They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
At the time, did you consider yourself to be a Baroque popper?
No… to put myself in a category, okay, pop, yeah, definitely pop. But ‘Brrr-roke?’ Come to think of it, I was brrrroke my whole life! Yeah, a brrrrrrrroke popper! That’s exactly what I am! — Emitt Rhodes, in a 2010 interview
If you want the prototypical example of a record company killing the goose that laid the golden egg, look no further than the story of Emitt Rhodes. An incredibly talented teen who’d had a couple local hits with his band the Merry-Go-Round, Rhodes released a self-titled album in 1970 that featured him on all vocals and instruments, and which earned favorable comparisons to Paul McCartney’s similar one-man-band home-recorded solo debut released earlier that same year. But after that, the suits stepped in, and it was all downhill.
First, A&M Records, his Merry-Go-Round label, decided to piggyback on Rhodes’ imminent success and released some of his contractural obligation work they’d been sitting on for years, confusing the market and cutting into sales of Emitt Rhodes. Second, Rhodes’ contract called for him to record six albums in three years, and when his meticulous craftsmanship proved to make fulfilling those terms impossible, ABC/Dunhill first suspended his royalties, then sued him for a quarter of a million dollars. Nefarious managers didn’t help matters either. End result: Rhodes burned out, his label dropped him, and his recording days were over before he turned twenty-five.
Today is Emitt Rhodes’ 64th birthday. His music is considered a touchstone in pop history, and fans of The Royal Tenenbaums who don’t think they know his work will recognize “Lullaby” from its appearance in the film. A documentary about him entitled The One Man Beatles made the film festival rounds a few years ago. As for Rhodes, he’s still involved with music, working in his studio and even recording a tune now and then. Here’s wishing him peace and happiness, and the hopes that he and others will enjoy these covers of his work.
The Bangles – Live (Merry-Go-Round cover)
The first full-length Bangles album, 1984’s All Over the Place, featured two covers; “Going Down to Liverpool” went on to be the album’s second single, but “Live,” their cover of Rhodes’ song from his Merry-Go-Round days, was just as good, with lovely harmonies and a rhythm as uplifting as the song’s lyrics.
Fairport Convention – Time Will Show the Wiser (Merry-Go-Round cover)
Fairport Convention’s journey of a thousand miles began with a Rhodes song; “Time Will Show the Wiser” was the leadoff track on their self-titled debut album. Keep in mind that when this cover was released, Rhodes was still in his teens and had yet to record any solo work.
G.D. Truckbucket – You’re a Very Lovely Woman (Emitt Rhodes cover)
A track that has been released under both the Merry-Go-Round’s name and Rhodes’s, “You’re a Very Lovely Woman” gets a very bluesy reading here by G.D. Truckbucket (if you like what you hear and live in the LA area, he’s looking for work). It comes from Long Time, No See, a tribute album that mostly keeps Rhodes’s pop feel; Truckbucket’s the exception that proves the rule, and proves the song’s strength in a whole new context.
Ragamuffin – Fresh as a Daisy (Emitt Rhodes cover)
This cover of Rhodes’ most successful solo single (which didn’t quite make the top 50) can be found on Mixed Up Minds, Pt. 5: Obscure Rock & Pop From the British Isles. How obscure are we talking here? Well, good luck finding out anything else about Ragamuffin. This B-side (the A-side was called “Can I Have My Money Back” – isn’t it ironic?) takes “Fresh as a Daisy” out of the garage studio and puts it into the garage rehearsal space.
Tift Merritt – Live Till You Die (Emitt Rhodes cover)
Tift Merrit applies her Americana sensibilities to “Live Till You Die” on 2010’s See You on the Moon. It’s a treat to think that not only can Rhodes’ songs find an audience more than four decades after being written, and in a different genre than what they were originally written in, but that the song’s lasting messages are positive ones.