Keith Emerson: Lord of the Keys

I have been a fan of Keith Emerson (1944-2016) since a childhood friend introduced me to Elegy by The Nice. I was intrigued by the long stretches of piano and Hammond organ improvisation overlaid onto recognizable songs—among other things. What just zipped by? Was that a Tchaikovsky symphony movement? My heirs may someday be startled to find three LP copies (and one CD) of this album. Not long afterward, I spent my lawn-mowing money on the untitled debut album of Emerson Lake & Palmer. After more plays than I can even estimate, and on some pretty dodgy turntables, it's developed some sibilance problems, as I noticed on a recent memorial spin, but the DVD-Audio/CD edition with Steven Wilson's surround and stereo remasters has picked up the torch.

It's generally agreed that Emerson was to rock keyboards what Jimi Hendrix was to rock guitar: a tireless innovator who pushed out the boundaries of his instruments. He was an equally tireless borrower—from Bach, Bartok, Mussorgsky, and others—but whether or not he name-checked the composer in the credits, everything he played was as unique as a fingerprint. He is now remembered most universally as the Moog synthesist who established the instrument in rock, turning it into a vehicle for ecstatic soloing, and even taking it on tour, where it was decidedly not designed to go. The technicians who kept it working from night to night are among rock's unsung heroes. Emerson's whooping use of the Moog's octave-jumping portamento feature on "Lucky Man" is now the stuff of legend.

His Hammond organ playing was just as vigorous and brilliant. His discovery that he could hold down notes by stabbing the keyboard with daggers gained The Nice some notoriety; he would rock the console around in mock-sexual positions to produce wild sound effects and excite the audience. But the real inspirations for his Hammond playing were jazz, blues, ragtime, and the boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis. From him Emerson learned how to hold down a rocking rhythm part with the left hand and improvise freely with the right. Check the "Blues Variation" that he stuck into Pictures at an Exhibition—it's definitely more Lewis than Mussorgsky. Emerson's pianism is also underrated: You can hear him at his best on Elegy, in the "Piano Concerto No. 1" released on an ELP album, and late in his career, in the lovely and overlooked all-piano CD Emerson Plays Emerson.

Emerson's theatricality eclipsed his musicality in the eyes of rock critics. I'll skip over those tired old arguments against progressive rock because they're obsolete. If you're interested but not sure what to collect, I'd start with The Nice's untitled album, which opens with the detuned honkytonk piano of "Azrael Revisited" and closes with a Hammond-and-Bach exploration of Dylan's "She Belongs to Me." It's collected with earlier material on the double-CD compilation Hang on to a Dream and the triple-CD The Immediate Years. The Five Bridges features Emerson's first composition for rock trio and orchestra and has an especially lovely chorale. Elegy is indispensable, and I love the way it starts with piano Tim Hardin's "Hang on to a Dream," transitions from piano to organ in the middle of Dylan's "My Back Pages," and sticks with organ through the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique and the demolition of Bernstein's "America" (with a quote from Dvorak's New World Symphony for good measure). The Nice are at their live freewheeling best in Fillmore East December 1969 and additional samples of the band's legendary Fillmore shows are scattered over earlier albums. In some ways The Nice were better than ELP—looser limbed, more spontaneous, more unpredictable—thanks to the fluid and distinctive playing of drummer Brian Davison and bassist Lee Jackson.

Emerson's next trio added the advantages of Greg Lake's world-class voice (and nimble bass) and Carl Palmer's harder-hitting rock drumming. Massive success ensued. Nascent ELP fans should pay most attention to the first five albums. The band followed up the untitled debut album that bewitched me in my teens with Tarkus, whose side-long title track (I'm a vinyl guy, I still think in terms of sides) is arguably Emerson's compositional high water mark. Here's a fan's version for piano. Pictures of an Exhibition converts Mussorgsky's piano suite to a Hammond-and-Moog romp, recorded live and tightened up with constant performances in the band's early years. Trilogy contains some of Emerson's and Lake's most melodic songwriting, and by this time the Moog was fully integrated into their sound, most dramatically in the thrillingly multi-layered "Abbadon's Bolero." Brain Salad Surgery (with a ferocious synth treatment of a Ginastera piano concerto) and Works, Volume One (featuring Emerson's own piano concerto, recorded with orchestra) are the mature ELP, still dazzling but about to go off the rails. Welcome Back My Friends conveys the epic sweep of a vintage 1974 ELP show, including a memorable live "Tarkus." You can stop (or at least pause) there unless you're a completist.

That I never got to see ELP is one of my lasting regrets as a concertgoer. I just assumed they'd always be around, until they weren't. But I did see Emerson's and Lake's duo tour just a few years back, documented on the Live from Manticore Hall CD. There were flaws: Emerson's backstage nerves delayed the start of the show by 45 minutes. Recorded backing tracks substituted for the absent Carl Palmer on some songs. And Emerson was clearly still suffering from the right-hand problems that began with a motorcycle accident in the '90s. His despondency over his diminished ability to play would later prove to be more than he could bear. Yet E and L, even with no P, captivated us with a reimagined cover of King Crimson's "I Talk to the Wind." I'm glad Keith got over his stage fright that night. The sight and sound of him conjuring spinetingling effects from the vast vintage Moog synthesizer will be burned into my brain forever.

One of Emerson's last recordings is Three Fates Project with Keith Emerson Band collaborator Marc Bonilla and Terje Mikkelsen conducting the Munich Radio Orchestra. Sandwiched among the orchestrated ELP covers is "After All of This," a piece for orchestra that seems to traverse a lifetime of triumphs and regrets in four fleeting minutes. Here is an equally beautiful version transcribed for piano by a fan. Even amid the physical and emotional pain of his waning career as a performer, Emerson the composer could still access surprising beauty and an emotional depth only hinted at in the work of his younger self.

And now he's gone.

Several years ago Emerson told this story to Keyboard Mag: "A very good friend of mine once called while driving his daughter to her first piano recital.... 'She’s very nervous. She's got butterflies.' He hands the phone to her, and I say hello to this little six-year-old. 'So you've got butterflies? You've got to keep those butterflies inside you. When you get up on the stage to play your piece, which you know very well, all those butterflies will just fly out of you'."

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, now available in both print and Kindle editions.

Rob Sabin's picture
Thanks for this wonderful look back on one of the true greats, Mark. All of those ELP albums you mentioned were in heavy rotation on my old AR turntable in those days when they were still fresh, and Emerson's amazing synth and Hammond work were always the heavy attraction for me. But I never fully appreciated how classically-infused his work was, and perhaps hadn't stopped to consider in the midst of my high school angst the immensity of his gift. The obits all spoke of his despondency over his declining physicality and loss of control over the keys. It is sad but somehow seems fitting that he now joins that exclusive list of tortured geniuses who ultimately died for their art.