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Music Friday: Keith Emerson

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Keith Emerson at his keyboard in concert at Nearfest 2006

Keith Emerson was born on November 2, 1944. Emerson was a composer and keyboard player who was, as a member of several different bands, a major figure in the progressive rock movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Emerson began taking piano lessons when he was eight, from several teachers whom he described as "local little old ladies." Those lessons were the extent of his formal musical training, but he grew up listening to and playing a wide range of music, becoming reasonably comfortable with classical, jazz, rock and roll, and honky-tonk piano styles. He began playing the Hammond organ as a teenager, and that would be his primary instrument in the first few bands he formed.

Emerson's first commercial success came with The Nice, a band formed in 1967; their concerts and albums were largely built around Emerson's theatrical style on the Hammond. He found ways to make the organ produce feedback, or to create explosion sounds; he jammed knives between the keys as a way of sustaining pitches.

The Nice was one of the first successful progressive rock bands. Prog rock is a style noted for a broader range of sounds than traditional rock'n'roll. Instrumentation went beyond the standard guitar/bass/drums combo; songs were longer, and usually featured flashy, technically demanding solos. Technology was embraced, and prog rockers were often less interested in live performance than they were in the studio, where recording technology allowed for innovative new sounds.

4 Emerson Lake and Palmer album covers

Prog rock also drew from a wider range of musical influences. The harmonic vocabulary was larger, drawn from jazz and classical music. A lot of the tunes came from other fields as well; the first album by The Nice included rock versions of music by Leoš Janáček and Dave Brubeck. More of The Nice's music is available for streaming at Freegal and Hoopla.

These days, prog rock doesn't get much respect from most rock critics, who see it as self-indulgent and pretentious. David Weigel offers a history and defense of the genre in The Show That Never Ends (e-book | e-audio | print).

In 1970, Emerson left The Nice to form Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It was something of a super-group, with the other members coming from successful British rock bands; Greg Lake had been a member of King Crimson, and Carl Palmer came from Atomic Rooster. The band signed a record deal within a few months, and Emerson used part of the money to buy a Moog synthesizer. He'd heard Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach while he was with The Nice, and fell in love with the instrument.

The Moog became a central part of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's sound. Emerson was the first musician to tour with a Moog, and became such an advocate that the company often gave him prototypes of their newest models to experiment with.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer would continue to fuse rock and classical. Their 1971 live album, Pictures at an Exhibition, is a 34-minute arrangement for rock band of Mussorgsky's piano suite. They adapted Aaron Copland's Rodeo as "Hoedown," and a movement from a piano concerto by Alberto Ginastera as "Toccata." Ginastera was delighted with the results, telling Emerson, "You've captured the essence of my music like no one else has before."

Emerson, Lake and Palmer disbanded in 1979. Emerson recorded a solo album, Honky, and began working as a composer of film scores; At the Movies collects the highlights of his film work. He also formed a pair of short-lived bands, with slight changes in membership from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The 1985-86 band Emerson, Lake, and Powell (with drummer Cozy Powell replacing Palmer) recorded only one album, which was well received by the critics. (The obligatory classical piece this time was "Mars, the Bringer of War," from Gustav Holst's The Planets.)

Emerson's 1988 band was called 3; this time, Palmer was back and Lake was gone, with Robert Berry taking his place. Their single album was not well received by critics or fans.

Eventually, Emerson got the original band back together, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer toured for most of the 1990s, recording two more albums. Most of the band's albums, from the 70s and the 90s, are available for streaming at Hoopla.

After Emerson, Lake and Palmer disbanded for good in 1998, Emerson devoted himself to his solo career, recording new albums, and performing more often as a pianist with orchestras. Emerson died on March 11, 2016; his death was ruled a suicide. He had reportedly been suffering from nerve damage and was increasingly depressed at the thought that he might not be able to perform any longer.