Ottawa·First Person

How Les Emmerson and the Five Man Electrical Band changed my mother's life

Heather Morrison's grandmother died by suicide when her mom was just 16. She writes about how Les Emmerson and his music helped her find a new family, through his mom Olive, and what his death means to the Morrisons decades later.

Through both his music and his mom, Emmerson gave my mother the family she needed

In 1996, Linda Holmes, left, and Olive Emmerson returned to the bus stop on Ottawa's Baseline road to take a picture commemorating where the two met, 30 years earlier. (Submitted by Heather Morrison)

This First Person article is the experience of Heather Morrison, a theatre artist, CBC producer and mom in Saskatoon. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

This month the world learned the sad news that Canadian musician Les Emmerson, composer of anti-establishment anthem Signs, had died.

My mom, Linda Holmes, doesn't remember how she met Les. She says it was probably after one of his concerts, back when he was still performing with The Staccatos. 

This was the mid-1960s and my then-16-year-old mom wouldn't often hear rock music on local Ottawa stations. Instead, she would lie awake at night with a transistor radio glued to her ear, trying to pick up the music she loved so much on American radio.

Linda Holmes, right, met legendary Ottawa musician Les Emmerson, left, in the 1960s. (Submitted by Heather Morrison)

She decided to create what she called the Canadian Staccatos Promoters Club, an informal group whose only job was to make sure everyone knew how great The Staccatos' music was. 

When Les and the group went to Los Angeles for the first time to record, my mom arranged a telegram wishing them good luck. She says she got nearly 500 people — including the mayor of Ottawa at the time, Don Reid — to pay a nickel to sign it — although I've never seen a copy of this amazing telegram.

The Staccato plays at Laurentian High School in Ottawa, which closed in 2005. (Five Man Electrical Band/Facebook)

She says she was trying to make sure the recording studio knew Canada was behind them. 

My mom followed Emmerson as a friend and as a fan as The Staccatos eventually became the Five Man Electrical Band and its single Signs sold more than 1.5 million copies.

On July 1, 1967 for the Centennial celebration of Canada, Les and his band performed for Queen Elizabeth II at Ottawa's Lansdowne Park. The Queen is pictured here earlier in the day cutting a 10-metre-tall cake during Centennial celebrations on Parliament Hill. (Library and Archives Canada/C-024559)

Emmerson's music impacted the music world and beyond, celebrated by long-haired freaky people everywhere. 

He also changed my mother's life — thanks to his own mother.

Heather Morrison, right, called Les' mom 'Grandma Olive' because of the role she played in her mom's life. (Submitted by Heather Morrison)

In 1965, while waiting at a bus stop on Baseline Road in Ottawa, my mom spotted Les' mom, Olive, who she recognized from his concerts.

My mom called out, "Are you Mrs. Emmerson?" It was the beginning of a friendship that would see my mom through some of her darkest times.

Heather Morrison, left, says she regrets not thanking Les Emmerson for taking care of her mom Linda Holmes, right, before Emmerson died. (Submitted by Heather Morrison)

Seven months later, my mom's mom, Anne Elizabeth Holmes, died by suicide.

Suicide was still very stigmatized in the '60s. Instead of being surrounded by the support she needed, most people in her life did not even acknowledge my mother's loss. 

My teenage mom and her sister were moved from their family home to a small apartment where they were mostly on their own. She says it was a very isolating time.

Thankfully, my mom wasn't alone. Olive heard what happened and started checking in.

When my mom felt lonely after school — as she often did — she would phone Olive. Sometimes, when she was having a really bad day, she would go over for supper.

The connection lasted for decades. Through long phone conversations, letter writing, and visits, Olive filled an important gap in my mom's life. 

My sisters and I came to know her as "Grandma Olive." She was always offering a kind word announcing, "God love ya," or trying to shove $20 in your car window as you drove away.

'Grandma Olive', left, with the first of Linda Holmes' nine grandchildren. (Submitted by Heather Morrison)

After Olive's death in 2015, my mom remained close to Les' family, particularly his sister Darlene, who is as sweet and generous as her mom. She's always ready to give anyone a free ice cream from the Dairy Queen she owns.

I feel sad when I think back to what happened to my mom when she was just 16, but I also feel grateful for the Emmersons.

I think of Olive's love like the American radio waves reaching my mom in the dead of night. Even when she was the most alone, she was never alone.

After he died, my mom says she regrets not telling Les he was part of her generation's great music. 

I regret not thanking him for his family's care for my mom.

Les didn't just give long-haired freaky people a place to belong. He gave my mom the same.

Heather Morrison, middle, pictured here with her son Judah, right, and her mother Linda Holmes, left, says the Emmersons helped her family through some of the darkest hours. (Submitted by Heather Morrison)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heather Morrison is a theatre artist and associate producer with CBC. She lives in Saskatoon with her son, Judah. Follow her on twitter @heather_mo.

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