The Song Remains: Emitt Rhodes 1950 – 2020

Emitt Rhodes died in his sleep on July 19th, 2020.  As a singer songwriter, he only released four authorised solo albums, with the penultimate one being released in 1973, to little overall success in the US and nothing in the UK. However, his work proved influential on the varying waves of power-pop and indie artists of subsequent generations. Richard Thompson, Aimee Mann and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline are fully paid up members of his fan club.

Though Rhodes was born in Decatur, Illinois, on February 25, 1950, he started his musical career playing drums with Los Angeles garage rock band, The Palace Guard, in 1964. The band played in a folk-rock style, with a clear influence from the Beatles in their harmonies. The band released a couple of singles during Rhodes’ tenure, with ‘Falling Sugar’ subsequently being included in the box set reissue of the Nuggets’ compilation. In 1966, Rhodes joined another Los Angeles band, The Merry-Go-Round. This time the sound was psychedelic rock. While they only released one album, ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ in 1967,  which only reached Number 190 on the Billboard chart, a number of Emitt Rhodes penned songs were covered by other artists, including ‘Time Will Show the Wiser’ by Fairport Convention on their debut album and ‘You’re a Very Lovely Woman’ by Linda Ronstadt in 1971.

It was what Emitt Rhodes did after The Merry-Go-Round disbanded in 1969, that made him such an influence on later generations of musicians. He recorded his first solo album, ‘Emitt Rhodes’, in his 4-track home studio at his parents house, producing and playing all instruments himself. The tapes were good enough to get him a record deal with ABC/Dunhill. With his advance, Rhodes upgraded his home studio to 8-track, making a clear statement on his intent to have full control over his recording. He used his new 8 track facility to improve the vocals on his tracks and ‘Emitt Rhodes‘ was released in 1970. At the time, union rules meant that all albums had to be recorded in professional studios, therefore the sleeve notes didn’t mention this was a home recording, but this is the granddaddy of lo-fi music.  The album performed reasonably well, reaching Number 29 on the Billboard album chart and the single, ‘Fresh As A Daisy’, Number 54. The album is full of well-structured pop songs and is now seen as one of the foundations of the later power pop movement. Tift Merritt recorded ‘Live ‘Till You Die’ in 2010.

It was at this point, when Emitt Rhodes was on the point of achieving real commercial success, that things started to go wrong. Following the success of ‘Emitt Rhodes’, A&M Records released a number of tracks Rhodes had recorded between 1967-69, when he was a member of The Merry-Go-Round, on ‘The American Dream’ album. While there was some good music on the album, it did not match the quality of ‘Emitt Rhodes’ and therefore confused his new fans.

It was at this point, when Emitt Rhodes was on the point of achieving real commercial success, that things started to go wrong.

Worse was to follow when he tried to deliver his follow-up albums to Dunhill at six-month intervals, as required by his contract. His meticulous, one-man-band approach, meant he couldn’t maintain the quality of his debut release. The albums ‘Mirror’, from 1971, and ‘Farewell to Paradise’, from 1973, while containing some very good songs and bringing some new sounds to his one-man-band palette, failed to maintain the momentum of his debut. Finally,  ABC/Dunhill decided to sue Rhodes for the late delivery of the albums, which resulted in him moving into record engineering and production, rather than being a recording artist himself.

Rhodes’ profile began to rise in the ’00s, when the 2001 film ‘The Royal Tenebaums’ featured ‘Lullabye’, from ‘Emitt Rhodes’,  and in 2009, filmmaker Cosimo Messeri made a documentary about him. He also started recording again, releasing various tracks on compilations and iTunes.  He recorded his final album, ‘Rainbow Ends’, at his home studio with Chris Price producing. This time, there were guest appearances from musicians influenced by his work including Richard Thompson, Aimee Mann, Nels Cline, Jason Falkner, Taylor Locke and others. Rhodes’ songs reflected his maturity, rather than the youthful optimism of his ‘70s albums, and the sound would have chimed well with the pop-rock of the late ‘70s. Released in 2016, it proved to be a fitting end to the career of an influential, though idiosyncratic, artist.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

2 thoughts on “The Song Remains: Emitt Rhodes 1950 – 2020”

    1. Thanks Andrew. Clearly time will tell, but I suspect Rhodes music will continue to grow in stature over the coming years.

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