Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Gordon Lightfoot with a look back at his sole No. 1, the simultaneously violent and breezy “Sundown.”
As far as signature songs go, “Sundown” might not be the first that came to mind for singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot upon news of his death earlier this week (May 1) at age 84. “If You Could Read My Mind,” the weepy post-divorce lament that marked his U.S. breakout hit in 1971, probably endures as his most beloved (and almost certainly his most frequently-covered) hit, and six-minute story song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” remains his most distinctive smash. But while “Mind” made it to No. 5 on the Hot 100 and “Wreck” got all the way to No. 2, his only song to top the listing was “Sundown,” a jaunty but foreboding love song that hit at the exact right moment in chart history.
Lightfoot was a Canadian born in Orillia, Ontario in 1938, who had moved to Los Angeles in the late ’50s and enjoyed something of a nomadic career for the next decade. Though he went to L.A. to study jazz, he made money doing commercial jingles and singing on demonstration records. He would move back to Canada in the early ’60s and get involved in the Toronto folk scene, scoring some local hits as a singer-songwriter and capturing the attention of many of his more-celebrated peers — with his compositions being recorded by the starry likes of Elvis Presley, Peter, Paul and Mary and even Lightfoot’s songwriting hero Bob Dylan. (Lightfoot would later return the favor with a version of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” which became a No. 3 hit on Canada’s RPM singles chart for Lightfoot in 1965.)
In the early ’70s, Lightfoot moved from United Artists to Warner Bros./Reprise, which precipitated his long-awaited U.S. breakthrough with “Read My Mind,” also a No. 1 in his home country. He scored a trio of minor Hot 100 hits in the following years, and charted a number of modestly successful albums on the Billboard 200, but would not notch another major success until 1974 with his Sundown set — and of course, its title track, a vindictive toe-tapper widely believed to be inspired by a major figure in Lightfoot’s life at the time, the backup singer and rock scene fixture Cathy Smith.
Lightfoot was having an affair with Smith as his first marriage, to Brita Ingegerd Olaisson, was disintegrating. The relationship with Smith was, by all accounts, tumultuous — with Lightfoot admitting that it often made him “crazy with jealousy” — and even turned violent, with Lightfoot reportedly breaking Smith’s cheekbone in one particularly bad spat. In the 2019 documentary If You Could Read My Mind, Lightfoot recalls of his relationship with Smith, “I would have liked to marry her, but I was just newly divorced, and I told myself I would never get married again. And I knew that it was not a good idea to carry on [with Smith] — it was one of those relationships [where] you get a feeling of danger.”
In interviews, Lightfoot would not confirm Smith was his specific muse for “Sundown” — instead opting to more generally refer to the inspiration being “a girlfriend” he had at the time. But the song, a paranoid warning to a lover that they “better take care, if I find you’ve been creeping ’round my back stairs,” is largely assumed to draw from their toxic romance. The Read My Mind documentary plays “Sundown” underneath its discussion of Lightfoot’s relationship with Smith, with Brian Good (of Lightfoot’s one-time opening act The Good Brothers) saying, “He wrote [‘Sundown’] referring to more than one person that might have been involved with [Smith] — and some of them were Gordon’s friends.”
Such material might seem unusually dark for a mid-’70s pop smash. But the trick of “Sundown” is wrapping its narrator’s fevered thoughts of “a hard-lovin’ woman, got me feelin’ mean” in a brisk, almost carefree acoustic groove and a sweetly harmonized and immediately catchy chorus that makes the anger and violence at its core distinctly palatable — as well as an ambiguous title that makes the song feel more mysterious than aggressive. (In Read My Mind, country-rock cult hero Steve Earle points out that the song also leaves out the details that might make it truly unseemly, comparing it to a “spaghetti western… where you can kind of make up your own movie.”) That mix of despairing lyrics and undeniable upbeat hooks was hardly unfamiliar to 1974 top 40 audiences, either; earlier that year, Terry Jacks had gone to No. 1 on the Hot 100 with “Seasons in the Sun,” originally a maudlin French ballad about a dying man’s farewell to his loved ones, which Jacks worked into a bouncy pop singalong fit for AM radio.
“Sundown” also worked due to its embrace of another trend on the U.S. charts at the time: the commercial rise of country music, which, thanks to crossover artists like Charlie Rich and John Denver, was starting to become a regular presence around the top of the Hot 100. “Sundown” is not an explicitly country song — more of a country-influenced folk-rock ditty, along the lines of Stealers Wheel’s 1973 smash “Stuck in the Middle With You,” whose intro build-up it also subtly nicks — though its post-chorus guitars have distinctly southern accents, and Lightfoot would play up its vocal twanginess in live performances. Regardless, the single would reach No. 13 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, also making it easily the biggest country hit of Lightfoot’s career.
And “Sundown” and “Seasons” had something else in common as 1974 Hot 100 No. 1s: Both were by Canadian artists. In fact, five separate Canadian acts would top the chart in ’74: Lightfoot, Jacks, singer-songwriter Andy Kim (“Rock Me Gently”), veteran pop idol Paul Anka (“(You’re) Having My Baby,” along with Odia Coates) and AOR rockers Bachman Turner-Overdrive (“You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”). It was a near-unprecedented degree of takeover from our friends to the north — barely even approached again on the Hot 100 until 41 years later — that also took advantage of a fairly wide-open time in American popular music in general; a total of 35 different songs reached No. 1 on the chart for the first time in ’74, a record-setting mark at the time.
“Sundown” first hit pole position on the chart dated June 29, replacing Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods’ story song “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” before giving its spot up a week later to the Hues Corporation’s disco-leaning “Rock the Boat.” Its parent album of the same name had also topped the Billboard 200 the week before, and was still reigning when the single rose to No. 1, making that June Lightfoot’s clear commercial apex in the U.S. He would never top either chart again, though follow-up single “Carefree Highway” snuck into the Hot 100’s top 10, and the aforementioned “Edmund Fitzgerald” would reach the runner-up spot in November 1976, held from the top by Rod Stewart’s eight-week No. 1 “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright).” Lightfoot’s final Hot 100 appearance came with 1982’s No. 50-peaking “Baby Step Back,” though he would continue to record through the early ’00s and toured through the ’10s and ’20s, and even released the unaccompanied and appropriately titled comeback album Solo in 2020, his first LP in 16 years.
Smith would remain a major figure in the rock world throughout the ’70s, and after splitting with Lightfoot for good in 1975, she also spent time with Levon Helm of The Band and as a backup singer for country singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton. She also got involved with drugs, reportedly dealing to Keith Richards and Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones — and in 1982, became infamous for giving legendary comedian John Belushi the drug cocktail injection that led to his fatal overdose, for which she was charged with involuntary manslaughter, ultimately serving 15 months in prison. When Smith died at age 73 in August 2020, Lightfoot’s comments to The Globe and Mail reflected a much gentler outlook on the oft-destructive relationship that likely brought out the venom in his biggest chart hit.
“Cathy was a great lady,” he said. “Men were drawn to her, and she used to make me jealous. But I don’t have a bad thing to say about her.”