Les Emmerson, Lead Singer of ’70s Rock Band Five Man Electrical Band, Dies at 77

by Maria Hartfield
Credit: George Pimentel / Contributor

Canadian musician Les Emmerson, frontman for Five Man Electrical Band passed away in Canada last week. The “Signs” singer died from COVID-19 at the age of 77.

The CBC reported Emmerson surrendered to the virus at a hospital in his home city of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada last Friday.

Les Emmerson contracted the coronavirus in November despite having received the vaccination. Emmerson’s wife, Monik Emmerson told Rolling Stone he had “underlying health issues” that made him vulnerable to the disease.

“Music was his life up until the very end,” Monik told the CBC. “He lived and breathed music.”

Emmerson began his music career in 1965 joining the Staccatos after their guitarist left the group. They released a few pop-rock hits including “Small Town Girl” and “Half Past Midnight,” but never quite made it to the level of success they were hoping for.

Les Emmerson’s Socially Conscious Career

Eventually, the group changed its name to Five Man Electrical Band. They received international success with their hit anthem “Signs” in the early ’70s after cutting two guitar solos from the original recording to make it more radio-friendly.

“Suddenly it broke in Seattle and that area and it just kept spreading,” keyboardist Ted Gerow told the CBC.

Inspiration for the single came from a road trip on iconic Route 66. Along the journey, Emmerson noticed billboards were plastered everywhere ultimately taking away from the natural beauty that is America’s southwest. The song’s undeniable hook was “sign, sign, everywhere a sign”. It reflected on the wave of the hippie movement during that time telling the story of a man who tucks his hair into his hat to trick a potential employer.

Soon after, Emmerson strategically used the anthem’s success to support important social causes for entities including children’s hospitals and climate change. Les Emmerson when on to re-record the popular tune as “Signs4Change” incorporating more socially focused lyrics.

The song was also a hit for the band Tesla in 1990. Both adaptations sold over 1.5 million copies at the time of each respective release. In 2004, English musician and DJ Fatboy Slim sampled the song in his platinum single “Don’t Let the Man Get You Down”.

Emmerson also recorded as a solo artist, successfully achieving three top 40 hits in Canada, including the #5 hit “Control Of Me”.

“Emmerson is also remembered fondly for his lighthearted approach to the world,” Gerow added. “One of his famous quotes was: ‘Fun is the best thing to have’ … That’s how he lived his life.”

His daughter, Kristina Emmerson-Barrett told Rolling Stone, “I want people to know that he meant something different to everybody. He was a musician first and he loved his music, he loved his craft. He was an artist at heart, but he was so much more than that.”