COVID Claims “Signs” Songwriter

By Keith Sharp

The COVID-19 Pandemic has claimed the life of Five Man Electrical Band, lead vocalist/Guitarist Les Emmerson who passed away Friday, December 10th in Ottawa’s Queensway Carleton Hospital at the age of 77.

Known for this protest song “Signs” which became a global hit in 1970, Emmerson and band members Ted Gerow (keyboards), Brian Rading (bass) and the Belanger brothers; Mike( drums), and Rick (second drums) enjoyed a great amount of success with their second album release `Good-byes And Butterflies featured “Hello Melinda” and “Signs” as a double A-side.

“Originally, our record label MGM issued “Hello Melinda” as the single but the American deejays preferred the protest message in “Signs” so they flipped the single,” explained Emmerson during a Music Express interview staged in 2015. Signs went to No 3 on Billboard singles chart, only reached No 4 on the Canadian charts but topped the Australian charts and spent several months at No 1 selling over 1.5 million copies worldwide.

The Ottawa quartet enjoyed further success with their third album, `Coming Of Age’ in 1971 which featured the hit single “Absolutely Right’ and a fourth album `Sweet Paradise’ in 1972 which included “Money Back Guarantee” and the foreboding lyrics to “I’m A Stranger Here” which forecast climate change and radical politics, elements that are current issues.

The band dissolved in 1975 with Emmerson recording five singles and appearing with Ottawa music mates, The Cooper Brothers but a number of compilation albums brought them back together and their profile was further boosted when American band, Tesla re-released “Signs” after featuring the track on their Five Man Acoustical Jam release in 1990. They received a further boost in 2005 when rapper Fat Boy Slim sampled “Signs” in his “Don’t Let The Man Get You Down” release

Emmerson was inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame in 2008 and the band has continued to play a number of dates in recent times with Gerow and Mike Bell joined by drummer/vocalist Steve Hollingsworth, lead guitarist Brian Sim and bassist Rick Smithers.

Formed in 1963, (Emmerson wasn’t the original lead singer), this Ottawa unit started life as the Staccatos and they released no less than 11 singles and a debut album as they tried to penetrate the U.S market. They even recorded an album titled `A Wild Pair’ with the Staccatos on one side and an up and coming Winnipeg group call The Guess Who on side two.

“You have to remember this was before the CRTC promoted domestic radio airplay, we would just jump into a car and head south to promote ourselves,” noted Emmerson in that 2015 interview. “Our breakthrough came when our producer at that time, Nick Venot suggested a name change because he thought The Staccatos sounded dated so we looked at who we were and declared ourselves to be a Five Man Electrical Band.”

A record label switch from Capitol to MGM only met with mild success on their debut album but that one flip of a track on Good-byes And Butterflies has paved the way for a classic song which still resonates to this day.

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