Gordon Lightfoot remembers late guitarist Clements as one of his best friends

TORONTO - Gordon Lightfoot remembers his late guitarist Terry Clements as a "terrific guy" whose distinctive playing helped create some of the most memorable moments in Lightfoot's music.

Clements died on Feb. 20, 10 days after suffering a stroke. He was 63.

"Terry was a terrific guy, and a wonderful friend and a great guitar player," Lightfoot said in a telephone interview Monday morning.

"He was one of my best friends."

Lightfoot met Clements when both happened to be working on music for the 1968 Burt Reynolds TV movie "Fade-In."

In 1970, Lightfoot's lead guitarist Red Shea decided to leave his touring band, and Lightfoot immediately thought of Clements. He flew him up to Toronto for an audition and was immediately impressed by the youngster.

Still, there was an initial adjustment period for Clements, who had grown up listening to a diverse assortment of music — even taking cues from surf guitar pioneer Dick Dale — but was now being tasked with mastering the folk genre.

"Terry could have been a rock musician," Lightfoot said. "He had to learn to play capo music — which is quite common in folk music — and he had to learn two or three different ways of playing the instrument, but being the kind of guitarist he was, he picked up on all these things very quickly.

"He was a very fast learner, and I might add that he also taught me a lot of things myself as we went along through the years. He was a great teacher."

Born in 1947, Clements began playing guitar when he was only five years old. He spent two years in the navy upon graduating high school but then bounced between various musical gigs — including spending time with a '60s outfit called Golden Sunflower — before landing with Lightfoot.

Clements contributed to nearly all of Lightfoot's most popular tunes, including "Carefree Highway," "Sundown" and, of course, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," with its haunting solo and textured playing — meant to bring to mind the crashing waves and whistling wind — standing as perhaps the best showcase for the guitarist's unique abilities.

"He and Pee Wee Charles together came up with the sound ... that we achieved on that recording with the guitar parts that, really, he invented," Lightfoot said.

"He was a great player. He was a natural. ... Working with him was such a pleasure through all those years. You know, there really were never any problems with any of the work that we were doing, and we were always of course on an improvement venture, in trying to make everything better all the time."

"And he was ready to do that. Always ready to go, and enthusiastic."

Lightfoot reminisces on a few of his favourite moments from touring with Clements for roughly four decades: the time they were mutually inspired by American folkie Rod McKuen at the Royal Albert Hall, or getting invited backstage together to meet German actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, or a nighttime sailing jaunt in Perth, Australia, during which their promoter almost toppled over the side of the boat.

Lightfoot said that Clements occasionally seemed to struggle when the band wasn't on the road — "his life was a bit of a roller-coaster ride, his personal life" — but that he always handled his music career with the utmost professionalism.

"The music always came first," Lightfoot said. "Being prepared and ready to go, that was part of the game. We were like a team. Like a sports team getting ready for a game every time we went onstage.

"We wanted to play the best."

Lightfoot says he and Clements rehearsed together two days before the guitarist entered the hospital, where he remained for two weeks until his death. But the 72-year-old Lightfoot said Clements had been enduring various health problems for years, until "everything failed at once."

Lightfoot has recruited Hamilton guitarist Carter Lancaster, whom he calls a "great player," to join his touring band, beginning with a show on March 15 in Greensboro, N.C.

But there's no replacing Clements.

"He presented a shining example to so many people," Lightfoot said.

"Everywhere we went, there were people who really appreciated his playing and appreciated his natural ability. And he had many friends, many, many friends throughout North America, who really admired his playing and had a great deal of respect for him."