Lee Emerson, Songwriter of Five Man Electrical Band's Hippie-Era Anthem 'Signs,' Dead at 77

Lee Emerson, frontman of the Canadian rock group Five Man Electrical Band and writer of the hippie-era anthem “Signs,” died last Friday, Dec. 10, CTV News reports. He was 77.

Emmerson’s wife, Monik Emmerson, confirmed his death, saying, “He had underlying health conditions that made him additionally vulnerable to Covid.” She added that Emmerson had been in-and-out of the hospital for other reasons over the past year. While he was vaccinated against Covid, Emmerson contracted the virus in November and died in the ICU at an Ottawa hospital. 

“I want people to know that he meant something different to everybody,” said Emmerson’s daughter, Kristina Emmerson-Barrett. “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 than that.”

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Formed in the Sixties, Five Man Electrical Band were first known as the Staccatos, and between 1965 and 1967, they scored a string Top 40 hits in Canada. At the end of the decade, the group rechristened themselves and, in 1971, Five Man Electrical Band released their signature song “Signs,” which opens with the memorable lyric, “And the sign said/‘Long-haired freaky people need not apply’/So I tucked my hair up under my hat/And I went in to ask him why.” 

In a 2014 interview with The Music Express, Emmerson said “Signs” was inspired by the billboards he kept seeing during a trip down Route 66. “The whole song was right in front of me,” he said, “I just had to stop and write the song down.” 

He added of the track, “That song broke every radio rule going. The record label said that the song was too long and it took too long to get to the chorus. Yet record producer Dallas Smith  believed in the song and fought for it. That was the only reason it got released.”

“Signs” went to Number Two in Canada and Number Three on the Hot 100 in the United States. While Five Man Electrical Band wouldn’t score another major chart-topper in the U.S., they had continued success in Canada over the next few years with tracks like “I’m a Stranger Here,” “Money Back Guarantee,” and “Absolutely Right.”

In 1990, “Signs” reentered the pop consciousness after the rock outfit Tesla covered it on their cheekily named acoustic live album, Five Man Acoustical Jam. The song once again flew up the charts, peaking at Number Eight on the Hot 100 and Number Two on the Mainstream Rock charts.

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