When news broke about the death of cult singer-songwriter Emitt Rhodes in July 2020, the acclaimed screenwriter Paul Schrader put up a post on his Facebook page that read, “How is it there was a talented singer-songwriter who coexisted during the years you were obsessed with singer-songwriters but you only know about now when he’s died?”
I’m sure Schrader was far from alone in asking himself that question. Plenty of major music fans I know have scant awareness of Rhodes’ enriching music, odd narrative or crucial role in the creation of the entire power-pop genre. A longtime Rhodes fan, I had the chance to speak with him four years ago when he reemerged, Rip Van Winkle-like, with Rainbow Ends, his first collection of new music in over four decades. Lurking behind Rhodes’ decision to scuttle his solo career at just 23 was a complex story including a vindictive record company, a peculiar and painstaking way of recording, and his own emotional issues. Associates of Rhodes I interviewed alluded to those issues without offering specifics. I knew not to press further.
Sad and eccentric as Rhodes’ story may be, it’s far from unique in either the music industry or within the specific genre that shaped him — namely, the singer-songwriter movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. For every Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne who became an icon in that arena, there were literate and innovative contenders who never captured a fraction of the audience they deserved. Here’s a look at five of the most striking singer-songwriters who never got their due.
Given the sheer fluidity of his tunes, the bounce of his beats and the brightness of his production — not to mention his insistence on playing every instrument on his records — Rhodes found himself anointed “The One-Man Beatle” by the press. It didn’t hurt that his voice had the boyish elan of a young Paul McCartney. All of that made him a pioneer of early ’70s power-pop, presaging acts from Big Star to the Raspberries. Yet a closer listen to his first four albums, which stream on TIDAL as The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (1969 - 1973), proves that his sound deserves to be taken on its own terms.
Bridget St. John