Sydney, 2021-12-12 15:06:00. Signs songwriter Les Emmerson dies in Ottawa at the age of 77
Lee Emerson, the beloved and talented musician who wrote a generation-defining song and led Five Man Electrical Band to global stardom, died Friday in an Ottawa hospital.
The musician, loving husband, father and rock and roll songwriting icon was 77 years old.
“He had underlying health conditions that made him more susceptible to COVID,” said the wife of 34-year-old Monique Emerson, whom Leigh lovingly called his “manager, photographer, everything he had.”
Monique Emerson said her husband had been double vaccinated and had always been very careful. He has been in the hospital due to other health challenges over the past year.
Emmerson contracted COVID in November. He died in the intensive care unit at Queensway Carlton Hospital.
Fifty years ago, Emerson’s hit single “Signs,” about the banner saying, “People with Terrible Long Hair Don’t Need to Apply,” became the biggest hit, selling 1.5 million copies.
Its chorus about seeing the signs everywhere has become a canon of rock ‘n’ roll.
“I want people to know he meant something different to everyone,” said Christina Emerson-Barrett, Emerson’s daughter and biggest fan of a man who had a huge following of fans.
And it was not her.
“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,” she said in an interview at her parents’ Barhaven home.
“My father was a philosopher, he was a philanthropist, he was an activist. He influenced the lives of so many people over the course of his life. To me, he was all of those things, but he was mostly my father.”
Christina, 32, described her father as her “best friend”. He was by her side at her wedding on October 31, which has been postponed twice due to COVID.
“It was an absolute pleasure for my dad to walk me down the aisle,” Christina said, resisting tears.
The family and a small circle of Emerson’s best friends (Emerson had many friends) gathered at Emerson’s house on Saturday night, all shaken and terrified by the news of his death.
“I don’t think I’m addressing this yet,” said Rick Smithers, fellow Five Man, sound engineer and close friend.
“I really thought it would work. I thought he didn’t have much to live for. There’s no way to go anywhere.”
“I will say three things about Lis: He loved his family. I loved his friends and I loved his music.”
Emerson was a rock star in every aspect of his life. His relationships are a testament to that.
One of his best friends, musician, and golf buddy said Mike Crippen.
“He was friendly with everyone and everyone was his friend.”
Crippen and Emerson have been inseparable friends for the past 17 years. Kripin and his wife, Angie, were best friends of Liss and Monique, and they often communicated and spent their holidays together.
“I’ve been like a brother to me and very few days go by without us talking to each other, and to say the weeks go by, I can’t think of one in 17 years.”
Emerson shared that fraternity with Ted Gero for 55 years.
Jiro, keyboardist for Five Man Electrical Band, is devastated by the loss of the man with whom he shared a love of music and same sense of humor.
Giroud remembers first hearing Emerson playing with the popular Ottawa band The Staccatos.
They started playing together and for decades became a family.
“I had a sister but I’ve never had a brother, except for Les,” said Jiro, his eyes full of tears and his voice breaking.
Together these “brothers” shared a rock ‘n’ roll dream and a level of success a few experiences.
“He was really driven by Les. We had the first hit in Canada, ‘Half Past Midnight’, but he really wanted to break America.”
“So we all got up and headed to LA, and it took a few years of starvation, but we scored ‘cues’ and the rest is history.”
“It became an anthem. So, imagine you wrote a song that everyone knows is an epitaph.”
“Even kids today know this song, so it’s really cool.”
Jiro remembers the moment their lives changed. They were driving across the US on their way to the party.
“While we were driving south of Chicago, we were listening to WLS to see if our record was being played, and WLS was the biggest radio station at the time in America,” Gero explains.
“They played Carol King and the disc jockey said, ‘That was number one today and number one tomorrow’ and he played ‘Signals’.”
“We all got out of the car and jumped up and down,” Jiro said with a smile.
“For five Ottawa men in their twenties, making the biggest record that year was the excitement of a lifetime.”
Despite his great success at such a young age, those close to Emerson say he was always humble and grateful.
As Emerson was dealing with other health challenges this year, he replaced Mike Crippen with his musical hero and friend on stage, when live music performances resumed.
Kripin recalls a thoughtful conversation from many years ago.
“I remember talking to him once, early on, and asking him if he got tired of playing ‘Signs’?”
“I hear a lot of artists saying, ‘Ah. I have to play that song that made me a million dollars again.” And he looked at me and said, ‘Are you crazy?! This song opened the door for the rest of my life.”
“Les was very humble, very humble.”
In 2008, Les Emmerson was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
It’s not finished, says Smithers, who is saddened that the music and the new album, Emerson and Crippen, were both working in the studio.
The three were collaborating on the creative project. Emerson wrote powerful new songs.
Emerson’s wife, Monique, showed me an unpublished song.
Even in her grief, she found comfort in the words of her prophetic and talented husband, and his perspective on the life cycle.
When the sun goes down, an old man dies
Friends gather around to say goodbye
The family gathers to mourn and cry
Road through town with sunrise
The day begins and the child is crying.
The family wipes tears of joy from their eyes
‘Because of the birth of a brand new baby’
And life goes on
Going right and going wrong
And the sun rises up and down
The world goes round
And life goes on
During the small gathering this weekend, friends and family shared what they call “Les-isms.”
His grieving little sister, Darlene Emerson, quotes her big brother who always said, “Let’s have some fun because it’s not the best of fun?”
Emerson’s son-in-law, Neil Barrett, laughed about how not having the worst pun resulted in the best laughs. He thought about how he had not talked to everyone and would often be late because he was interested in hearing the story of the man making a sandwich.
Emerson’s nephew, Mike Emerson, and his wife, Mary Corrado Emerson, have shared photos they received from friends in the US, where there are banners everywhere quoting Emerson’s song, only the signs now reflect the labor shortage of the pandemic: “A staff shortage is so bad horrible people with disabilities can… Long hair advance to it now.”
Les Emmerson’s last musical performance on CTV Ottawa was a favor to me.
In the early days of the epidemic, five decades after the “marks” had been hit, he reused it for other purposes.
As we isolated and supported each other with signs in our windows and on sidewalks, Lees changed the lyrics of his most famous song to reflect the times.
We aired it on the CTV Ottawa Bright Side segment.
“And the sign says we’re all in this together, quarantined. When you feel like your world is small, and all your walls come close, you know what I mean?”
“If you’re thinking of going out with your audience, change your plans. You can call them on the phone, but do it from home and don’t forget to wash your hands.”
He doesn’t always say “yes” to the request.
“No fundraiser was too small for Liss,” his wife, Monique, said.
For years, Emmerson has donated his time and musical talents to countless charities and fundraisers.
The CHEO Telethon was a powerful center for rock ‘n’ roll royalty. Lees and his talented and tender bandmates in the CHEO Bear Band have performed around the clock in support of Children’s Hospital.
Comically, though with the heaviest of hearts, family and friends talked about regularly playing Ellen DeGeneres on air guitar to “Signs” on her show. Les was impressed that she got the knockout punch.
Monique and Darlene recalled Emerson’s reaction to seeing “Signs” appear on a TV episode of The Simpsons.
“He used to not always say, ‘You know you were a hit and you did,’ when your song was played on The Simpsons.”
Crippen, Jiro and Smithers joked, “Les didn’t really like rap until he got a royal check from Fat Boy Slim “Don’t Let The Man Get You Down” auditioning for the “Signs.”
“He called Not Sony thinking he was getting paid for a song he didn’t write, saying you made a mistake here,” Crippen said.
When told by Sony that the Fat Boy Slim used the snippet for ‘horrible long-haired people’ and owed money, Emerson accepted the payment and said, ‘Man, I love rap.
Other revenues rolled in when Tesla recorded “Signs” in 1990.
Crippen smiled, “He’s always told me he’s very lucky to have never had to work a day in his life. He did what he loved and made a living out of it.”
Christina’s daughter called her father “The Barhaven Bird”. He loved birds. He liked crossword puzzles.
She cherishes childhood memories of being the child of a famous artist.
“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 do for a living? “
“I always had this really great answer. I had to say ‘My dad is a rock star.'” This is what he does for a living. “
When the other kids didn’t believe her, she said, “Ask your mom or dad if they know the song ‘Signs’ or ‘quite right’ or ‘I’m weird here.'”
And they’d come back the next day and say, ‘Mom and Dad know just who he is. this is wonderul. “
“I was really lucky to have loved my father as a friend,” said Christina, a tearful, very sad daughter. “I told him in his last moments, ‘Thank you for not only being my father, but for being my best friend.'” “
When she left the hospital after her father’s death on Friday, a blue heron flew over her car. For Christina, that was a sign.
“My dad always said, whenever I see a blue heron something good happens.”
“It took my breath for a moment. When I saw the heron, it was like complete peace.”
Mike said, “Cousin, did you know that a blue heron is an immigrant? You’re not supposed to be here.”
The family has a special service. They are very grateful to those who loved Les Emmerson’s music, lyrics, and heart.
“It’s a huge loss for our family, and a huge loss for the music community and all of his fans and friends. I just want them to know he was thinking of them too in his last days.”
CTV News Ottawa will have a special feature on Les Emmerson during CTV News at Six on Monday.
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