Keith Noel Emerson died 10Mar16 at his home in Santa Monica, California at age 71. The legendary keyboard player fused rock with jazz, classical, ragtime, folk, and avant-garde, among others. His keyboard playing prowess is legendary, as are his stage antics.
A true rocker that enjoyed all of the various benefits of stardom: sex, drugs and rock’n roll…which he was not ashamed to reveal in his autobiography, Pictures of an Exhibitionist. The title being a direct reference to the classic music piece Pictures at an Exhibition, written by Mussorgsky which Emerson, Lake, and Palmer adapted and recorded for a live album of the same name.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer are considered one of the first supergroups as they each came into the band as successful and accomplished musicians. The group made their first mark at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival. They were a huge hit with the fans, but throughout their career ELP were derided by music critics. BBC Radio DJ John Peel has been credited with describing their set at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival as “A waste of talent and electricity.”
“It was the biggest show any of us had ever done. The next day, we were world-famous.”
—Greg Lake about the band’s show at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Emerson’s live performances were highly theatrical. In addition to using knives to hold down keyboard keys, he sometimes engaged in knife throwing onstage. He greatly expanded his stage kit from his days with the group The Nice where he played a piano and a Hammond C-3 organ onstage to including a Moog modular synth, several MiniMoogs, an additional Hammaond (L-100), and more. It was an impressive display of keyboard goodness.
During the Brain Salad Surgery tour, (which I attended in Baton Rouge, Louisiana) they would finish the show with a piece called Karn Evil 9, the third section of which deals with man’s relationship with computers (this was early 70’s, well before almost everything we now consider high tech) and at the very end of the show a sequencer in Emerson’s Moog Modular synthesizer was set running at an increasing rate, with the machine pivoting to face the audience while emitting smoke and deploying a large pair of silver bat wings from its back. The sound system of the show was not ordinary either; it was a full quadrophonic sound setup, which is unique in my many years of concert going. ELP shows were a feast for the ears, eyes, and imagination.
Emerson’s willingness to experiment with the Moog synthesizer led to unexpected results, such as the time he stumbled into the signature sound for the popular ELP tune “Hoedown.” Emerson 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 huge synth that only Emerson would dare take on tour was often called the “Monster Moog.” It was built from many separate modules, stood about 10 feet high and was so heavy that it took four roadies to move the thing.
Emerson became well-known for his technical skill as well as for his theatrical performances, including using knives to wedge down specific keys of his Hammond organ during solos, playing the organ upside down while having it lie over him and backwards while standing behind it.
Although the Hammond L-100 with its shorter manuals is considered a “poor man’s” Hammond, Emerson not only played much of the early Nice music on it, but made unique use of some of its features which bigger Hammond models did not provide. The L-100 has a self-starting motor, which if turned off and on, in short intervals, once the organ is up and running, renders the higher notes into a wailing howl because the tone generating mechanism is tied to a synchronous motor that attempts to re-synch to the mains frequency with every interruption of the power. The L-100 also features a spring-loaded reverb tank, which produces bomb-like noises if shaken. Both effects can be heard in abundance on the nice tune”Rondo 69″. On “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” Emerson used the reverb tank as a musical instrument, tapping the internal spring against the tank bottom in an effort to create a chromatic scale of “boings.”
But zany rock showmanship aside, Emerson played the keys like few other…
“Along with British contemporaries Rick Wright of Pink Floyd, Tony Banks of Genesis, Billy Ritchie of Clouds,Rick Wakeman of Yes and Jon Lord of Deep Purple, Emerson is widely regarded as one of the top keyboard players of the progressive rock era.”
Here is a picture of most (but not all.) of my ELP and Emerson collection including over 25 CDs, 2 DVDs, two books, two large concert booklets, and ELP autographed tambourine.
In my totally subjective opinion, I place Keith Emerson as the greatest, most technically accomplished keyboardist in rock history.
Moog, and friends
Dr. Bob Moog and Keith Emerson were good friends. (Well, Dr Moog was probably good friends with all of his customers). In 1969, Emerson incorporated the Moog modular synthesizer into his battery of keyboards.
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. Emerson’s use of the Moog was so critical to the development of new models that he was given prototypes, such as the Constellation, which he took on one tour and the Apollo, which had its debut on the opening track “Jerusalem” on the 1973 album Brain Salad Surgery.
With the advent of musical technologies like MIDI and digital synthesis (both in hardware and in software) a rock keyboardist could finally reduce the amount of equipment needed for live gigs. Well a rock keyboardist could but Mr. Emerson still toured with the huge Moog Modular, a piano and several other keyboard controllers. And the fans loved seeing it.
Piano Concerto No 1 by Keith Emerson is a brilliant piece that as released with full orchestra on the ELP albums, Works, Vol 1. The piece has been gaining in popularity with orchestras over the years with Jeffery Beigel the acclaimed pianist, being quite the advocate for the piece. Jeffery and Keith became close friends and Mr Beigel made this statement:
“The entire world will always remember Keith Emerson. He was like an older brother to me, and a very special friend. Now comes the day after. So many amazing stories from all over the world. The impact Keith Emerson has had over many decades on millions of people is staggering, from rock, to jazz, blues, and classical music. For our friends who were not present, this is thanks to Tony Ortiz, who generously created this legendary 70th birthday tribute to our dear Keith in October 2014 with the South Shore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Scott Jackson Wiley.”
A very special memory now. https://youtu.be/wG0olWhCW78
I was in attendance for that concert, and for me, that evening contains the most special of Emerson memories and it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve ever had in my life. (See my October 2014 archive for the full blog write up).
Keith Emerson, thank you. Your commitment to making good music has carried over to many others, and though I don’t have the skills or talent, I do share in the passion and that will be with me until the end.
Keith’s Facebook page:
Be seeing you
— Bourne 12Mar16