Ottawa rock and roll royalty, songwriter of 'Signs' Les Emmerson dead at 77

Les Emmerson, the beloved and talented musician who wrote a song that defined a generation and led the Five Man Electrical Band to international stardom, died Friday in an Ottawa hospital.

The musician, loving husband, father and rock and roll song writing icon was 77.

"He had underlying health conditions that made him additionally vulnerable to COVID," said wife of 34 years, Monik Emmerson, who Les affectionately called "his manager, photographer, his everything."

Monik Emmerson said her husband was double vaccinated and always extremely cautious.  He had been in the hospital for other health challenges over the past year.  

Emmerson contracted COVID in November. He died in the ICU at the Queensway Carleton Hospital. 

Fifty years ago, Emmerson’s hit song "Signs", about the sign that said, "Long-haired freaky people need not apply' became a number one hit, selling 1.5 million copies.

Its chorus about seeing signs everywhere became a canon of rock and roll. 

"I want people to know that he meant something different to everybody," said Kristina Emmerson-Barrett, Emmerson's daughter and the biggest fan of a man who had legions of fans.  

And Les was hers.

"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," she said in an interview at her parents’ Barrhaven home.

"My dad was a philosopher, he was a philanthropist, he was an activist. He touched the lives of so many people over the course of his life.  For me, he was all of those things, but mostly, he was my dad."

Kristina, 32, called her dad "her best friend".  He was by her side at her Oct. 31 wedding, which had been twice postponed due to COVID.

"Having my dad be able to walk me down the aisle was an absolute joy," shared Kristina, fighting back tears. 

Family and a small circle of Emmerson’s closest friends (Emmerson had a lot of friends) gathered at Emmerson’s home Saturday night, all shaken and raw from the news of his death.

"I don’t think I’m processing this quite yet," said Rick Smithers, Five Man bandmate, sound engineer, and close friend.

"I really thought he was going to pull through.  I thought Les has so much to live for. There’s no way he’s going anywhere."

"I’ll say three things about Les: He loved his family. He loved his friends and he loved his music."

Emmerson was a rock star in every aspect of his life.  His relationships are testament to that.  

"I think of Les as the Will Rogers of Canadian rock and roll. I don’t think there was ever a man he met that he didn’t like," said Mike Crepin, one of his dearest friends, musician, and golf buddy. 

"He was friendly with everybody and everybody was his friend."

Crepin and Emmerson were inseparable buddies for the past 17 years. Crepin and his wife, Angie, were two of Les and Monik’s dearest friends, frequently socializing and vacationing together.

"Les has been like a brother to me and very few days would go by without us speaking to one another, and to say weeks would go by, I can’t think of one in 17 years."

Emmerson shared that brotherhood with Ted Gerow for 55 years.

Gerow, keyboardist for the Five Man Electrical Band, was devastated by the loss of the man with whom he shared a love of music and the same sense of humour. 

Gerow recalls first hearing Emmerson play with the popular Ottawa band, The Staccatos. 

They started playing together and over decades became family.

"I had a sister but I never had a brother, except I had Les," said Gerow, eyes filled with tears and his voice breaking.

Together those 'brothers' shared a rock and roll dream and a level of success few experience.

"It really was driven by Les. We had a number one hit in Canada, 'Half Past Midnight', but he really wanted to crack America.”

"So, we all got on board and headed to LA, and it took us a couple of years of starvation, but we recorded ‘Signs’ and the rest is history."

"It’s become an anthem. So, imagine having that as your epitaph that you wrote a song that everybody knows."

"Even children today know that song, so it’s pretty great."

Gerow remembers the moment their lives changed.  They were driving across the U.S. en route to a gig.

"As we drove south of Chicago, we were listening to WLS to hear if our record was being played, and WLS was the biggest radio station at the time in America," reflects Gerow.

"They played Carole King and the disc jockey said, ‘That was number one today and number one tomorrow is' and he played ‘Signs.'"  

"We all got out of the car and jumped up and down," Gerow said with a smile.

"For five guys from Ottawa in their 20s, to have the biggest record of that year was the thrill of a lifetime."

Despite becoming so successful at such a young age, those closest to Emmerson say he was grounded, humble and always grateful. 

When Emmerson was dealing with other health challenges this year, Mike Crepin subbed for his musical hero and pal on stage, when live music performances resumed.

Crepin recalls a thoughtful conversation from many years ago. 

"I remember talking to him one time, early on, asking him if he ever got tired of playing ‘Signs’?"

"I hear of so many artists who say, ‘Ugh. I have to play that song that made me a million dollars again'. And he looked at me and said, 'Are you crazy?! That’s the song that opened the door to the rest of my life.'"

"Les was very humble, very humble."

In 2008, Les Emmerson was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

"He was one of the best lyricists. I can’t think of anyone, including Bob Dylan, who was any better than him. He was the best,” says Smithers, who is saddened that the music, the new album he, Emmerson and Crepin had been working on in the studio, is unfinished.

The three were collaborating on the creative project. Emmerson had written powerful, new songs. 

Emmerson’s wife, Monik, showed me a yet to be published song. 

Even in her grief, she found comfort in her prophetic and gifted husband’s words, and his perspective on the cycle of life.

As the sun goes down an old man dies

Friends gather ‘round to say their goodbyes

Family gets together to eulogize and they mourn

Way across town with the sunrise

The day begins and a baby cries.  

Family wipes the tears of joy from their eyes

‘Cause a brand-new child is born”

Chorus:

And life goes on

It goes right it goes wrong

And the sun goes up and down

The world goes ‘round and ‘round

And life goes on

During this weekend’s small gathering, family and friends shared what they call their "Les-isms".

His heartbroken baby sister, Darlene Emmerson, quoted her big brother who always said, "Let’s have some fun because isn’t fun the best thing to have?"

Emmerson’s son-in-law, Neil Barrett, chuckled about how Les had the worst puns that led to the best laughs.  He reflected on how Les talked to everybody and was often running late because he was interested in hearing the story of the guy making his sandwich.

Emmerson’s nephew, Mike Emmerson and his wife Mary Corrado-Emmerson, shared photos they have been receiving from friends in the U.S., where there are signs everywhere quoting Emmerson’s song, only the signs now reflect the pandemic’s labour shortage: "The employee shortage is so bad that long-haired freaky people can now apply."

Les Emmerson’s last musical performance on CTV Ottawa was as a favour to me.  

In the early days of the pandemic, five decades after “Signs” became a hit he repurposed it again.

While we were isolated and bolstering each other with signs in our windows, and on our sidewalks, Les changed the lyrics of his most famous song to reflect the times.   

We aired that in our CTV Ottawa Bright Side segment.

"And the sign said we are all in this together, living under quarantine.  When your world feels small, and all your walls are closing in, do you know what I mean?"

"If you are thinking about going out with your crowd, you’ve got to change your plans.  You can call them on the phone, but do it from home and don’t forget to wash your hands."

Les always said ‘yes’ to a request.

"There was no fundraiser too small for Les," said his wife, Monik.

For years, Emmerson donated his time and his musical talents for countless charities and fundraisers.

The CHEO Telethon stage was a powerhouse of Rock and Roll Royalty. Les and his gifted and giving pals in the CHEO Bear Band performed around the clock in support of the children’s hospital. 

Family and friends, comically, although with the heaviest of hearts spoke about Ellen DeGeneres regularly playing air guitar to ‘Signs’ on her show. Les was impressed that she got the chording bang-on. 

Monik and Darlene reminisced about Emmerson’s reaction to seeing “Signs” featured in a television episode of The Simpsons.

"Les always used to say, 'You know you have had a hit and you’ve made it, when your song has played on The Simpsons.'"

Crepin, Gerow and Smithers joked that, "Les didn’t really like Rap Music until he received a royalty cheque from a Fat Boy Slim song "Don’t Let The Man Get You Down" which samples a portion of "Signs".

"Les called Sony thinking he was getting paid for a song he didn’t write, saying you have made a mistake here," said Crepin.

"When Sony told him, Fat Boy Slim used the snippet 'long-haired freaky people' and he was owed the money, Emmerson accepted the payment and said, 'Man, I love Rap.'"

Other royalties rolled in when Tesla recorded "Signs" in 1990.

"He always told me he was so blessed because he never had to work a day in his life. He did what he loved and he made a living at it," smiled Crepin.

Daughter Kristina called her Dad the "Birdman of Barrhaven".  He loved birds.  He loved Crosswords.

She treasures the childhood memories of being the kid of a famous entertainer.

"When you’re a little kid, or even when you’re an adult, one of the most common questions people ask you is ‘what do your mom and dad to for a living?'"

"I always had this really cool answer.  I got to say 'My Dad’s a rock star.  That’s what he does for a living.'"

When other children didn’t believe her, she said, "Ask your mom or your dad if they know the song ‘Signs’, or ‘Absolutely Right' or 'I’m a Stranger Here.'"

"And they would come back the next day and say, 'My mom and dad know exactly who he is. That’s so cool.'"

A very teary, grieving daughter, Kristina, said, "I was really lucky because I liked my dad as a friend.  I said to him in his last moments, 'Thank you for not just being my Dad, but for being my best friend.'"

When she left the hospital after her father passed away on Friday, a blue heron flew over her car.  For Kristina that was a sign.

"Dad always said, ‘Whenever I see a blue heron something good happens.'"

"It took my breath away for a second. When I saw the heron, it was just like total peace."

“My cousin, Mike said, 'Did you know that blue herons are migratory?  It’s not supposed to be here.'"

The family is having a private service.  They are so grateful to those who loved Les Emmerson’s music, lyrics and heart.

"It’s a huge loss for our family, and a huge loss to the music community and all his fans and friends. I just want them to know that he was thinking of them, too, in his final days."

CTV News Ottawa will have a special feature on Les Emmerson during CTV News at Six on Monday.