The death of legendary keyboard player Keith Emerson adds to the sad tally of legendary icons who have been suddenly and unexpectedly taken from us in rapid succession so early on in this already fateful year. Each death confirms the fact that an exclusive club of musical greats, particularly those who took part in the essential era of the 1960s, is seeing its ranks diminish at an increasingly alarming pace. As of this writing, Emerson’s death is being investigated as a suicide, a tragic end to the life of a man whose imagination and wizardry literally redefined the role of keyboards in rock ‘n’ roll, while making the Moog synthesizer an integral part of prog rock designs. From his early work with bands like the T Bones and the V.I.P.s, through to his spellbinding forays with the Nice, and later of course, his superstardom as a third of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Keith Emerson gained immortality as both a masterful musician and a singular stage presence.
“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,” former bandmate Carl Palmer said in a statement. “He was a pioneer and an innovator whose musical genius touched all of us in the worlds of rock, classical and jazz. I will always remember his warm smile, good sense of humor, compelling showmanship and dedication to his musical craft. I am very lucky to have known him and to have made the music we did together.”
Emerson continued to record and perform up until the end, and although he never was able to regain the notoriety that he attained early on, he still experimented and excelled with each new project he undertook. Consequently, it’s with deep admiration and respect that we look back at ten of Keith Emerson’s most memorable recordings.
“Flower King of Flies,” The Nice: One of the first bands signed to Andrew Loog Oldham’s burgeoning Immediate Records label, the Nice were originally the designated backing band for soul singer P.P. Arnold, a former member of the Ikettes who managed to expand her career by relocating to the U.K. However, they quickly took advantage of the synthesis of creativity and spunk that defined the company’s initial intentions. Early on, they offered one of the ‘60s great psychedelic masterpieces, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, the title being a combination of the names of the four members of the band. Although the album didn’t garner the fame and acclaim accorded Sgt. Pepper, Tommy or even the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow, it remains a remarkable tapestry of classic British pop and unlikely instrumental intrigue. This, the lead-off track from the album, set the tone, an edgy rallying cry that empowered the proceedings.
“America,” The Nice: Up until the late ‘60s, it was rare for Rock bands to tackle music outside their immediate sphere, so when the Nice — Emerson, bassist/vocalist Lee Jackson, guitarist David O‘ List and drummer Brian Davison — offered their manic take of “America,” one of the essential songs from the Broadway play “West Side Story,” it was not only a bold move, but a rather nervy one at that. The band retuned the song’s sprightly melody with a determination and authority that rocked in ways Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim never could have imagined. One of the band’s first signature songs, it wouldn’t be their last.
“The Cry of Eugene,” The Nice: While the Nice was known for their onstage pyrotechnics — which generally included Emerson throwing knives at his keyboards and occasionally burning an American flag, they also had a keen sense of melody apart from the mayhem. An incredibly beautiful ballad, it’s a tale of longing and lament all immersed in that particular ambiance and haze that typified Brit rock’s more stunningly ambitious efforts of that time. Emerson tones down the excess and provides a supple keyboard caress for Jackson’s coarse vocals and Davidson’s tasteful percussive accents. The song was rumored to be a nod to Pink Floyd, whose song “Careful With That Ax, Eugene” appeared to set theme. Jackson would wisely reprise the song with Jackson Heights, the band he helmed following the Nice’s demise.
“She Belongs to Me,” The Nice: Surprisingly, the Nice were one of the first great cover bands, not only tackling works of great classical composers, but a surprisingly diverse array of contemporary artists as well. Tim Hardin’s “Hang onto a Dream” became a staple of their live repertoire, but like many British bands, it was Bob Dylan who they seemed to favor most. This particular track, from the eponymous album released late in their brief career after O’List’s departure, shows their skill at being able to completely re-imagine a classic, and then make it their own. Emerson and company wallop the melody with reckless intent, turning it into a snarly putdown, flush with raspy rage and tenuous desire.
“Fanfare for the Common Man,” Emerson Lake and Palmer: ELP gave Emerson license to continue the ambitious instrumental forays he initially conceived with the Nice, and that allowed him to continue to mine classical confines for inspiration. In this case, the trio pay homage to Aaron Copland, who happened to be alive and active at the time. Told they would have to get the composer’s permission to record the piece — even though they had previously tapped his “Hoedown” — they phoned him up and found him quite willing to give their version a listen. “Of course it’s very flattering to have one’s music adopted by so popular a group, and so good a group as Emerson, Lake & Palmer,” he told an interviewer after offering his approval.
“Lucky Man,” Emerson Lake and Palmer: Granted, “Lucky Man” became bassist/vocalist Greg Lake’s signature song early on, but from the moment Emerson’s synthesized wail cuts through the acoustic trappings, the group has listeners transfixed. Easily the most accessible song in ELP’s early set list, it was also the most anticipated in live performance, and when Emerson started to wail away, the mood and the music was elevated to new heights. A forever classic, it simply would not have been the same song without that dramatic instrumental interlude.
“Tarkus,” Emerson Lake and Palmer: ELP vetted its ambitions early on, and so by the time their second album was released, they were already delving into high art and complex instrumental forays. This extended suite occupied the entirety of side one of its namesake album and spotlighted the band at its dizzying best. Once again, the impetus comes from Emerson himself as his keyboards, interspersed with what sounds like bursts of thunder, soar over the complex rhythmic fray.
Pictures at an Exhibition, Emerson Lake and Palmer: For practicality sake, it’s difficult to separate any one track from another on this overly ambitious effort, one that found the trio audaciously offering a majestic prog rock take on composer Modest Mussorgsky’s classical suite. Later, it would give punks like Johnny Rotten reason to criticize the old guard for not getting back to basics, but here, in its original form, it ranks as one of the most indelible works in the ELP canon. The final entry of the album, a track called “Nutrocker,” proved the band hadn’t lost its sense of humor or its willingness to take themselves less than seriously.
“Karn Evil 9,” Emerson Lake and Palmer: With the words, “Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends,” ELP had established a mantra, one first conceptualized on the epic Brain Salad Surgery and then fully realized on the immortal live album that took that introductory verse as its title. Emerson’s punctuating jabs of organ still define the melody and make this a prized prog relic. Even now, listening to it in retrospect 40 years later, it defines the essence of ELP and still manages to amaze.
“Abaddon’ Bolero,” Three Fates Project: Anchored by his own self-branded Keith Emerson Band, the Three Fates Project, an instrumental coop that also featured ongoing musical collaborator and guitarist Marc Bonilla and the 70 piece Munchner Rundfunkorchester under the direction of maestro Terje Mikkelsen, proved to be Emerson’s final triumph. This synthesized take on an otherwise obscure classic showed Emerson’s ability and agility were undiminished. This particular track, from 2011’s self titled Three Fates Project album, finds a fine fit with ELP’s best.