Although the Five Man Electrical Band concert on May 25 at the Bronson Centre was billed as “A Tribute to the Musical Legacy of Les Emmerson,” the event delivered much more. We also learned about the generosity and activism of this Ottawa native, who died in early December 2021 due to complications of COVID-19. There were celebrity performances, a surprise announcement from a city councillor, and a star-studded tribute video. And we discovered how Emmerson’s music continues to be relevant 60 years on. An image of Emmerson’s favourite guitar, a Fender Stratocaster, was displayed onscreen, a profound reminder that he had planned to perform at the show before his passing.
The event, sponsored by Boom 99.7, opened with a 2014 interview with Emmerson in Hamilton. With characteristic good nature, Emmerson said he was “the luckiest guy you ever met” and that the Five Man Electrical Band, which morphed from the Ottawa band the Staccatos in 1969, had much good fortune. He recalled that their greatest hit “Signs”, which opens with the lyric “The sign said long-haired freaky people need not apply” was originally released without charting, but in 1971, the Emmerson-penned song was re-released with over a million copies in sales, and went on to be re-recorded by American heavy metal band Tesla in 1990 and sampled by UK rapper Fatboy Slim on a 2005 platinum-selling album.
“We had some great singers in our band. This is what always set us a little bit apart, I think,” mused Emmerson during the interview. Others might argue the band’s original music and lyrics written by Emmerson, capped by outstanding instrumentation, rounded out the package. His success paved the way for other Canadian musicians to flourish in the U.S. Although the group split in 1973 and Emmerson embarked on a solo career, Five Man Electrical Band continued to regroup for short tours and charity dates. “We are going to keep on playing just as long as it’s fun,” Emmerson said. He also spoke of plans to record another album, although that remains an unfinished project.
Musician Wayne Rostad was the tribute’s genial emcee. The host of the CBC TV show On the Road Again (1987–2007) kept the audience entertained with anecdotes and songs. The band made it all look effortless as they delivered favourites, including “Absolutely Right”, “I’m a Stranger Here”, “Werewolf”, and “Moonshine (Friend of Mine)”. The receptive audience came along for a ride in the musical time machine.
Keyboard player Ted Gerow is an original member who dates back to the Staccatos, just before they became the Five Man Electrical Band in 1969. Drummer Steve Hollingworth has been a member for 25 years, while percussionist Wes Reed joined 22 years ago. Twenty years ago bass player Rick Smithers signed up, followed by guitarist Brian Sim 17 years back. Guitarist and vocalist Mike Crepin, who described his close friend Emmerson as a kind and gentle soul, joined the band a year ago, while keyboard player Allen Wilmore came onboard in recent months.
Guest Terry Marcotte, accompanied by bass player Paul Faubert and the band, performed Johnny Cash tunes in a splendid bass voice. Peter Fredette, bass player of the Kim Mitchell-fronted group Max Webster, joined the band for two popular Staccatos songs, “It’s a Long Way Home” and “Half Past Midnight”, a tune the Staccatos performed for the Queen in 1967 in Ottawa as part of Centennial celebrations!
Ottawa Councillor Jeff Leiper showed up with a street sign for Les Emmerson Drive that will be located in a new residential area in Barrhaven. And in another touching moment, a letter from young local musician Elliotte Johns was read aloud. Johns heard the band practicing at Steve Hollingworth’s home early this year and chatted with band members outside. Later that evening, Johns taped a letter to the door, saying how much he admired Emmerson, who had inspired him to start playing guitar.
A video created by Rick Arbuckle and Mike Crepin featured heartfelt insights from fellow musicians and other friends that added dimension to the tribute. Tom Cochrane compared Emmerson to musical pioneers such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones. “Les Emmerson was one of those on our side of the pond. He left his mark. He inspired us, he was a good guy,” Cochrane said in the tribute.
Larry Gowan, keyboard player for Styx, recounted how much he enjoyed being part of the Signs4Change project Emmerson led for the Friends of the Earth organization in 2014. Bruce Cockburn credited Emmerson as an inspiration early in his career. The Stampeders drummer and vocalist Kim Berly described him as “a personable, easygoing guy” who inspired Berly to write his own material. Veteran broadcaster Michael O’Byrne praised Emmerson for helping to raise tens of millions of dollars as part of the CHEO Bear Band during CJOH telethons in the 1980s and ’90s. Bob Carver, Ontario Director of Tabitha Foundation, shared how Emmerson and the band helped his organization raise $250,000 in 2006 to build houses, schools, and wells in Cambodia.
Finally, heavy metal rocker Jeff Keith of Tesla closed the show with a rousing version of “Signs” that ended the evening on a positive note.