Five Man Electrical Band’s Les Emmerson, writer of rock hit ‘Signs,’ dead at 77

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Published December 13, 2021 at 2:32 pm

TORONTO — Ottawa singer-songwriter Les Emmerson, whose anti-establishment anthem “Signs” became a staple of 1970s rock radio, has died at 77.

The leader of Five Man Electrical Band contracted COVID-19 last month and died Friday at a local hospital, says his wife Monik Emmerson.

She says her husband was double vaccinated but had underlying health issues.

Emmerson began his music career in 1965 when he joinedpop-rock band the Staccatos after the departure of their guitarist.

Several years later, the Ottawa act would change its name and put a stronger emphasis on rock elements in hopes of breaking out in the United States. It worked when “Signs” climbed to No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart, selling more than 1.5 million copies.

The idea for the song, with its unmistakable hook “sign, sign, everywhere a sign,” came to Emmerson as he travelled down Route 66 in California and grew dismayed with billboards that obstructed the picturesque views.

The song translates that idea into several anecdotes where signs act as social barriers to overcome. The lyrics caught the wave of the hippie movement and ultimately earned the song a place in the canon of rock radio.

The breakout popularity of “Signs” came as Five Man Electrical Band was teetering on a breakup, though its success gave them a few extra years together.

By 1975, after a number of flops and departures of their original bandmates, Emmerson and keyboardist Ted Gerow decided to pack in the Five Man Electrical Band.

They would regroup numerous times in the years that followed for various charity events.

“Signs” found another life in 1990 when a reworked cover version appeared on Tesla’s live album “Five Man Acoustical Jam,” giving the band one of its biggest hits.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 13, 2021.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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