In the summer of 1971, Les Emmerson of Five Man Electrical Band received a phone call from an old friend who worked as a disc jockey in Norfolk, Va. Told the band’s single Signs was exploding in the United States, Mr. Emmerson was asked if the group could come down to play a big outdoor festival. The development was a shock to Mr. Emmerson and the other band members, who had struggled to find commercial success since moving to Los Angeles from Ottawa a few years earlier.
At the festival, a large crowd that “stretched to the horizon,” according to Mr. Emmerson, sang along with him to the message of a decidedly anti-establishment anthem. The dawn of the 1970s was a counterculture time. The agitated lyrics of Mr. Emmerson rang true not only to the “long-haired freaky people” the song referenced, but also to anyone else who felt marginalized.
The next day, the band began a long slog across the country for a concert in Seattle. “I could have killed our road manager,” Mr. Emmerson said in Rockin’ on the Rideau 2, the second volume in Jim Hurcomb’s account of Ottawa’s early rock scene.
The highlight of the jaunt came in Illinois in the middle of the night when a DJ on Chicago’s clear-channel AM station WLS announced that Signs was its new No. 1 song. It was no small development – the WLS signal reached deep into the Midwest and beyond, particularly at night.
“We were on a cloverleaf highway and we found a place to stop, and we got out and we were jumping up and down,” Mr. Emmerson told Ottawa author and musicologist Mr. Hurcomb. “We were on top of the world.”
If not the top, then close to it. Signs reached No. 4 in Canada and No. 3 on the Billboard pop chart in the United States. Though Mr. Emmerson never considered himself a protest singer per se, the softly psychedelic Signs lives on 50 years after its release as one of the most popular songs of its defiant and galvanizing kind.
Mr. Emmerson died on Dec. 10 at an Ottawa hospital. He had been hospitalized with COVID-19, which was complicated by underlying health issues. He was 77.
He was recording new material until very recently. “He was always writing music,” his wife, Monik Emmerson, said. “He’d work on the songs in his head.”
Mr. Emmerson was a serviceable singer-guitarist and a dynamite songwriter with an ear for vocal harmonies – he had perfect pitch – and a knack for pop hooks. His thoughtful lyrics could be socially conscious or fun, or in the case of the 1972 Five Man Electrical Band single I’m a Stranger Here, both at the same time. The groovy toe-tapper was sung from the point of view of a space alien aghast at the pollution and other everyday atrocities on Earth: “I think your atmosphere is hurting my eyes.”
Mr. Emmerson was elected to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008. In the 2010 book The Top 100 Canadian Singles, by Bob Mersereau, Signs was ranked 38th.
Affable and down to earth, Mr. Emerson in his later years was a hobbyist musician, a hockey trivia fiend, a crossword-puzzle solver, a royalty-cheque casher and an avid golfer who enjoyed a good laugh, a wild story – often told by him – and a cold Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale to keep his throat from going dry. “He lived a life of leisure and, he was a familiar face in taverns with his friends,” said Dick Cooper of the Cooper Brothers, a Southern-rock band founded in Ottawa.
Mr. Emerson first came into prominence as a songwriting singer-guitarist in the Ottawa-based Staccatos, a presentable mid-60s rock band in the sweet-singing, spiffy-suited style of British groups such as the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers. The band had success in Canada with the 1967 single Half Past Midnight but couldn’t get the time of day from a Canadian music industry that was in its infancy.
“If there had been Canadian content regulations when Half Past Midnight came out, it would have been a much bigger hit than it was,” Mr. Hurcomb told The Globe and Mail. “It was as good as anything the Beatles did. In fact, people used to call Les the Paul McCartney of Ottawa.”
Signed to Capitol Records, the same label as the Beatles, the Staccatos headed to Los Angeles in 1968, where they soon changed their name to Five Man Electrical Band, after the Staccatos’ song of the same name. Besides Signs and I’m a Stranger Here, while he was with Five Man Electrical Band, Mr. Emmerson wrote the 1971 Canadian hit Absolutely Right, a feel-good bell-bottomed boogie typical of its era.
The bigger hit, Signs was the hippie people’s version of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. Mr. Emmerson’s “need not apply” line was inspired by friends who were denied jobs simply because of their flower-children aesthetic. The idea for the chorus came to Mr. Emmerson while the band drove through Nevada and Arizona on Route 66, where he saw a steady procession of tourist signs lining the road and spray-painted messages elsewhere ruining the region’s natural beauty.
After Five Man Electrical Band broke up in 1975, Mr. Emmerson had some success as a solo artist but returned to Ottawa around 1980. He worked with local musicians and occasionally reunited Five Man Electrical Band.
In 1990, the American rock group Tesla scored a hit with its own acoustic cover version of Signs that exposed the song to a new generation. If the song’s original success surprised Mr. Emmerson, the revival did so even more. “Of all the songs I’ve written I thought Signs might be kind of dated because of the material,” he told the Ottawa Citizen in 1993. “But apparently an awful lot of kids still feel strongly about what people tell them they can or can’t do.”
Already earning significant royalties for Signs, he received even bigger cheques when the song was sampled by British producer-musician Fatboy Slim in 2003 for the Platinum-selling Don’t Let the Man Get You Down. “He could make a living with just his royalties and still live comfortably,” his wife said.
When Dick Cooper of the Cooper Brothers band spoke to Mr. Emmerson two months ago, the Signs songwriter chuckled at the legs and legacy of his signature composition. “I still can’t believe it’s still out there and making me dough,” he told his musician friend.
“He was proud of it,” Mr. Cooper told The Globe. “But really, how could he not be? It’s an iconic song.”
Robert Leslie Emmerson was born Sept. 17, 1944, in Ottawa. His father, Bob Emmerson, was in the hardware business. His mother, Olive Emmerson (née Rooke) was a homemaker.
As a boy, Mr. Emmerson received a cheap Sears guitar for Christmas, but it sat unused until 1956 when he saw Elvis Presley on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on CBS. “I took that guitar and figured I had to learn to play it,” Mr. Emmerson recalled later, “because I wanted some of that.
While attending Laurentian High School, Mr. Emmerson played in the band the Profiles, which opened for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins at the Pineland Dance Hall in 1963. The mostly Canadian musicians backing Mr. Hawkins were known as the Hawks. Later they became famous as the Band, the roots-rock pioneers led by Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson. Seeing them made a terrific impression on the teenaged Mr. Emmerson.
“That was one of the most profound events of my life,” he told Mr. Hurcomb for his book Rockin’ On The Rideau: Ottawa’s Golden Age of Rock and Roll. “I never knew live music could sound so good.”
Another pivotal moment came in February, 1964, while Mr. Emmerson was with Canadian country music pioneer Hughie Scott. The band timed its set break in order to watch the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “I knew at that moment I had to get into a band that was playing that stuff, because they had new chords, new changes, new life,” Mr. Emmerson later said.
So enthused about the new sound, Mr. Emmerson took a pay cut to join the Staccatos as the group’s guitar-playing singer. They often played the upstairs Rose Room at the Chaudière Club, a happening spot for the young citizens of Ottawa. Mr. Emmerson and guitarist Vern Craig began writing their own songs, which were squeezed in between cover versions of radio hits. “We did a lot of British Invasion material live, and even pronounced our words like the British did,” Mr. Emmerson once recalled.
After scoring a regional hit with It Ain’t Easy in 1965, the Staccatos were signed to Capitol Records. In 1967, they played for Queen Elizabeth at Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park.
The band was pulling in $1,500 a night but struggled to get national radio play. They caught a break in 1968 when Canadian producer Jack Richardson picked the band to split a promotional record called A Wild Pair with the Guess Who for Coca-Cola. For the cost of 10 bottle caps and one dollar, fans were sent the album.
After the success of The Wild Pair, Capitol Records brought the Staccatos to Los Angeles, where they soon ditched their clean-cut image for something scruffier. Around the time the Staccatos changed their name to Five Man Electrical Band, co-founder Mr. Craig left the group.
After a slow start, Signs changed everything in 1971. The line about “long-haired freaky people” would have struck a chord. On Aug. 28, the day when the song reached its highest chart position in the United States, The Globe ran a front-page photo of Toronto Argonauts quarterback Joe Theismann getting his hair cut under the watchful eye of head coach Leo Cahill.
The hit earned the group television appearances and opening slots on tours with the Allman Brothers and Jefferson Airplane. Subsequent singles sold less and less, however, and by 1975 Five Man Electrical Band was out of juice.
While the rest of the band retreated to Canada, Mr. Emerson stayed in Los Angeles. As a solo artist he released such singles as Control of Me, but never replicated the success of Signs. On the wistful glam-rock ballad California Take Me In, Mr. Emmerson was both observational and autobiographical:
“Come to California, searching for the goldmine, the one they call the big time, and so did I,” he sang.
Mr. Emmerson had searched for a goldmine and found it. “His dream since he started in the business was to have a summertime hit, and Signs was certainly that,” Mr. Hurcomb said. “It was like a summer romance. It was there, it was bright, and then it faded off into the fall.”
Mr. Emmerson leaves his wife, Monik Emmerson; his daughter, Kristina; and sister, Darlene Emmerson.