Farewell, Emitt Rhodes

Paying homage to a one man band and proverbial genius who kept the world waiting

Emitt Rhodes (Art: Ron Hart)

It says something about a legend’s status when he or she earns that reputation based on only a scant amount of output.

Such was the case with Emitt Rhodes, a multi-talented musician who achieved iconic status despite releasing only five albums over more than a 50 year span. Rhodes, who died on July 19 from heart failure, is widely considered a pioneer of power pop and has been cited by many of those that followed as an indelible influence on their work as well.

Ironically, Rhodes’ career found a tangled trajectory at best. His first band, Palace Guard, would have been doomed to obscurity were it not for their 1967 offering “Falling Sugar” which eventually found its way to the original Nuggets compilation many years later. His next band, The Merry-Go-Round, nearly suffered the same fate, releasing one album for A&M before quickly disbanding two years after the album’s appearance. While still under obligation to the label, Rhodes compiled various demos which were belatedly released as The American Dream in 1970, at least partially in response to the attention garnered by Rhodes’ first “proper” solo album, 1970’s Emitt Rhodes. Recorded entirely on his own in his parents’ garage with equipment that he bought and financed on his own, that self-titled set was the first of several albums that found him taking a D.I.Y. approach. As he told Mojo magazine in 2015, he considered Emitt Rhodes an investment in himself.

 

AUDIO: Emitt Rhodes “Live Till You Die”

That investment was made possible by an advance from ABC/Dunhill Records which released his eponymous effort and the two albums that followed, Mirror and Farewell to Paradise. The albums was hailed by the critics and helped established Rhodes’ reputation as a power pop wunderkind, especially given the fact that he played all the instruments himself. Billboard magazine went so far as to call him “one of the finest artists on the music scene today” and hailed his eponymous effort as one of the “best albums of the decade.” In addition to climbing into the top thirty, it produced the closest thing Rhodes would ever see as a hit single courtesy of “Fresh as a Daisy,” which only managed to scrape the fringes of the top 50.

His reputation was enhanced even further when he played a performance at L.A.’s hallowed Troubadour nightclub on February 9, 1971, the same night that an earthquake struck Southern California. An ad that ran in Billboard following the performance took advantage of that simultaneous occurrence, stating in part, “That wasn’t an earthquake, that was Emitt Rhodes opening at the Troubadour!”

TEEN Magazine February 1971 featuring Emitt Rhodes

Unfortunately, Rhodes’ seemingly unstoppable climb to stardom was foiled when he failed to meet the obligations set forth in his Dunhill contract which called for an album every six months over a three year timeframe. Rhodes claimed that the schedule was impossible for him to meet, given the fact that he was writing, recording and crafting the material entirely on his own. Consequently, Dunhill opted to withhold his royalties and then sue him for $250,000. 

It was enough to cause Rhodes to turn his back on the music industry, and choosing instead to record at home without any thought to an ultimate release. Nevertheless, in 1980, he made a belated return to the business after being hired by Elektra Records as a producer and engineer. He even began work on another solo album, but his efforts were aborted after the label executive he had been working with lost his job. Twenty years later he came back with an album for the small Rocktopia label, but the company folded before it could be released.

Despite his bad luck, some of his older material showed up in selected film soundtracks, even as Rhodes himself kept busy running his own studio, participating in an award-winning documentary about his career titled The One Man Beatles and doing a limited amount of recording on his own. A rerecorded version of his seminal song “Time Will Show the Wiser,” an early standard for Fairport Convention, marked his first official effort in nearly four decades. That same year, a tribute album featuring Rhodes songs recorded by other artists titled Long Time, No See rekindled his cult following

 

AUDIO: Long Time, No See: A Tribute to Emitt Rhodes

Sadly however, misfortune still followed. In November, 2011, Rhodes released three new songs on iTunes — “Just Me And You”, “What’s A Man to Do” and “This Wall Between Us”, featuring backup vocals by Vicki and Debbi Peterson of the Bangles and a guitar from Richard Thompson — but they were soon removed due to legal litigation. Then, in 2015, he contributed the song “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” to the Bee Gees tribute album To Love the Bee Gees. That set the stage for a new album titled Rainbow Ends. Overseen by up and coming producer Chris Price, and featuring contributions from an all star array of artists that included Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, Susanna Hoffs, Roger Joseph Manning, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone, Fernando Perdomo, and Jason Falkner, it was finally released via Omnivore Records on February 26, 2016. It marked Rhodes’ first release in 43 years.

It’s a sad but noble legacy that Rhodes now leaves behind, but if there’s one lesson to be gleaned from his life and career it’s this. Greatness isn’t always dependent on an ongoing trajectory. Several solitary sparks of brilliance can be enough to ensure immortality. 

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

One thought on “Farewell, Emitt Rhodes

  • July 23, 2020 at 12:24 pm
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    Thank you for this – just letting you know you have misspelled his name. It’s Emitt, one M, two Ts.

    Reply

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