Keith Noel Emerson (2 November 1944 – 11 March 2016) was an English musician and composer. He played keyboards in a number of bands before finding his first commercial success with the Nice in the late 1960s. He became internationally famous for his work with the Nice, which included writing rock arrangements of classical music. After leaving the Nice in 1970, he was a founding member of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), one of the early progressive rock supergroups. Emerson, Lake & Palmer were commercially successful through much of the 1970s, becoming one of the best-known progressive rock groups of the era. Emerson wrote and arranged much of ELP’s music on albums such as Tarkus (1971) and Brain Salad Surgery (1973), combining his own original compositions with classical or traditional pieces adapted into a rock format.
Following ELP’s break-up at the end of the 1970s, Emerson pursued a solo career, composed several film soundtracks, and formed the bands Emerson, Lake & Powell and 3 to carry on in the style of ELP. In the early 1990s, Emerson rejoined ELP, which reunited for two more albums and several tours before breaking up again in the late 1990s. Emerson also reunited the Nice in 2002 for a tour.
During the 2000s, Emerson resumed his solo career, including touring with his own Keith Emerson Band and collaborating with several orchestras. He reunited with ELP bandmate Greg Lake in 2010 for a duo tour, culminating in a one-off ELP reunion show in London to celebrate the band’s 40th anniversary. Emerson’s last album, The Three Fates Project, was released in 2012. Emerson reportedly suffered from depression, and in his later years developed nerve damage that hampered his playing, making him anxious about upcoming performances. He committed suicide on 11 March 2016 at his home in Santa Monica, California (although his death was reported as having occurred on the night of 10 March, his grave memorial lists his date of death as 11 March 2016).
Emerson is widely regarded as one of the top keyboard players of the progressive rock era. AllMusic describes Emerson as “perhaps the greatest, most technically accomplished keyboardist in rock history”.
Emerson was born on 2 November 1944 in Todmorden, Yorkshire, his family having been evacuated there from southern England during the Second World War. He grew up in Goring-by-Sea, a seaside resort near Worthing in West Sussex, and attended West Tarring School. His parents were amateur musicians and arranged for him to take piano lessons starting at the age of 8. His father, Noel, played the piano, and thought that Emerson would benefit most 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 enjoyed listening to music 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 “Mr Piano” 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 interested in 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 leaving school he worked at Lloyds Bank Registrars where he played piano in the bar at lunchtimes. Outside work, 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.
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 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 feed back, 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. Outside of the group, he participated in the 1969 Music from Free Creek “supersession” project that included Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. For the session, Emerson performed with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Chuck Rainey covering, among other tunes, the Eddie Harris instrumental “Freedom Jazz Dance”.
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 Nice concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Vickers helped patch the Moog, and the concert was a success. Emerson’s performance of “Also sprach Zarathustra” (a composition most famous for its use in 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.”
Emerson, Lake and Palmer
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 ” 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.”
Use of synthesizers in ELP
ELP’s record deal provided funds for Emerson to buy his own Moog modular synthesizer. He later said, “It cost a lot of money and it arrived and I excitedly got it out of the box stuck it on the table and thought, ‘Wow That’s Great! a Moog synthesizer How do you switch it on? … There were all these leads and stuff, there was no instruction manual.” The patch which had been provided by Mike Vickers produced six distinctive Moog sounds, and these six became the foundation of ELP’s sound.
While other artists such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had used the Moog in studio recordings, Emerson was the first artist to tour with one. His use of the Moog was so critical to the development of new Moog models that he was given prototypes, such as the Constellation, which he took on one tour, and the Apollo, which had its début on the opening track “Jerusalem” on the 1973 album Brain Salad Surgery.
The Moog was a temperamental device; the oscillators went out of tune with temperature change. He later said, “I had my faithful roady Rocky tune the instrument to A 440 just prior to the audience coming in, but once the audience came into the auditorium and the temperature rose up then everything went out of tune.”
His willingness to experiment with the Moog led to unexpected results, such as the time he stumbled into the signature sound for “Hoedown”, one of ELP’s most popular tunes. He later said, “We’d started working on that arrangement and then I hit, I don’t know what, I switched a blue button and I put a patch cord in there, but anyway ‘whoooeee.'”
The so-called “Monster Moog”, built from numerous modules, weighed 550 pounds (250 kg), stood 10 feet (3 m) feet tall and took four roadies to move. Even with its unpredictability, it became an indispensable component of not only ELP’s concerts, but also Emerson’s own.
As synthesiser technology evolved, Emerson went on to use a variety of other synthesisers made by Moog and other companies, including the Minimoog, the Yamaha GX-1 used on ELP’s Works Volume 1 album, and several models by Korg (see Instrumentation).
After ELP disbanded in 1979, Emerson pursued a variety of projects during the 1980s and 1990s, including solo releases, soundtrack work and other bands, including supergroup the Best. 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, (1984 film) Best Revenge, notable because he collaborated with Brad Delp from the band Boston on this soundtrack, that also featured an instrumental piece called “Dream Runner” that became a standard solo performance piece for Emerson during at ELP shows throughout the next decade, 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.
1980s and 1990s bands
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. Stylistically, it was a departure from their 80’s progressive rock peers, Genesis and Asia. 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. 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 US 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.
1990s ELP reformation
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 US tour with Jethro Tull, but broke up again in August 1998.
Emerson participated in the Nice’s reunion tour and a 40th anniversary show for ELP, preceded by a short duo tour with Greg Lake. Apart from these reunions, he continued his solo career, releasing solo and soundtrack albums, touring with his own Keith Emerson Band, and making occasional guest appearances. Starting in 2010, he increasingly focused on orchestral collaborations. A documentary film based on his autobiography was reportedly in production at the time of his death in 2016.
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. During the spring of 2010, he toured with Greg Lake in the United States and Canada, 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.
Solo career and Keith Emerson Band
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 was also one of three composers who contributed to the soundtrack for the Japanese kaiju film Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).
Following the August 2008 release of the album Keith Emerson Band Featuring Marc Bonilla, Emerson also toured with his own self-named 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.
Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu worked with Emerson to create an arrangement of ELP’s song “Tarkus”, which premiered on 14 March 2010, performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Yoshimatsu’s arrangement has been featured in multiple live performances and two live recordings.
In September 2011, Emerson began working with Norwegian 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 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 the premiere of his Three String Quartets, and a performance of Emerson’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” by Jeffrey Biegel.
Other appearances and activities
In 2000, Emerson was a featured panelist and performer at “The Keyboard Meets Modern Technology”, an event honouring 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.
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”. Emerson also made a guest appearance in 2009 on Spinal Tap’s album Back from the Dead, and played on several songs at Spinal Tap’s “One Night Only World Tour” at Wembley Arena on 30 June 2009.
In 2004 Emerson published his autobiography entitled Pictures of an Exhibitionist, which dealt with his life up to 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 his autobiography. 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 married his Danish girlfriend, Elinor, around Christmas 1969. They had two sons, Aaron and Damon, but later divorced. He later had a long-term relationship with Mari Kawaguchi.
Emerson enjoyed flying as a hobby, and obtained his pilot’s licence in 1972. When Emerson moved to Santa Monica, California in the mid-1990s, John Lydon, who had openly and harshly criticized ELP during the 1970s when Lydon was a member of the punk band Sex Pistols, was Emerson’s neighbour. The two became friends, with Lydon saying in a 2007 interview, “He’s a great bloke”.
In 1993, Emerson was forced to take a year off from playing after he developed a nerve-related condition affecting his right hand that he likened to “writer’s cramp” and that was also reported as a form of arthritis. According to Emerson, this coincided with his divorce, his Sussex home burning down, and financial difficulties. During his time off, he ran marathons, customised a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and wrote film scores and his autobiography, Pictures of an Exhibitionist, which opens and closes with an account of his illness and subsequent arm operation. By 2002 he had regained full use of his hands and could play to his usual strength.
In September 2010, Emerson released a message stating: “During a routine medical examination, a colonoscopy revealed a rather dangerous polyp in my lower colon. It is the conclusion of the doctors here in London that I must undergo surgery immediately. Unfortunately, the timing of this urgent surgery does not allow me to start touring in early October because of the required period of hospitalization and recuperation. I must remain optimistic that all will turn out well”.
Emerson died on 11 March 2016 in Santa Monica, California, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His body was found at his Santa Monica home. Following an autopsy, the medical examiner ruled Emerson’s death a suicide, and concluded that he had also suffered from heart disease and from depression associated with alcohol. According to Emerson’s girlfriend 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.
Emerson was buried on 1 April 2016 at Lancing and Sompting Cemetery, Lancing, West Sussex. Although his death had been reported by news sources and an official Emerson, Lake and Palmer social media page as having occurred on the night of 10 March, his grave memorial lists his date of death as 11 March 2016.
His former ELP bandmates, Carl Palmer and Greg Lake, both issued statements on his death. Palmer said, “Keith was a gentle soul whose love for music and passion for his performance as a keyboard player will remain unmatched for many years to come.” Lake said, “As sad and tragic as Keith’s death is, I would not want this to be the lasting memory people take away with them. What I will always remember about Keith Emerson was his remarkable talent as a musician and composer and his gift and passion to entertain. Music was his life and despite some of the difficulties he encountered I am sure that the music he created will live on forever.”
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