Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Late Great Keith Emerson

Keith Emerson, the legendary keyboardist for The Nice and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, died on March 10 2016. He was 71 years old. The cause was a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Mr. Emerson had been suffering from depression, as well as a degenerative nerve disease that made it difficult for him to play keyboards.

Keith Emerson was born in Todmorden, West Riding of Yorkshire on November 2 1944. His family had been evacuated to the town during World War II. He grew up in Worthing, West Sussex. His father could play piano by ear and young Keith Emerson took an interest in the instrument. From ages 8 to 12 he took piano lessons. Amazingly enough given his virtuosity with keyboards, he had no formal training. After hearing jazz organist Jack McDuff play "Rock Candy" he became interested in the Hammond organ. By his mid-teens he was playing with local bands, such as Gary Farr and the T-Bones. By his late teens he had moved to London and joined the band The V.I.P.s.

It was in 1967 that Keith Emerson left The V.I.P.s to form The Nice with bassist Lee Jackson, guitarist David O'List, and drummer Ian Hague Both Keith Emerson and Lee Jackson had been members of Gary Farr and the T-Bones. The band grew out of soul singer P. P. Arnold's unhappiness with her backing band of the time, The Blue Jays. It was her driver who suggested Keith Emerson as someone could put together such a band. Mr. Emerson agreed, but only on the condition that they could also play as the warm-up act. Ian Hague would be replaced on drums by Brian Davison.

The Nice eventually became a band all their own. In late 1967 they became part of a package tour that included Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Move, and Amen Corner. Their first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, was released in late 1967. As the band's career progressed the reliability of David O'List came into question. It is a matter of debate whether Mr. O'List was dismissed or voluntarily left the band. The Nice afterwards continued as a three piece band. Their second album, Ars Longa Vita Brevis, was released in November 1968.

The Nice's third album, Nice, was released in September 1969 and peaked at number 3 on the British album chart.  That same year Keith Emerson participated in the "super session" known as Music from Free Creek that included such artists as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and  Linda Ronstadt. He also worked as a session player with The Faces. In June 1970 The Nice's fourth album, Five Bridges, was released.

It was in late 1969 that Keith Emerson became convinced that The Nice had progressed as far as they could. It was then in 1970 that he left The Nice to form Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) with bassist Greg Lake (formerly of King Crimson) and drummer Carl Palmer (formerly of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster). The Nice's final album, Elegy, was released in April 1971. ELP made their debut at  the Guildhall in Plymouth on August 23 1970. Several days later they performed at the Isle of Wight Festival on August 29. The band was immediately signed to Atlantic Records after their performance at the festival.

ELP's debut album, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, was released on November 20 1970 in the United Kingdom and on January 1 1971 in the United States. The album proved to be a success on both sides of the Atlantic. It reached no. 4 on the British album chart and no. 18 on the Billboard album chart. The band's second single, "Lucky Man", received a good deal of FM radio play in the U.S. and reached no. 48 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer's second album, Tarkus, was released on June 14 1971. It performed even better on the charts than the first album. It went to no. 1 on the UK album chart and no. 9 on the Billboard album chart. The bands' first live album, Pictures at an Exhibition, was released in November 1971.

ELP's third album, Trilogy, saw the band at their peak. Released on July 6 1972, the album went to no. 2 on the UK album chart and no. 5 on the Billboard album chart. During 1972 Emerson, Lake & Palmer toured North America, Europe, and Japan. In 1973 the band formed their own record label, Manticore Records.

While the band would remain successful for some time, they would never repeat the success of Trilogy. While their fourth album, Brain Salad Surgery, went to no. 2 on the UK album chart, it peaked at no. 11 on the Billboard album chart. That having been said, the album contained one of their most popular works, "Karn Evil 9" (which occupied the whole of side 2 on the vinyl album).

In 1974 ELP took an extended break. They reformed in 1976 to record their album Works Volume 1. Released in March 1977, it would chart lower than any ELP album before it on the British album chart, only going to no. 9.  In the United States it only went to no. 12. It was followed by Works Volume 2, which only went to 20 in the UK and no. 37 in the U.S. Emerson, Lake & Palmer were clearly in decline. Given the performance of other progressive rock acts of the era in 1977, it would seem that the era of prog rock was over.

With their fortunes in decline ELP decided to disband. They recorded one last album to  fulfil contractual obligations. Love Beach was released on November 18 1978 and proved to be a commercial disappointment. It only reached no. 48 in the UK and no. 55 in the U.S. Critical reception of the album was uniformly negative.

Following the break up of ELP, Keith Emerson released two solo albums in the Eighties: Honky in 1980 and The Christmas Album in 1988. In 1985 Keith Emerson and Greg Lake intended to reform, but Carl Palmer was unavailable due to a commitment to the supergroup Asia. They then recruited Cozy Powell, formerly of The Jeff Beck Group and Rainbow.  Emerson, Lake & Powell only released one, self-titled album in 1986. In 1987 Keith Emerson, Cozy Powell, and Robert Berry formed the band 3. They released only one album, To the Power of Three, in 1988. In 1990 Mr. Emerson toured with The Best, a short-lived supergroup also consisting of bassist John Entwistle (of The Who), guitarist Joe Walsh (formerly of The James Gang and The Eagles), guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers), and drummer Simon Phillips (formerly of The Jack Bruce Band, 801, and The Jeff Beck Group). The band never released an album. During the Eighties Keith Emerson also served as the composer on several movies during the decade, including Dario Argento's Inferno (1980), Nighthawks (1981), Murderock - Uccide a passo di danza (1984), Best Revenge (1984), and La chiesa (1989). 

In 1991 Emerson, Lake & Palmer reformed. They released two more albums: Black Moon in 1992 and In the Hot Seat in 1994. They continued to tour until 1996. Disagreements over a new album led to ELP to break up once again. In 1995 Keith Emerson released another solo album, Changing States (aka Cream of Emerson Soup).

In 2002 Keith Emerson reunited with The Nice for a series of concerts. That same year he released the solo album Emerson Plays Emerson. In 2008 he released the album Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla. In 2010 Keith Emerson toured the United States and Canada with Greg Lake. On July 25 2010 there was a one-off reunion of ELP at the High Voltage Festival in Victoria Park, East London. Their concert at the festival was released on DVD as Welcome Back My Friends. 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert. High Voltage Festival – 25 July 2010 in 2011. During the Naughts Keith Emerson also served as the composer on the films La Chiesa (2002) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). In the Teens, Keith Emerson released The Three Fates Project with  Marc Bonilla, Terje Mikkelsen.

Over the years there have been those who have criticised Emerson, Lake & Palmer as representing the worst in progressive rock's excesses. While ELP has long had their critics, I always thought their early work as among the best that progressive rock has ever had to offer. Such compositions as "Lucky Man", "Nut Rocker", and  "Karn Evil 9" still stand up today as prime examples of what a progressive rock band could do. Beyond ELP, Keith Emerson did some remarkable work with The Nice earlier. The band was among those who pioneered prog rock with such compositions as "Flower King of Flies", "Diary of an Empty Day", and "The Five Bridges Suite".

Even if one does accept the criticisms regarding ELP, there can be no doubt regarding Keith Emerson's virtuosity with keyboards. He has been called the "Jimi Hendrix of keyboards" with good reason. Keith Emerson produced sounds from keyboards that no other person ever had, before or since. He was known to reach inside pianos to pluck their strings, and was even known for playing one style with one hand and a completely different style with the other. Indeed, he was known for blending genres, drawing classical music, jazz, and blues. Keith Emerson was among the first commercial musicians to utilise Moog synthesisers, raising their use to an artform. Of course, he also played practically every keyboard in existence:  Hammond organs, pianos, and pipe organs among them. While ELP will probably always have their critics, there can be no doubt that Keith Emerson was among the most talented keyboardists of all time.

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