975, Lightfoot re-recorded If You Could Read My Mind for the album Gord’s Gold, which went platinum.
If You Could Read My Mind has been declared a SOCAN Classic, having earned over 100,000 radio plays.
The renowned singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot (born Orillia, Ontario 1938), was a seminal figure in the singer-songwriter movement. He has been called Canada’s folk laureate; his songs are admired and covered around the world. Lightfoot is a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the U.S. Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, and won a dozen Juno awards (including consecutive Junos as male vocalist, composer or folksinger between 1970 and 1975). With 25 albums to his credit, he has had a profound influence on an entire generation of songwriters.