By Charlie Senack, Barrhaven Independent
Les Emmerson, a Barrhaven resident known as the lead singer and guitarist for the Five Man Electrical Band, has died due to complications caused by COVID-19. He was 76.
The rock and roll singer who was known for his hit song “Signs”, which sold over 1.5 million copies, passed away in the ICU at the Queensway Carleton Hospital on Friday. Emmerson, who had underlying health conditions, contracted COVID-19 back in early November.
His wife Monik Emmerson told CTV News that her husband was in hospital over the past year with previous health conditions. He was double vaccinated and “extremely cautious.”
On Saturday, longtime friends of Emmerson gathered at his Barrhaven home to pay tribute to the Canadian music legend, who had a lot of life to give. They noted how Ellen Degeneres would play “Signs” on her show, and how it was once featured on an episode of The Simpsons. Emmerson had a love for birds (his daughter Kristina called him the Birdman of Barrhaven), and enjoyed doing crossword puzzles.
A life well lived
In the summer of 2020, the Barrhaven Independent spoke with Emmerson about his music career, and an upcoming album he was working on. The local musician reflected on how his career started in grade 8 when he stepped on stage for the first time. The guitarist went to go see someone play at City View Public School and the rest is history.
“One day we played together and we decided to put a little band together,” he said in July 2020. “He turned out to become one of my really good friends and he was the one who got me on stage. I don’t think we made any money that night, but it really did not matter.”
Soon after, the Five Man Electrical Band, also once known as The Staccatos, found a manager. Emmerson noted the group desperately wanted to get on a major label and was eventually signed to Capitol Records Canada.
“We thought we had made it big because we were on the same label as the Beatles,” Emmerson said. “It was really great to get on that label.”
The group played everywhere in eastern Canada at least three times, Emmerson stated, creating a big hit called “Half Past Midnight.”
The group also found success in a premier album, with one of their songs on one side, and a song from the popular west coast band “Guess Who” on the other.
“Coca Cola put up the money for this and we did some Coca Cola commercials which started in the states,” Emmerson recounted. “The number one band in the west at the time was “Guess Who” and we were the number one band in the east. I did not want to do it but in the end we made a ton of money from it.”
But while topping the charts in Canada was a big accomplishment, Emmerson said you had to cross the border to make a name for yourself. After lots of persuading, the band headed to the United States where they were on a ride for their lives.
Soon after they got signed by Capital Records US, by a man who was also responsible for signing the Beach Boys.
Emmerson says the group played many sold out shows (some the size of the Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata), but adds state universities were always the best for crowds. One of the biggest highlights for the band was playing at Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the early 1970’s.
As for one of his biggest regrets, Emmerson said it was not having a camera around for some of his biggest career moments.
“One of my pet peeves in the world today is everyone who has a cell phone has a camera. There were no cameras hanging around in those days,” he said. “We were Chuck Berry’s band — we backed him up for a week — and there is not a picture of us with Chuck.”
“That week with Chuck at the Whiskey was magic,” added Emmerson. “We packed the place and we played cheap.”
The entire Rolling Stones was sitting in a booth watching the show, Emmerson recounted. “My legs started shaking.”
Before the pandemic, Emmerson and his Five Man Electrical Band teammates were working on a new album, under a new name. The pandemic put the new album on pause — and the musician wouldn’t give many details away — but noted it would become the highlight of his career.
“I am 75-years-old but in my heart and in my mind I’m about 28,” Emmerson said last year. “We are recording one last kick at the can and we are going to do one last album before we are done.”
A project still unfinished, his band mates now keeping his legacy alive.
A private service for Emmerson will be held in the near future.