The road along the history of pop, yellow-bricked and sparkling as it can be, is also littered with has-beens, the forgotten and promising young artists who should have made it big, but never did. Chance and choice can play big roles in how things turn out for anyone, but sometimes the very forces that should be working for us turn against us instead. And the relationship between the art world and the business world has often been a contentious one, to say the least. Such are the elements at work in the story of Emitt Rhodes, whose sad tale is one of the many cautionary signs posted along the pop expressway.
Emitt broke into the music business very early in life. In 1964, at all of 14, he was drumming for a band called the Emerals, (yes, without the “d”) who later changed their name to the Palace Guard and had a minor hit in the Los Angeles area with the song “Falling Sugar.” By 1966, however, Emitt had taught himself to play guitar and left to form his own band, the Merry-Go-Round. The Merry-Go-Round were even more successful, scoring bigger hits in the songs “Live” and “You’re a Very Lovely Woman.” This was all very heady stuff for someone barely old enough to drive. After a couple of years at it, though, and feeling weighed down by his band, Emitt decided to break out on his own at the still-relatively-tender age of 19.
The self-titled album that Emitt put out a year later was incredible. To begin with, now a true solo artist in every sense of the word, he wrote and sang all of his own songs, played all the instruments on the album and recorded everything in a studio he assembled in his parents’ garage. Given the technological parameters of 1970, that was an amazing feat. But Emitt was no mere novelty act; he had the chops to back up his vision. Every review you ever read of Emitt Rhodes will mention Paul McCartney, and this one will be no different. The similarity between the two men’s voices is inescapable, and Emitt’s sense of musicality, at least on this album, was as dead-on as Sir Paul’s. His ability to pound out memorable melodies – the kind you only need to hear once and they’ll stick with you the whole day through – was uncanny. Emitt also gravitated to similar sentimental and nostalgiac themes as the man who was so obviously his musical hero. The album reached number 29 on the Billboard charts, not bad for a relative unknown, and, at the time, there were people who even believed Emitt was putting out better material than the freshly-minted ex-Beatle himself.
The problem, though, was that Emitt signed a recording contract, and not just any recording contract. His contract required him to release an album every six months for the next three years. To a starry-eyed 20 year old climbing up the ladder of success, this may have sounded good in theory, but in reality it was a disastrous proposition. On his own, with no band mates or songwriting partners to back him up, turning out product at that rate proved an impossible task. It also left almost no time to tour and support albums even when he could get them out. Emitt quickly fell behind schedule, and his record company turned on him. Soon, not only was he not being promoted, he was being sued for breach of contract for more money than he’d ever made. Under the feverish pace of his schedule and the stress of his legal situation, the quality of his subsequent albums suffered, and within a couple of years his ship was sunk. By age 24, Emitt, burned out, scarred and broken by his ordeals in the music industry, called it a day as a recording artist.
Fast forward forty years, however, and you’ll find that despite this tragic tale, Emitt Rhodes has a cult following. “Lullabye,” one of the songs from his self-titled album, was used in the movie The Royal Tenenbaums, and in 2009 Italian director Cosimo Messeri made a documentary about Emitt entitled The One Man Beatles. Bits and pieces of his genius have crept into the daylight over the years, and even here at the library, if you dig, you can get some exposure to the man’s music.
For starters, “Falling Sugar” and “Live” can both be heard on the Nuggets compilation, a phenomenal anthology of 60’s garage. Emitt’s solo albums, like the albums of so many worthy unknowns, have suffered spotty availability over the years, but we also have an album called The American Dream. This is a compilation of songs he recorded with the Merry-Go-Round and a few songs he did on his own just before embarking on his fateful solo career. And while this album may not do the man complete justice, it does have some stellar moments. If you’re looking for instant gratification, (some “make-pretend” singles off the album, if you will) the very Zombies-like “You’re a Very Lovely Woman” will do in a pinch, and “Saturday Night,” sounding like a lost-lost cousin of “No Reply” or some other world-weary track on Beatles for Sale, is just amazing. The rest of the songs on this album are, to these ears, growers, but the range of music on display – calypso, country, straight-up rock, baroque – certainly demonstrate Emitt’s versatility and give a good snapshot of a man on the verge of something great … which he went on to create just after this music was recorded.
The next time you’re listening to the radio, remember that for every artist you’re hearing, there were countless talented others who, through fate or circumstance, never broke through. If McCartney and the Beatles are your cups of tea, seek out Emitt Rhodes’ first, self-titled album and you’re sure to be awed. In the meantime, drop by the library for an introduction to this worthy, long-lost artist who should have been.