Keith Emerson: A Career Retrospective

Keith Emerson Songs

Photo: By Gorupdebesanez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

From his 1944 birth in Todmorden, Lancashire, England until his tragic March, 2016 suicide death in Santa Monica, California, Keith Noel Emerson’s life was shaped by music. But, more importantly, his keyboard virtuosity and inspired musical creativity distinctively shaped rock and roll on a unique level. Keith Emerson started traditional classical piano lessons when he was eight. He learned compositions and developed classical technical abilities which would infuse his lifetime of music with intelligent, intriguing musical elements drawn from the genres which inspired him.

Lacking the luxury of a record player,Keith Emerson listened to the radio instead; inspired by jazz, boogie woogie and country artists. He absorbed the styles of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Floyd Cramer, Dudley Moore, Joe Henderson, Russ Conway and more. He played the sheet music of George Shearing and Dave Brubeck. He created rock versions of compositions by Bach, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Copland, Bartok, Janacek and Ginastera. All of these composers and musicians contributed to the complex, unexpected layering of melodic lines and rhythmic passages in his music.

Credited for merging classical and jazz into progressive rock, Keith Emerson’s music has listening longevity. In the same way a good book brings readers back to discover more, his compositions entice listeners. It’s a matter of being slaves to sound; in the way of all avid music fans. The fresh juxtaposition of rhythm, meter, melodic line, harmonies and electronic sound effects are spectacular and appealing sounds.Keith Emerson’s technical proficiency amazes with each review.

In 1963, the earliest recordings of Keith Emerson were made in his parent’s living room. There are seven tracks, and show his incredible facility with jazz. This historic CD of The Keith Emerson Trio was made available for sale in 2015, with Keith Emerson’s approval.

Keith Emerson began his route toward progressive rock when he discovered the Hammond organ. He purchased his first after hearing a performance of Rock Candy by Jack McDuff who was an American jazz organist and prominent recording artist for the Prestige and Atlantic record labels. The Hammond organ would become an integral center to the music of Keith Emerson’s group The Nice. Keith Emerson used the organ to create new sounds such as distortion and feedback. He also used knives, and then famously, a Hitler Youth ceremonial dagger to stick between the keys holding them down for longer sounds. The organ became his showmanship device, as he hit, dragged, beat it, and played it upside down or dragged it along the stage. Historians note that these antics were emulated by great rock and roll groups to follow.

The Nice performed live throughout the 1960s. Keith Emerson’s keyboard as central instrument, with extra amplification and speakers to compensate for the lack of guitar, is viewed as a significant redefining of the structure of rock music, and this propelled The Nice as one of the pioneers of progressive rock. From their breakthrough performance in August 1967 at the 7th National Jazz and Blues Festival in Windsor, to their last performance in March 1970 at the Berlin Sportpalast, the group was significant and controversial. They played on a package tour with rock legends Jimi Hendrix, Amen Corner, Pink Floyd and The Move. Their first recording session was for Top Geer, with John Peel. The group performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta and broadcast on television for the Switched-On Symphony show. They were infamously banned permanently from performing in the Royal Albert Hall after Keith Emerson burned an American flag onstage at a charity event.

In 1968, Keith Emerson heard a Moog synthesizer at a record shop,while listening to Switched-On Bach. Completely enamored with the sound, he borrowed one to perform with the Nice at the Royal Festival Hall, alongside the London Royal Philharmonic. He performed “Also sprach Zarathustra”, made famous by 2001: A Space Odyssey, with great success. The Moog would prove essential to Emerson’s sound in the future.

Uner the leadership of Keith Emerson, the band continued to develop what critics called “symphonic rock.” Merging great symphonic works, Emerson’s striking virtuoso keyboard skills, and incorporating new time signatures, meters, and rhythms made their live performances and recordings distinctly different. Though hugely popular, by the time the group split, none of the members had received royalties from their label Immediate Records, which had filed for bankruptcy.Keith Emerson had already planned to leave the group and start a new one.

For anyone new to The Nice, the CD, Keith Emerson & The Nice, Absolutely the Best; is a good remastered collection of thirteen of their historic pieces. America (live), often mentioned as the birth of progressive rock is included, as are Hang on to a Dream, which highlights Emerson’s vast keyboard skills; and Rondo, plus She Belongs to Me (live). Fans acknowledge Emerson’s musical leadership and point to these tracks as the beginnings of the Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) sound.

In the 1970s, Keith Emerson began Emerson Lake and Palmer in earnest. He purchased his own Moog synthesizer, and new hits such as “Hoedown” began to define his career. He became so proficient that Moog gave him their prototype models to play in performance. He was the first performer to take a Moog with him on tour, and he created a progressive rock culture of synthesizers. He expanded to other manufacturers such as Korg and Yamaha. The largest Moog which ever toured with Keith Emerson weighed over 500 pounds and took four roadies to load it in and out. It was this Moog which became an iconic part of Keith Emerson’s performances.

Keith Emerson used the Moog to perform his new arrangements of classical symphonies; while beginning to credit the original composers. His Piano Concerto, No. 1 was performed with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Piano Concerto was released on the Works Vol.1 album in 1977. The album was a double record set in which each member of the band was allotted  an album side. On side four of the record, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer all performed together as Emerson Lake and Palmer. The band toured that year and performed select gigs with an eighty piece orchestra.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer was comprised of three stellar musicians. Greg Lake, gifted bass guitarist, met Emerson while The Nice was on an American Tour with Lake’s own group, King Crimson. The two musicians shared similar interests. Both enjoyed a wide range of musical genres and were capable of creating new versions of classical compositions. Carl Palmer, fabulous drummer, was a member of the successful band Atomic Rooster when Emerson and Lake invited him to audition for their new group. He rehearsed with the two twice, and agreed to join them. The musical chemistry was so strong among the three that they apparently knew they should play together as a band.

It was 1970, when ELP played their first performances at Plymouth, and then at the Isle of Wight Festival. While there, they performed a historic rock arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s monumental work for piano, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” adding cannons. Public acclaim was immediate. Soon after, they had recorded their first album, named for the group, which Lake produced. The album had only six tracks. Three were instrumental arrangements of classical pieces, but the rest were original contributions. Palmer played the drum solo “Tank”. Lake’s “Take a Pebble” and the acoustic ballad “Lucky Man” completed the album. “Lucky Man” was the first song Lake composed. It is credited as being one of the earliest uses of the Moog synthesizer in rock music. Emerson created the Moog solo ending the song.

During the early years of the 1970s, ELP toured and recorded. Their music continued to highlight rock arrangements of classical compositions and original music. One legendary performance of “Hoedown” in 1973 featured Emerson playing the Moog at breakneck speed, fingers flying deftly across the keys. ELP was playing the last of 27 concerts in thirty-two days. Emerson’s Moog wails, percussive accents, improvised intensely with Lake and Palmer adding complex counter rhythms and driving beats. The auditorium was filled with adrenaline. Nothing mattered in that musical moment except the music flying into the air. Even today, video clips of that performance still create chills for viewers.

Their 1973-74 tour of North America and Europe featured headliner status at the first California Jam Festival at the Ontario Motor Speedway in California. They carried 40 tons of equipment, including the Moog synthesizer, for the tour. Spectacular sets with Keith Emerson spinning in the air on a piano and Carl Palmer playing drums on a platform that rotated brought mixed review. The tour resulted in a triple LP live album, Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends…. Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The album reached No. 4 in the United States and No. 5 in the United Kingdom.

Later in the decade, they would perform a rock arrangement of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which reached No. 2 in the UK. The track was recorded for the Works double LP. Copland gave permission for the band to use his work. It takes the best of Copland’s huge brass harmonies and dramatic tympani and percussion and literally fills it to overflowing with mind-blowing rhythmic and dynamic intensity.

Notable albums considered to be must hear by ELP fans include Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery, and Works Vol.1. Many fans have claimed Brain Salad Surgery as their favorite Emerson Lake and Palmer album. ELP toured into the 2000’s. Even though they had broken up in 1979, their popularity continued. They performed for their 4oth anniversary in 2010 with a final concert in London at the High Voltage Festival.

In 1980, Keith Emerson was hired by movie actor Sylvester Stallone to write and perform the music for Stallone’s film Night Hawks. Emerson’s score to Night Hawks was one of the highlight’s of the film. The overture was brilliant and set a mood that flawlessly set the dark tone of the film. In the same year, Keith Emerson also scored music for a lesser known film entitled Inferno which was directed by Italian film maker Dario Argento. Emerson’s progressive compositions were perfect for soundtrack music.

To define what Emerson Lake and Palmer accomplished is to say that they synthesized classical music and rock and roll in such a way that a new genre of progressive rock was created. They WERE symphonic rock. Emerson’s ability to birth a rock musical fabric woven from his Moog stylings with  Greg Lake’s unbelievably intuitive bass lines and Carl Palmer’s intelligent drum rhythms was something that had not been heard before. Classicists enjoyed the “art rock” intelligence of their music. Rockers enjoyed the brash, pure energy of their arrangements. Their fans understood that ELP made music which embraced the best of both genres. They also understood that something uniquely new came from these three men when ELP performed. They were superbly alive…and so were their fans.

In subsequent years, Emerson would continue to promote his solo performances, and form the Keith Emerson Band. In later years, he developed a nerve condition which affected his ability to play to his expectations. He also had surgery for a colon polyp. But, it was the nerve issue, combined with arthritis, which most affected his right hand and his technique. He also suffered from heart disease and depression; the latter being what most point to as the reason for his suicide using a gun. His girlfriend indicated that he was worried that his nerve damage would result in a performance that might disappoint his fans.

Carl Palmer noted in a press release that Keith’s love for music and passion for keyboard performance came from his gentle soul, and was not likely to be matched. Greg Lake noted that he would always remember Emerson’s remarkable musical talent, and genius as a composer. Lake also noted Keith Emerson’s passion for entertaining. Fans around the world have posted tributes too numerous to count. All of them tell of the many ways that Emerson’s musicianship has been admired, respected and enjoyed. Without a doubt, the extraordinary music of this legendary keyboardist will be played for generations to come.

 

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