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Emitt Rhodes: A Baker's Dozen of His Finest Tunes

A look at 13 songs from the late singer/songwriter, once dubbed "The One Man Beatles"
Emitt Rhodes, 2016 (Photo courtesy of Daniel Coston)

Emitt Rhodes, 2016 (Photo courtesy of Daniel Coston)

When Emitt Rhodes passed away in his sleep in July of this year at age 70, he left behind quite the musical legacy: five solo albums (four from the early '70s and a stirring comeback record from 2016) and one LP fronting '60s popsters the Merry-Go-Round, all brimming with melodic inventiveness and sparkling, memorable tunes. On three of his solo records—1970's Emitt Rhodes, 1971's Mirror, and 1973's Farewell to Paradise—Rhodes played and sang everything himself, foreshadowing the DIY pop movement that was to bloom later in the decade. Rhodes' one man band approach, coupled with his deft, easygoing melodies and sweet vocals, invited the inevitable Paul McCartney comparisons and eventually led to an Italian filmmaker titling a 2009 documentary on Rhodes The One Man Beatles.

While those McCartney/Beatles comparisons are somewhat odious, the best of Emitt Rhodes' recorded output rivals anything in the pop music realm released during the late '60s and early '70s, with several of his tunes standing up as pop/rock classics. Here's a look at 13 notable Emitt Rhodes songs from all phases of his career, in no particular order.

"Live" (From The Merry-Go-Round, 1967) - The song that first introduced the songwriting prowess of a young Emitt Rhodes to the general public, "Live" was the Merry-Go-Round's highest charting single during their relatively brief lifespan, reaching number 63 on the Billboard chart (and number one in the band's hometown of Los Angeles). An ode to living life and being free set to a breezy melody, it no doubt struck a chord with many young people in 1967.

"You're a Very Lovely Woman" (From The Merry-Go-Round, 1967) - A stunning, beautifully orchestrated baroque pop number that is all the more amazing considering it was penned when Rhodes was just 16 years old. Lyrically it tells the tale of an aborted tryst between an older woman and younger man; interestingly, its release pre-dated the similarly themed film The Graduate by only three months.

"Birthday Lady" (From Mirror, 1971) - The leadoff track from Rhodes' penultimate '70s solo record, it's a somewhat funky, piano-based rocker with some cool falsetto vocal parts. Listen for the piano bits at the end of the verses that were lifted directly from the Beatles' "The Word."

"Love Will Stone You" (From Mirror, 1971) - Unlike most of the rest of the tracks on Mirror, this one tells the tale of love gone bad. It starts quietly and builds as it details the vagaries of relationships ("You can't help but love her/but you know you're not the only man"), adding some tasty, bluesy guitar licks and nice backing vocals along the way.

"Someone Died" (From The American Dream, 1970) - An emotional rumination on loss and grief, its delicate subject matter is married to a gently finger-picked guitar, Rhodes' superb lead vocal, and appropriately pretty strings. Again, a simply gorgeous, deeply emotional tune written before Rhodes turned 19 years old.

"Lullabye" (From Emitt Rhodes, 1970) - The most winsome 1:04 ever, "Lullabye" is just that, albeit lyrically downcast. ("Tears that angels cry/and they darken all the sky/when the one you love says goodbye.") Rhodes sings the beautiful, all-too-brief tune in a tender, hushed tone, which meshes perfectly with the lyrics. "Lullabye" was featured in the 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums and appeared on the soundtrack album alongside selections by the Clash, Ramones, Bob Dylan, and the Velvet Underground.

"Fresh as a Daisy" (From Emitt Rhodes, 1970) - Rhodes saw his biggest chart success ever with this tune, which climbed to number 54 on Billboard when released as a single. Featuring great dynamics, a wonderful arrangement, and cheerful lyrics, it's one of his signature tunes.

"Tame the Lion" (Non-LP single, 1972) - No doubt disillusioned after being tied to a contract that forced him to deliver albums at a nearly impossible rate, Rhodes' songwriting took a bit of a darker turn after Mirror. One example is this pointed protest number, released as a single in the midst of the Vietnam War. Over a guitar riff that vaguely recalls "The Ballad of John and Yoko," Rhodes delivers lyrics such as "Little children live in Saigon/kneeling down on severed limbs/they no longer care who's master/only let the fighting end." It was certainly a long way from "Fresh as a Daisy," but nearly as catchy.

"Pardon Me" (From The American Dream, 1970) - The American Dream is an album that has long been dismissed as a ragtag collection of tracks that Rhodes recorded for A & M Records before moving to Dunhill and releasing Emitt Rhodes, but the fact is that the bulk of its songs are top notch. (Check "Mother Earth," "Holly Park," and the jaunty, Lennon-esque "In the Days of Old," to name just a few.) "Pardon Me" is another jewel, musically reminiscent of "The Fool on the Hill" and lyrically quaint.

"Live Till You Die" (From Emitt Rhodes, 1970) - "I have to say the things I feel/I have to feel the things I say" could stand as Emitt Rhodes' epitaph. In a way it's a spiritual cousin to "Live," but "Live Till You Die" is more wistful and measured, although just as melodically stimulating. Another Rhodes classic.

"She Laughed Loud" (Non-LP single, 1967) - The Merry-Go-Round were never as Beatlesque as they were on this wonderful cut, with its swirling melody, '67 psych-pop vibe, and very John/Paul/George background vocals (which answer Rhodes intoning "She laughed loud" in the chorus by responding "ha ha ha" in a most British manner). The reason everyone is laughing is because Rhodes, while trying to impress "a very distinguished young girl," spills coffee on her dress, sits on her hat, and breaks her dishes. Another excellent non-LP MGR single (from 1968) is the stinging "Listen, Listen." 

"This Wall Between Us" (From Rainbow Ends, 2016) - 43 years between albums must be some kind of record (no pun intended), but that's what occurred when Omnivore Records unveiled what would be Emitt Rhodes' final musical statement in 2016. Sympathetically (and wonderfully) produced by LA-based musician Chris Price, the album featured guest shots by a gaggle of pop musicians who lionized Rhodes' work: Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (Jellyfish), Jason Falkner, Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles), Aimee Mann and others. Much of the album is deeply personal, with Rhodes looking back with anger, disappointment and resentment at difficult and failed relationships. With a voice that has deepened and a heart that has obviously been scarred, "This Wall Between Us" finds Rhodes traversing that route, with Falkner adding some bluesy guitar and Price, Manning, Bleu, and Taylor Locke sweetening the dour mood with some perfectly evocative backing vocals.

"Rainbow Ends" (From Rainbow Ends, 2016) - Closing out Rhodes' comeback album is this epic track, which features what is probably his finest vocal performance on the record. In light of his recent passing, lyrics such as, "I wanna be somewhere far away/somewhere where I won't be afraid" and "I wanna be with the ones I love/hold them close, give them hugs" are simultaneously melancholy and somewhat comforting.