SOCAN is mourning the loss of Ottawa-based singer-songwriter and longtime SOCAN member Les Emmerson, whose hippie/anti-establishment anthem “Signs” became a staple of 1970s rock radio, and then Classic Rock radio for several generations. The leader of The Five Man Electrical Band had contracted COVID-19, and died in hospital on Dec. 10, at the age of 77. He was reportedly double-vaccinated, but had underlying health issues.
Over the years, Emmerson earned three SOCAN Classics Awards, signifying more than 100,000 radio airplays, for “Absolutely Right,” “I’m a Stranger Here,” and “Signs,” the last of which was also inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Emmerson began his music career in 1965 when he joined the Staccatos, who scored a few hits with “Small Town Girl” and “Half Past Midnight,” but never broke through to a mass audience – despite once playing for Queen Elizabeth and 20,000 people at Lansdowne Park on Canada Day in 1967. The following year, the band was recruited by Coca-Cola to split a promotional album, A Wild Pair, with The Guess Who. (It was mailed free to any customers who sent in enough proof of purchases.)
The Staccatos underwent a name change to Five Man Electrical Band as they moved from pop to rock. “Signs,” originally a four-minute B-side to a single, would be the song that, slowly but surely, broke them in the U.S. A shorter, three-minute version hit first in Detroit in 1971, then kept spreading like wildfire. “Signs” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart, and sold more than 1.5 million copies.
The song was re-worked on American rock band Tesla’s live album Five Man Acoustical Jam, giving the group one of its biggest hits. Electronic producer Fatboy Slim also sampled the song to create his 2005 single “Don’t Let the Man Get You Down.” With the “Signs” being aired in regular rotation, to this day, on Classic Rock radio stations, the royalties never stopped. “If all I’d ever done in life was write this one song, I’d have a very nice living,” Emmerson told The Ottawa Sun in 2004.
The Five Man Electrical Band enjoyed sustained success in Canada in the early ‘70s, with hit songs on the radio, like “Absolutely Right” (1971, chart peak No. 3), “Money Back Guarantee” (1972, chart peak No. 17), “I’m a Stranger Here” (1972, chart peak No. 2) and “Werewolf” (1974, chart peak No. 28). Emmerson started his solo career while still a member of band. His first solo hit, 1972’s “Control Of Me,” reached No. 5 in early 1973, and the follow-up, “Cry Your Eyes Out,” reached the Top 20 later that year. In 1975, the band broke up, and Emmerson’s only solo single after that was 1977’s “Borderline.”
He would later reunite with some bandmates, playing annual fundraisers for an Ottawa pediatric children’s hospital. Emmerson also re-recorded “Signs” with a lineup of Canadian musicians, and recorded “Signs4Change” to support Friends of the Earth Canada, and raise awareness for climate change.
SOCAN offers its heartfelt condolences to his wife of 34 years, Monik Emmerson; daughter Kristina Emmerson-Barrett; and Emmerson’s extended family, friends, and fans.