Lightfoot, who performs Thursday at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, penned classics like “Early Morning Rain,” “Sundown,” “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” This appearance is part of his 50 Years on the Carefree Highway Tour, which marks the golden anniversary (sort of) of being on the road.
Lightfoot, 75, chatted by phone recently about partying with Dylan, which artist he got star struck around and why Detroit holds a special place in his heart.
How did you meet Bob Dylan?
I was in his management stable with Albert Grossman, the famous manager. I met Bob at Albert’s office in New York. He was under contract at the same time. When I got with Albert Grossman I couldn’t believe my songwriting had taken me to that point.
Did you hang with Dylan outside of work?
I went to his house up in Woodstock, years before the Woodstock festival. We’d go there and visit. (Canadian country/folk singers) Ian & Sylvia went up there with me. When Bob’s Rolling Thunder Revue (tour) came through Toronto, my house became party central. I’ve had interesting times with Bob.
What’s the favorite tour you’ve done?
There was one in my particular genre — James Taylor, myself, John Denver and Harry Chapin all together did a series of concerts. That was definitely a high point. That was in the late ‘70s.
Have you ever been star struck?
I met Mick Jagger. I was so shy and awestruck I could barely speak to him. The first time I met him was in Montreux, Switzerland, at his recording studio there. I was in Switzerland playing with Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen and Jesse Winchester. When I went into the recording studio, Mick was working on something, I think I was interrupting him. There I was, playing on the piano when you walk in the place. I don’t know if he liked it. I was sitting there playing it when he walked in, he said, ‘Who’s this guy?’
How did this tour come about?
Well, that was really my agent’s idea to do that. Actually, he tacked on two years: I’ve only been at it 48 years. He’s a nice guy so I didn’t get on his case about it.
When did you first start touring?
I played both Canada and the United States starting in 1965. First time I ever played in the United States with a work visa, I opened for Oscar Peterson at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. Detroit was my jumping off spot. I was playing the club circuit.
How did you land your first record deal?
I got some songs recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary. They were very big at the time, they got a hit single with one of my songs called ‘For Loving Me.’ That was my start. Back then, I was still living very menially with a wife and two young children. I walked out of the bedroom one day and it was playing on the radio. I couldn’t believe it.
How did you research the facts for ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?’
I went to the newspaper — we had no computers then — and got the back copies. I thought I’m certainly not going to guess upon whose fault this was. Secondly, I’m going to get it into chronological order.
What can people expect to hear at the Wharton Center?
We have to make sure we do all of the standards every night — maybe 12 or 14 songs we think people would really like to hear. We always play the standards, then rotate the extra songs around the standards. We do two hours with a 20-minute intermission.
You had a stroke and some other health issues a few years back, how are you feeling?
I’m good. I still love going on tour. At one point there was a rumor going around that I had died. That was about four years ago. The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated.
Do you think you’ll release a new album anytime soon?
I’m not interested in getting into another project because all of my recording obligations have been fulfilled and I don’t wish to re-sign with any label right now. Besides, I have an extended family and they require a lot of attention. There are always a couple songs on the backburner and I enjoy that, just for fun.
8 p.m. Thursday, June 19 Wharton Center, Cobb Great Hall 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing, MSU campus $35-$65 (800) WHARTON, whartoncenter.com