Emitt Rhodes, star-crossed pop genius who staged comeback in 2016, dies at age 70

Emitt Rhodes, Hawthorne, Calif., Oct. 16, 2015 (Photo by Greg Allen)
Emitt Rhodes, Hawthorne, Calif., Oct. 16, 2015 (Photo by Greg Allen)

Emitt Rhodes, the revered singer-songwriter who earned the tag “The One Man Beatles” in the 1970s and staged a remarkable comeback last decade after going 43 years between albums, has died at age 70.

Rhodes, who died in his sleep Saturday night of natural causes, was hailed as a genius and a massive influence on later generations of musicians as news of his passing spread on Sunday.

“He was a colossal talent, a certified genius and he was my friend,” says Chris Price, the Florida native who met Rhodes in 2006 and eventually helmed the songwriter’s 2016 album “Rainbow Ends.” “When I was a teenager, I listened to his records religiously, not knowing how fundamentally important he would become to my life beyond just those incredible albums. I learned a lot being around him; about life, music and even a bit of quantum physics. To those of you who only knew him through the music, I intend to keep his memory alive and well and continue to share his work with everyone I come into contact with, and I encourage you to do the same.”

Read: Journalist Steve Hochman’s 2016 interview with Emitt Rhodes.

In making the album, Price assembled a cast of collaborators including Jon Brion, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., Jason Falkner, Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone, Taylor Locke, Fernando Perdomo, Probyn Gregory, Blue, Joe Seiders, Nelson Bragg and Kaitlin Wolfberg — many who knew Rhodes (as the music cognoscenti did) from his work in the 1960s and ’70s. Lush, melodic and emotionally nuanced, “Rainbow Ends” realized the massive promise of Rhodes’ early work.

Born in Illinois but reared in Hawthorne, where he lived his whole life, Rhodes played in the Palace Guard (who have a song on the “Nuggets” compilation) and first gained wide notice as the teenaged frontman of the Merry-Go-Round, whose 1967 album spawned two singles that charted, “Live” (covered later by the Bangles) and “You’re a Very Lovely Woman.” What followed were three impressive solo albums (four, if you count one that was released without his consent, as a contractual obligation) between 1970 and ’73 that propelled Rhodes into conversations about the great songwriters of the era, including Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson.

Not only would his work go on to influence artists in the power-pop genre for decades, Rhodes was a pioneer in the art of DIY recording. The albums, “Emitt Rhodes,” “Mirror” and “Farewell to Paradise,” were self-produced, with Rhodes playing every instrument, in his Hawthorne garage studio, where, eventually, the 2016 comeback was made.

“The guy was adept at every primary instrument, and one hell of a songwriter,” Price says. “As he got older, his lyrics got deeper and so did his voice, while all his other musical talents continued to stay very much intact. His attention to detail in recording was really inspirational for me and his ability to write direct melodies and lyrics that hit people right in the pleasure center or punch them in the gut was unmatched. He had some bad luck in his dealings with the music business, unfortunately, but his music was so good that it has managed to find large groups of devoted fans and it still lives on even 50 years after the release of his first self-titled album.”

The fallout from legal battles surrounding his oppressive recording contract (which originally called for six albums in three years), along with personal and health problems (he was a diabetic), sent Rhodes into a tailspin, and he retreated from his career. Over the years, he occasionally worked in a production capacity for other artists and had a couple false starts in trying to make new material. He gained some new fans when Wes Anderson included the song “Lullabye” in the 2001 film “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and in 2010 he was the subject of the documentary film “The One Man Beatles,” directed by Cosimo Messeri.

■ Watch: The documentary here:

Read: Two interviews done in conjunction with the documentary’s release, one from Record Collector magazine and one from LA Record.

After years of being proof that, as journalist Alex Wild wrote, “you could meet the most amazing musical geniuses in the cutout bins,” Rhodes found a patient, empathetic champion in Price and a group of collaborators who felt his influence. As Omnivore Recordings rightly noted in the summary of his final album, there was truly gold where the “Rainbow Ends.”