Emerson performing in Saint Petersburg, Russia, September 2008
Keith Noel Emerson|
2 November 1944
Todmorden, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
11 March 2016 (aged 71)|
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Suicide by gunshot wound|
|Resting place||Lancing, West Sussex, UK|
|Occupation||Musician, songwriter, composer, arranger, producer|
|Instruments||Keyboards, synthesizer, piano|
|Labels||Edel, Victor, Shout! Factory, Varèse Sarabande, Rhino, Manticore, J!MCO Records, Sanctuary, EMI, Marquee Inc., Charly, Gunslinger Records, Cinevox|
|Associated acts||Gary Farr & The T-Bones, the V.I.P.s, P. P. Arnold, the Nice, Free Creek, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Emerson, Lake & Powell, 3, Keith Emerson Band, Ayreon|
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 killed himself 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 was 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,[page needed] 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.[page needed]
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."
|Oral History, Emerson talks about acquiring his first Moog synthesizer which formed the basis for Emerson, Lake and Palmer's first record. Interview date 29 August 2009, NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Oral History Library|
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."
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 [pause] 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).
Emerson performed several notable rock arrangements of classical compositions, ranging from J. S. Bach via Modest Mussorgsky to 20th-century composers such as Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, Leoš Janáček and Alberto Ginastera. Occasionally Emerson quoted from classical and jazz works without giving cr, particularly early in his career, from the late 1960s until 1972. An early example of Emerson's arranging was the song "Rondo" by the Nice, which is a 4/4 interpretation of Dave Brubeck's 9/8 composition "Blue Rondo à la Turk". The piece is introduced by an extensive excerpt from the 3rd movement of Bach's Italian Concerto.
On ELP's eponymous first album, Emerson's classical quotes went largely uncred. Classical pianist Peter Donohoe has said that "The Barbarian" was an arrangement of "Allegro barbaro" by Bartók, and that "Knife Edge" was based on the main theme of the opening movement of "Sinfonietta" by Janáček. By 1971, with the releases Pictures at an Exhibition and Trilogy, ELP began to fully cr classical composers, including Modest Mussorgsky for the piano piece which inspired the Pictures album, and Aaron Copland for "Hoedown" on the Trilogy album. Emerson indicated in an interview that he based his version of Pictures at an Exhibition on Mussorgsky's original piano composition, rather than on Maurice Ravel's later orchestration of the work.
Following ELP's 1974 tour, the members agreed to put the band on temporary hiatus and pursue individual solo projects. During this time, Emerson composed his "Piano Concerto No. 1" and recorded it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. According to Emerson, he was motivated by critical comments suggesting that he relied upon adapting classical works because he was unable to write his own music, and further motivated by the London Philharmonic "who weren't that helpful to begin with" and "had the attitude of 'What's a rock musician doing writing a piano concerto?'" Emerson said, "I wanted people to say, look, I'm a composer, I do write my own music, and what greater challenge than to write a piano concerto." The recording later appeared on ELP's album Works Volume 1. Emerson's concerto has since been performed by classical pianists, most notably Jeffrey Biegel, who has performed it several times and recorded it with Emerson's permission.
In 1976, while still in ELP, Emerson also released his first solo record, the single "Honky Tonk Train Blues" b/w "Barrelhouse Shake-Down". "Honky Tonk Train Blues", Emerson's cover of a 1927 boogie-woogie piano song by Meade Lux Lewis, reached #21 on the UK Singles Chart.
In addition to his technical skills at playing and composing, Emerson was a theatrical performer. He cited guitarist Jimi Hendrix and 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 suspended 15 to 20 feet in mid-air and then rotated end-over-end with Emerson sitting at it. 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 part of ELP's stage show only for a short time due to the complexity of the stunt and the 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 using it by the local authority 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 gives 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."
Emerson 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." "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 (in Emerson's case, 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. Vertical contrast is the combination of multiple styles simultaneously; Emerson would frequently play a given style in one hand, and a contrasting one in the other. This structure can be seen in works such as "Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite", "Rondo", and others. Emerson's love of modern music such as Copland and Bartok was evident in his open voicings and use of fifths and fourths, "Fanfare" emulating guitar power chords. He also used dissonance, atonality, sonata and fugue forms, exposing rock and roll audiences to a myriad of classical styles from Bach to Stravinsky.
Emerson used a variety of electronic keyboard instruments during his career, including several Hammond organs and synthesisers by Moog Music, Yamaha, and Korg. From time to time he also used other instruments such as pipe organs, a grand piano, a clavinet, and very briefly, a Mellotron. During his ELP years, Emerson toured with a large amount of gear, taking thirteen keyboard units to a December 1973 show at Madison Square Garden, and later traveling with a large Yamaha GX-1 that required eight roadies to move it. Michael "Supe" Granda of The Ozark Mountain Daredevils recalled Emerson's organ rig as being "as large as [the Daredevils'] entire stage plot."
Initially a piano player, Emerson obtained his first Hammond organ, an L-100, after hearing jazz organist Jack McDuff and becoming frustrated with broken hammers inside pianos. Around 1968, during his time with the Nice, he added a second Hammond organ, the more expensive C-3, and would place the two organs sideways and facing each other so he could stand between the two keyboards and play both with his unobstructed body facing the audience. Emerson preferred the sound of the C-3 as being "far superior" to the cheaper L-100, and used the L100 to "throw around and make it feed back". Emerson got the L-100 to feed back by placing it close to the onstage speakers and using a fuzzbox. He continued to perform physical abuse stunts with the L-100 to some degree throughout his years with ELP.
Throughout his career, Emerson owned a number of L-100 models in various states of repair to support his act. These organs were also specially reinforced and modified to enhance their sound and help prevent damage while on tour, and were reported to weigh 300 to 350 pounds. By contrast, his C-3 organ was not used for stunts and Emerson continued to play his original C-3 for many years, using it on all the ELP tours throughout the 1970s. He also owned several other Hammond organ models in addition to the L-100s and the C-3. When Emerson sold much of his gear in the mid-1990s, his Hammond organs were among the items he kept as being "too personal to let go". The remains of one L-100 that failed and burned during a 1990s ELP show in Boston were donated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
With ELP, Emerson added the Moog synthesiser behind the C-3 with the keyboard and ribbon controller stacked on the top of the organ. The ribbon controller allowed Emerson to vary pitch, volume or timbre of the output from the Moog by moving his finger up and down the length of a touch-sensitive strip. It also could be used as a phallic symbol, which quickly became a feature of the act. He continued to divide his keyboard setup into two banks so that he could play between them with his body in view. When the Moog Minimoog first appeared it was placed where needed, such as on top of the grand piano. A Hohner clavinet was also part of Emerson's keyboard rig, but according to Emerson was only used for one song, "Nutrocker".
During the Brain Salad Surgery tour of 1974, Emerson's keyboard setup included the Hammond C-3 organ, run through multiple Leslie speakers driven by HiWatt guitar amplifiers, the Moog 3C modular synthesiser (modified by addition of various modules and an oscilloscope) with ribbon controller, a Steinway concert grand piano with a Minimoog synthesiser on top of it, an upright acoustic-electric piano that was used for honky-tonk piano sounds, a Hohner Clavinet and another Minimoog synthesiser. Emerson also used a prototype polyphonic synthesiser produced by Moog, which was the test bed for the Moog Polymoog polyphonic synthesiser. The original synthesiser setup as envisioned by Moog was called the Constellation, and consisted of three instruments – the polyphonic synthesiser, called the Apollo, a monophonic lead synthesiser called the Lyra, and a bass-pedal synthesiser, called the Taurus, but Emerson never used the Taurus.
Occasionally Emerson used a pipe organ, when available, in live performances and on recordings. He played the Royal Albert Hall Organ at a show with the Nice on 26 June 1968, where the band controversially burned a painting of an American flag onstage to protest against the Vietnam War. The stunt caused a storm of objections in the US and the Nice received a lifetime ban from the venue.
With ELP, Emerson used the Royal Festival Hall organ for the "Clotho" segment of "The Three Fates" on the 1970 eponymous debut album by ELP. He played this organ again in 2002 to open a Nice reunion tour show, but according to a reviewer, the organ failed to operate at the expected volume.
The Newcastle City Hall organ was used for the introductory section of Pictures at an Exhibition, recorded there live on 26 March 1971. Emerson was recorded playing the organ at St. Mark's Church in London for "The Only Way (Hymn)" on the 1971 ELP album Tarkus.
After founder Robert Moog decided to leave Moog Music in the late 1970s, Emerson began to consider using synthesisers made by other companies. Emerson became one of the few buyers of the Yamaha GX-1 polyphonic synthesiser, which reportedly cost almost $50,000. The GX-1 was subsequently used on the ELP album Works Volume 1, particularly on the song "Fanfare for the Common Man", and on tour. It can be seen in ELP's Works Orchestral Tour video and in promotional photos and videos from 1977 featuring the band playing "Fanfare" outdoors during a snowstorm in Montreal's Olympic Stadium. Emerson later bought a second GX-1 from John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and used parts from it to repair his original GX-1, which was damaged by a tractor crashing into Emerson's home studio.
Emerson sold much of his keyboard equipment in the 1990s when he relocated from England to Santa Monica, California. The John Paul Jones GX-1 was sold to film composer Hans Zimmer, while Emerson's original GX-1 was sold to Italian keyboardist Riccardo Grotto.
In the late 1970s, Emerson also began to use the Korg PS-3300 and PS-3100, which at the time were among the world's first fully polyphonic synthesizers. These Korgs appeared on the ELP album Love Beach, and Emerson continued to use them into the 1980s for his solo album Honky and his soundtrack work. He also became an official endorser for the PS-3300 and PS-3100 in the early 1980s.
By the late 2000s, Emerson was employing "a host of Korg gear" including the Korg OASYS and Korg Triton Extreme music workstation synthesisers. A review of the DVD release of ELP's 2010 one-off reunion show said that the Korg OASYS "appear[ed] to be Emerson's go-to instrument", although he also used a Hammond C-3 and a Moog with ribbon controller onstage.
In 2014, Emerson was inducted into the Hammond Hall of Fame by the Hammond Organ Company.
Emerson would occasionally cover or sample other musical works in his compositions. Permission to use pieces was sometimes denied by the composer or his family; for example Gustav Holst's daughter refused to grant official permission for rock bands to perform her late father's composition Mars, the Bringer of War. However, a number of composers did grant permission for their works to be used. Aaron Copland said that there was "something that attracted [him]" about ELP's version of "Fanfare for the Common Man", and so approved its use, although he said, "What they do in the middle (i.e., the modal section between repeats of Copland's theme), I'm not sure exactly how they connect that with my music[.]" Alberto Ginastera, on the other hand, enthusiastically approved Emerson's electronic realisation of the fourth movement of his first piano concerto, which appeared on their album Brain Salad Surgery under the title "Toccata". Ginastera said, "You have captured the essence of my music, and no one's ever done that before."
The long-running comic-strip character Keef da Blade in the Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, student newspaper Lachesis (1970s) is based largely on Emerson, the character's name being presumably a reference to his trademark stage antics with knives.
In the popular Comedy Central cult show "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" the voiceover jokingly suggests the movie's medieval brass theme is a "Soundtrack by Emerson, Lake And Palmer"
No one else captured the hearts of fledgling rock keyboardists through the '70s and '80s the way he did.
Throughout his career with the Nice, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and as a solo artist, Emerson proved himself perhaps the greatest, most technically accomplished keyboardist in rock history.
... I was playing in a band called, Aliens of Extraordinary Ability, with Keith Emerson. We were offered a record deal with Samsung, but Keith decided to go back to Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I then got involved in the reformation of the band Sweet, which ended up not happening.
He worked on the orchestration of Emerson Lake and Palmer's Work 'Tarkus' with much success leading to multiple Live Performances and 2 Live Recordings.
Emerson was clearly in charge ... even plucking the piano strings at one point.
Strikingly, he (Emerson) was often using two Hammonds, as can be seen at a Beat-Club performance in 1970/71. Both set up in right angle to stage and facing their keys, with Emerson standing in the middle, playing both of them simultaneously and in this way usually facing the audience. That was his favourite position, no matter if his equipment was left, right, or center of the stage and he continues to act this way in the 90's.
... East European elements find their way into his rollicking organ and Moog arrangement alongside American folk tunes like 'Shortnin' Bread' and 'Turkey in the Straw.'
Once you hear (Abaddon), you know that it's mostly true to classical form, in that the triplet-heavy melody keeps repeating itself, but every time louder and with more bells and whistles, even cranking in a phrase from the folksong The Girl I Left Behind Me before it's all over[.]
The 'Caribbean solo' of the 2nd Impression was played on a Minimoog (an interpolation of the song 'St. Thomas' by Sonny Rollins).
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