March 10, 2016 – Keith Noel Emerson (Emerson,Lake,Palmer ELP/ The Nice) was born in Todmorden, Yorkshire on 2 November 1944. His family had been evacuated there from the south coast of England during the Second World War. He grew up in Goring-by-Sea, in the borough of the seaside resort of Worthing, West Sussex and attended West Tarring School. His parents were musically inclined and arranged for him to take piano lessons starting at the age of 8. His father, Noel, was an amateur pianist, and thought that Emerson would benefit most as a player from being versatile and being able to read music. However, he never received any formal musical training, and described his piano teachers as being “local little old ladies”. He learned western classical music, which largely inspired his own style, combining it with jazz and rock themes.
Although Emerson did not own a record player, he was inspired by the music he heard on the radio, particularly Floyd Cramer’s 1961 slip note-style “On the Rebound” and the work of Dudley Moore. He used jazz sheet music from Dave Brubeck and George Shearing and learned about jazz piano from books. He also listened to boogie-woogie, and to country-style pianists including Joe Henderson, Russ Conway and Winifred Atwell. Emerson later described himself: “I was a very serious child. I used to walk around with Beethoven sonatas under my arm. However, I was very good at avoiding being beaten up by the bullies. That was because I could also play Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard songs. So, they thought I was kind of cool and left me alone.”
Emerson became intrigued with the Hammond organ after hearing jazz organist Jack McDuff perform “Rock Candy”, and the Hammond became his instrument of choice in the late 1960s. Emerson acquired his first Hammond organ, an L-100 model, at the age of 15 or 16, on hire purchase. After he left school he worked at Lloyds Bank Registrars where he played piano in the bar at lunchtimes. Outside his working hours, he played with several different bands. The flamboyance for which he would later be noted began when a fight broke out during a performance in France by one of his early bands, the V.I.P.s. Instructed by the band to keep playing, he produced some explosion and machine gun sounds with the Hammond organ, which stopped the fight. The other band members told him to repeat the stunt at the next concert, which he did with success.
In 1967, Emerson formed the Nice with Lee Jackson, David O’List and Ian Hague, to back soul singer P. P. Arnold. After replacing Hague with Brian Davison, the group set out on its own, quickly developing a strong live following. The group’s sound was centred on Emerson’s Hammond organ showmanship and abuse of the instrument, and their radical rearrangements of classical music themes as “symphonic rock”.
To increase the visual interest of his show, Emerson would physically abuse his Hammond L-100 organ by, among other things, hitting it, beating it with a whip, pushing it over, riding it across the stage like a horse, playing with it lying on top of him, and wedging knives into the keyboard. Some of these actions also produced musical sound effects: hitting the organ caused it to make explosion-like sounds, turning it over made it feedback, and the knives held down keys, thus sustaining notes. Emerson’s show with the Nice has been cited as having a strong influence on heavy metal musicians.
Emerson became well known for his work with the Nice. In 1969 he participated in the Music from Free Creek “supersession” project, along with other notable musicians of the time including Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. For the project, Emerson performed with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Chuck Rainey covering, among other tunes, the Eddie Harris instrumental “Freedom Jazz Dance”.
During his time in the Nice, Emerson first heard a Moog when a record shop owner played Switched-On Bach for him. Emerson said, “My God that’s incredible, what is that played on?” The owner then showed him the album cover. So I said, “What is that?” And he said, “That’s the Moog synthesizer.” My first impression was that it looked a bit like electronic skiffle.” Without one of his own, Emerson borrowed Mike Vickers’ Moog for an upcoming the Nice concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London, with the Royal Philharmonic. Mike helped patch the Moog, and the concert was a success. Emerson’s performance of “Also sprach Zarathustra” from the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey was acclaimed. Emerson later explained, “I thought this was great. I’ve got to have one of these.”
In 1970, Emerson left the Nice and formed Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) with bassist Greg Lake from King Crimson and drummer Carl Palmer from Atomic Rooster. Within a few months, the band played its first shows and recorded its first album, having quickly obtained a record deal with Atlantic Records. ELP became popular immediately after their 1970 Isle of Wight Festival performance, and continued to tour regularly throughout the 1970s. Not all were impressed, with BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel describing their Isle of Wight set as “[a] waste of talent and electricity.” Their set, with a half-million onlookers, involved “annihilating their instruments in a classical-rock blitz” and firing cannons from the stage. Recalling the gig in a 2002 interview, Emerson said: “We tried the cannons out on a field near Heathrow airport… They seemed harmless enough. Today we would have been arrested as terrorists.”
In addition to his technical skills at playing and composing, Emerson became known for his highly theatrical performances. He cited guitarist Jimi Hendrix and English organist Don Shinn as his chief theatrical influences. While in ELP, Emerson continued to some degree the physical abuse of his Hammond organ that he had developed with the Nice, including playing the organ upside down while having it lie over him and using knives to wedge down specific keys and sustain notes during solos. In addition to using his knives on the organ, he also engaged in knife throwing onstage, using a target fastened to his keyboard rig. He was given his trademark knife, an authentic Nazi dagger, by Lemmy, who was a roadie for the Nice in his earlier days.
Over time, Emerson toned down his act with the organ in response to ELP’s greater reliance on spectacular stage props. For example, during the Brain Salad Surgery tour, at the end of the show, a sequencer in Emerson’s Moog Modular synthesiser was set running at an increasing rate, with the synthesiser pivoting to face the audience while emitting smoke and deploying a large pair of silver bat wings from its back.
One of Emerson’s memorable live show stunts with ELP involved playing a piano while the piano, with Emerson sitting at it, was suspended 15 to 20 feet in mid-air and then rotated end-over-end. This was purely for visual effect, as according to Greg Lake, the piano was fake and had no works inside. In a 2014 interview with Classic Rock Music journalist Ray Shasho, Emerson was asked about the origin of the ‘flying piano’ and about the difficulty of performing while spinning in the air. He explained:
“I think having a pilot’s licence helped a little bit. One of my road crew said we found this guy that used to work in the circus and he does a lot of things for TV and special effects and he’s made something that might interest you, it’s a piano that spins round, and I immediately responded, oh that sounds interesting. I happened to be within the New York area and I was driven over to Long Island to a guy called Bob McCarthy, and there in the background he had this piano situated. So he called his wife down from upstairs and said, darling could you demonstrate this for Keith? I looked on, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. His wife comes down and sits on the seat and up she goes in the air and proceeds to spin around. I thought, well that’s great! Then Bob asked me, do you want to have a go at it? … Yea, okay. You need to understand, below the keyboard there’s an inverted-tee, like a bar. You wrap your legs around the down pipe and put your heels under the inverted-tee. Then you go up in the air and try and do your best to play. It was a little difficult to play at first because of the centrifugal force, so it wasn’t easy. I think we actually used it for the first time at Madison Square Garden, it was a Christmas concert. People in the audience were so astounded they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. Later on that coming year the California Jam came up and I said we have to do that there.
Bob drove the whole contraption down to the California Jam and there was very little space to set it up. There were loads of bands up on that stage, all having to do their set and then getting their equipment off. Now, with the moog, the Hammonds, Carl’s gongs and everything, it was hard enough to just get that off stage. We had the spinning piano and everything that went along with it and we tried to find a place to situate it. It ended up going just at the end of the stage, so when the piano went up it was literally over the heads of the audience. After that every TV show I did came the question …Keith, how do you spin around on that piano? I’d say what about my music? When I had the honor of meeting the great jazz pianist Dave Brubeck just before he died, he said, Keith you’ve got to tell me how do you spin around on that piano? Dave Brubeck was 90 years old then and I said, ‘Dave, don’t try it!'”
The spinning piano was only part of ELP’s stage show for a short time due to the complexity of the stunt and a number of injuries sustained by Emerson while performing it, including many finger injuries and a broken nose. Emerson wanted to use the spinning piano again at ELP’s 2010 reunion concert at the High Voltage Festival in London, but was forbidden from doing so by local authorities who said that the plans did not meet health and safety standards.
After ELP disbanded in 1979, Emerson pursued a variety of projects during the 1980s and 1990s, including solo releases, soundtrack work and other bands. In the early 1990s, Emerson rejoined the reunited ELP, but the group broke up again by the end of that decade.
In 1981, Emerson released his debut solo album, Honky. Recorded in the Bahamas with local musicians, it departed from Emerson’s usual style in featuring calypso and reggae songs, and was generally not well received, except in Italy where it was a hit. Emerson’s subsequent solo releases were sporadic, including a Christmas album in 1988, and the album Changing States (also known as Cream of Emerson Soup) recorded in 1989 but not released until 1995, after several of its songs had already been re-recorded and released in different versions on ELP’s 1992 comeback album Black Moon. Changing States also contained an orchestral remake of the ELP song “Abaddon’s Bolero” with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and “The Church”, which Emerson composed for the 1989 Michele Soavi horror film of the same name.
In the 1980s, Emerson began to write and perform music for films, as his orchestral and classical style was more suited for film work than for the new wave-dominated pop/ rock market. Films for which Emerson contributed soundtrack music include Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980), the action thriller Nighthawks (1981) starring Sylvester Stallone, the Japanese anime Harmagedon (1983), Lucio Fulci’s Murder Rock (1984), and Michele Soavi’s The Church (also known as La chiesa) (1989). He was also the composer for the short-lived 1994 US animated television series Iron Man.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Emerson formed several short-lived supergroups. The first two, Emerson, Lake & Powell (with Lake and ex-Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell) and 3 (with Palmer and American multi-instrumentalist Robert Berry), were intended to carry on in the general style of ELP in the absence of one of the original members. Emerson, Lake & Powell had some success, and their sole album is considered one of the best of both Emerson’s and Lake’s careers. Progressive rock analyst Edward Macan wrote that Emerson, Lake & Powell were closer to the “classic ELP sound” than ELP’s own late-1970s output. By contrast, 3’s only album sold poorly and drew comparisons to “the worst moments of Love Beach” (which had been a commercial disaster for ELP.
Emerson also toured briefly in 1990 with The Best, a supergroup including John Entwistle of The Who, Joe Walsh of the Eagles, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, and Simon Phillips of Toto. This project focused on covering songs from each of the members’ past bands.
In the early 1990s, Emerson formed the short-lived group Aliens of Extraordinary Ability with Stuart Smith, Richie Onori, Marvin Sperling and Robbie Wyckoff. The group’s name came from the application process for a U.S. work visa, and the members included several British musicians who, like Emerson, had come to Los Angeles to further their careers. The group turned down a record deal with Samsung because of Emerson’s commitment to an ELP reunion and Smith’s involvement with a possible reformation of The Sweet.
In 1991, ELP reformed for two more albums (Black Moon (1992) and In the Hot Seat (1994)) and world tours in 1992-1993. After the 1993 tour, Emerson was forced to take a year off from playing due to a nerve condition affecting his right hand (see Health issues). Following his recovery, ELP resumed touring in 1996, including a successful U.S. tour with Jethro Tull, but broke up again in August 1998.
Emerson continued his solo and soundtrack work into the 2000s. His solo releases included the all-piano album Emerson Plays Emerson (2002), several compilations, and contributions to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin tribute albums (see Discography). He also wrote the soundtrack for the Japanese kaiju film Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).
In 2000, Emerson was a featured panelist and performer at “The Keyboard Meets Modern Technology”, an event honoring Dr Robert Moog presented by the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with a gallery exhibition celebrating the 300th anniversary of the piano. Emerson later headlined both the first and third Moogfest, a festival held in honour of Robert Moog, at the B. B. King Blues Club & Grill at Times Square in New York City, in 2004 and 2006 respectively.
In 2002 Emerson reformed and toured with the Nice, though performing a longer set of ELP music using a backing band including guitarist/vocalist Dave Kilminster. In 2004 he published his autobiography entitled Pictures of an Exhibitionist, which dealt with his entire career, particularly focusing on his early days with the Nice, and his nearly career-ending nerve-graft surgery in 1993.
In 2007, Emerson began working with Canadian independent filmmaker Jason Woodford to make a documentary film based on Emerson’s autobiography, Pictures of an Exhibitionist. As of March 2016, production was still ongoing and the filmmakers were seeking funding to finish the film, according to the webpage of an artists’ management company representing Emerson.
Emerson opened the Led Zeppelin reunion/Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at the O2 Arena in London on 10 December 2007, along with Chris Squire and Alan White (Yes) and Simon Kirke (Bad Company/Free). The supergroup played a new arrangement of “Fanfare for the Common Man”.
Following the August 2008 release of the album Keith Emerson Band Featuring Marc Bonilla, Emerson toured with his own band in Russia, the Baltic States and Japan between August and October 2008. The tour band members were Marc Bonilla, Travis Davis and Tony Pia.
In 2009, Emerson made a guest appearance on Spinal Tap’s album Back from the Dead. He also played on several songs at Spinal Tap’s “One Night Only World Tour” at Wembley Arena on 30 June 2009.
On 14 March 2010, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra made a premier performance of “Tarkus” arranged by a renowned Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu. Yoshimatsu’s arrangement was featured in multiple live performances and two live recordings.
Emerson toured with Greg Lake in the United States and Canada during the spring of 2010, doing a series of “Intimate Evening” duo shows in which they performed newly arranged versions of the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the Nice, and King Crimson as well as Emerson’s new original composition. On 25 July 2010, a one-off Emerson, Lake & Palmer reunion concert closed the High Voltage Festival as the main act in Victoria Park, East London, to commemorate the band’s 40th anniversary.
In September 2011, Emerson began working with the renowned conductor Terje Mikkelsen, along with the Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla and the Munich Radio Orchestra on new orchestral renditions of ELP classics and their new compositions. The project “The Three Fates” was premiered in Norway in early September 2012, supervised by Norwegian professor and musician Bjørn Ole Rasch for the Norwegian Simax label. The work received its UK live premiere on 10 July 2015 at London’s Barbican Centre, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, as part of the celebration of the life and work of Dr Robert Moog.
Emerson made his conducting debut with Orchestra Kentucky of Bowling Green, Kentucky in September 2013. In October 2014, Emerson conducted the South Shore Symphony at his 70th birthday tribute concert at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York. The concert also featured a performance of Emerson’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” by Jeffrey Biegel.
Emerson died on 10 March 2016 in Santa Monica, California, where he had been living since the mid 1990s, of suicide by a gunshot wound to the head. The medical examiner’s report, following an autopsy, concluded that Emerson had also suffered from heart disease and from depression associated with alcohol. His body was found at his Santa Monica home. According to Emerson’s partner Mari Kawaguchi, Emerson had become “depressed, nervous and anxious” because nerve damage had hampered his playing, and he was worried that he would perform poorly at upcoming concerts and disappoint his fans.
Keith Emerson was the Jimi Hendrix of keyboards
Emerson had a unique playing style as he would sometimes reach into the interior of his piano and hit, pluck or strum the strings with his hand. He said that as a keyboard player, he hated the idea of being “static” and that to avoid it, he “wanted to get inside the piano, brush the strings, stick Ping-Pong balls inside.” Magnificent “Take a Pebble” included Emerson strumming the strings of his piano as if he were playing an autoharp. In the Nice’s 1968 live performance of “Hang on to a Dream” on the German television program Beat-Club (later released on DVD in 1997), Emerson can be seen and heard reaching inside his grand piano at one point and plucking its strings.
In addition to such experimentation, Emerson also incorporated unique musical stylization into his work. Emerson is recognized for having integrated different sounds into his writing, utilizing methods of both horizontal and vertical contrast. Horizontal contrast is the use of distinct styles in a piece of music, combined by alternating between two different segments (most frequently alternating classical and non-classical); this technique can be seen in numerous works, such as “Rondo,” “Tantalising Maggie,” “The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack” and others.
Keith was quite unique in the way he straddled rock, jazz and classical IMHO. Probably why he never got full credit from the purists in all three of those worlds.