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Emitt Rhodes

Described as “the one-man Beatles”, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer, and all-round lost talent was the wunderkid pin-up when he delivered his phenomenal eponymous LP to the Top 30, in the fall of 1970. A seasoned campaigner at the age of 20, with his misspent youth either drumming for The Emeralds/The Palace Guard or fronting The MERRY-GO-ROUND, Emitt was indeed groomed for stardom – but his sad story, like so many of his songs – was destined for heartbreak. A case of too much too soon.
Born February 25, 1950, Decatur, Illinois; Emitt grew up in Hawthorne, California, where, as a drummer, he joined the Fab Four-cloned The Palace Guard; known also as the Emeralds. During a promising mid-60s period, the Beaudoin brothers, John, Dick and Don, plus lead guitarist Chuck McLung, bassist Rick Moser, vocalist Mike Conley, and of course, the young Emitt, the Southern Californian garage-pop combo issued a handful of 45s – none of them spectacular, or indeed, hits. Dressed as British Beefeaters and taking up residency at the Hullabaloo in Los Angeles (thankfully not outside Buckingham Palace!), the harmony-addled septet came closest to a hit with `Falling Sugar’.
Taking his drum-kit on to pastures new, the 16-year-old Emitt sought out old buddies Gary Kato (guitar), Mike Rice (bass) and Doug Harwood (drums), but when the latter pair proved unsuitable, the experienced Bill Rinehart (from The LEAVES) and Joel Larson (from The GRASS ROOTS) made up the first proper line-up of The MERRY-GO-ROUND. Almost immediately, the Baroque/folk-rock quartet cracked the Hot 100 with their debut, `Live’; its B-side (`Time Will Show The Wiser’) notable for finding a home on FAIRPORT CONVENTION’s inaugural LP.
When `We’re In Love’ flopped, and the largely orchestral `You’re A Very Lovely Woman’ only just squeezed into the lower regions of the charts, the rush-released THE MERRY-GO-ROUND (1967) {*6}, was churned out as psychedelia was shifting gear to a darker place. Bubblegum-pop, although effective and sweet, was dismissed by pundits as a fad, and it looked decidedly shady for the likes of compadres The LEFT BANKE and The BYRDS; the latter act of course found themselves delving into country-rock. Despite the glorious garage rockers such as `Where Have You Been All My Life’ and `Low Down’, its couple of weeks in the Top 200 hardly paid the bills. When Rinehart dropped out and was replaced by Rick Dey, the carousel ride was all but over by the end of ’68.
RHODES would be retained by A&M Records, although sessions in ’69 with the cream of L.A.’s finest (Larry Knechtel, Hal Blaine, et al) were left in the can until his sublime first album proper was duly being touted as a classic. Released in March 1971 on the back of his eponymous debut’s success, THE AMERICAN DREAM {*6}, fulfilled contractual obligations – not for the last time – but was seen by many as exploitative and out of context. Sounding like the missing link between PAUL McCARTNEY, The RASPBERRIES and future hit-maker GERRY RAFFERTY, highlights of the LP were for some: `Mother Earth’, `Someone Died’ and `Come Ride, Come Ride’.
Signed to Dunhill Records after the A&M recordings, the monomaniacal singer-songwriter got to work on his eponymous debut: EMITT RHODES (1970) {*8}. Without a band to speak of to get in the way of Emitt’s single-minded schizoid-like vision, The BEATLES were an inspiration to the multi-instrumentalist 20-year-old who worked from home – his parents’. While there were obvious delights (even in the minute-long `Lullabye’), the lush balladeering of `With My Face On The Floor’, `She’s Such A Beauty’ and lone hit, `Fresh As A Daisy’, seemed plucked from out-takes of “The White Album”.
Duly cursed by inking an un-business-like contract that wanted blood, sweat and a bona fide sophomore set to compensate for his other past foibles, Emitt was pushed into darker territory on MIRROR (1971) {*5}. A flop for Dunhill/ABC (peaking at No.182 and staying in the charts for a month), it nevertheless unveiled a few niceties in `Love Will Stone You’, `Really Wanted You’ and `Golden Child Of God’.
Left out from this set and Emitt’s undistinguished follow-up, FAREWELL TO PARADISE (1973) {*5}, `Tame The Lion’ was pushed out as a single. Displaying the once boy-wonder figure of Emitt with a tidy beard on the cover shot, was the guy really washed up at the age of 23? On the merits of “best” bits: from the opener `Warm Self Sacrifice’ to the Laurel Canyon-esque title track, probably yes.
Subsequently relegating himself to production/engineering work for Elektra Records, the 70s fizzled out with not so much of a hint of a comeback. When the 80s and 90s left him in the doldrums and almost broke, as journalism with the LA Citybeat rag didn’t seem to give him enough to provide for his family via two failed marriages, RHODES was an emotional wreck when discovered by reporter Erik Himmelsbach.
In 2009, a documentary film, “The One-Man Beatles”, written and directed by Cosimo Messeri, went a long way to tell the story of a man once dubbed the alter ego of PAUL McCARTNEY. Spurred on by a coincidental meeting with Michael Des Barres (once of DETECTIVE and SILVERHEAD), and working with RICHARD THOMPSON, loyal fans of EMITT RHODES might yet get to hear another slice of his long-lost talent.
Hardly recognisable nowadays with grey beard (as depicted on the emotional Emitt sleeve-shot of “comeback” set, RAINBOW ENDS (2016) {*7}), the once-boyish RHODES looked to a future after 43 years in his world-weary wilderness. Augmented by a star-studded cast from JELLYFISH and WILCO’s Nels Cline to backing-singer beauties SUSANNA HOFFS and AIMEE MANN, there was still a place for classicist pop-rock in the shape of `What’s A Man To Do’ and `This Wall Between Us’. Better still was RHODES’ reflective and open-book odes to life in `If I Knew Then’, `Isn’t It So’, `I Can’t Tell My Heart’ and the cool, ZEVON/NILSSON-ish `It’s All Behind Us Now’.
© MC Strong/MCS Nov2013-May2016

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