Les Emmerson — singer and guitarist of Canadian rock group the Five Man Electrical Band, best known for their 1971 hit “Signs” — died Friday at age 77.
The songwriter, who contracted COVID-19 in November, died in the ICU at Ottawa’s Queensway Carleton Hospital, CTV News reports. Emmerson was reportedly double-vaccinated and had been in the hospital for other health concerns during the past year.
“He had underlying health conditions that made him additionally vulnerable to COVID,” his wife of 34 years, Monik Emmerson, told the publication.
The Five Man Electrical Band evolved from Ottawa’s the Staccatos, who formed in 1963. Emmerson eventually joined the band, becoming their frontman and primary songwriter. After releasing a string of modest Canadian hits, the group changed its name and released a self-titled debut LP in 1969.
Their first and only international hit came with “Signs,” the opening track from their second album, 1970’s Good-byes and Butterflies. The tune’s lyrics, bemoaning how nature had been obscured by human directives, were inspired during a drive from Ottawa to Los Angeles.
“We were on Route 66 somewhere in Nevada, the early evening, the sun setting,” Emmerson told Ottawa Sun in 2004. “This stretch of the road, there were huge rocks covered in graffiti, you know, ‘Jesus Loves Maria,’ stuff like that, and endless advertising signs, go here, do this, and I thought what a shame, all these signs obscuring the beautiful scenery and telling us what to do. It cheesed me off.”
“Signs,” issued as a single in 1971, hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. And it’s lived on as a classic-rock staple — Tesla even covered the song for a charting live version in 1990.
While Five Man Electrical Band never scored another hit on that same level, they did earn regional success with a handful of other singles through the mid-’70s. The group disbanded in 1975, with Emmerson leading its first reformation more than a decade later.
Ted Gerow, Five Man Electrical Band’s keyboardist, mourned the loss of Emmerson to CTV News. “I had a sister, but I never had a brother, except I had Les,” he said.
He also reflected on the endurance of their Emmerson-penned hit. “It’s become an anthem,” he said. “So, imagine having that as your epitaph that you wrote a song that everybody knows.”
In Memoriam: 2021 Deaths
Remembering the musicians, actors, producers and others who have died in 2021.