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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Obituary: Keith Emerson (1944-2016)

The rock keyboard legend found dead at 71.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
He was a lucky man: Keith Emerson. Photo by Michael Tweed.
Keyboardist Keith Emerson, founding member of the supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer and a pioneer in bridging the gulf between rock and roll and classical music, was found dead at his home in Santa Monica, California yesterday. The cause of death has been confirmed by Santa Monica police as a self-inflicted single gunshot wound to the head.

Born in Yorkshire, Mr. Emerson became one of the defining artists of his myriad instruments, which ranged from the Hammond B-3 organ to the concert grand piano and the Moog synthesizer, an instrument that he helped popularize. He rose to fame with The Nice, playing pieces like Leonard Bernstein's "America" and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (bastardized and re-titled Nutrocker) before founding Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1970 with ex-King Crimson bassist/vocalist Greg Lake and drummer Carl Palmer.

A consumnate showman, early performances often featured with a knife (a gift from his roadie, Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister) stuck in the keys in order to play more notes at once. He was a fearsome technician, able to play keyboards backwards simply by reaching across and tapping the notes in reverse order. With ELP, he revolutionized the sound of the organ in rock, adding later textures with instruments like the piano and the Moog and emerging as a virtuoso who played football stadiums instead of concert halls.

ELP took the world by storm as one of the first supergroups, attracting attention with their performance at the Isle of Wight Festival that year. (According to the group's entry on Wikipedia, the rumor that ELP was planned as a four-piece called "HELP" with guitarist Jimi Hendrix was formally debunked by Mr. Lake in 2012.) They quickly headed to the studio, cutting the first of nine studio albums and joining progressive rock groups like King Crimson, Yes and Genesis in a sort of golden age for long compositions, extensive arrangements and complex, often obtuse lyrics.

Their albums were rife with Mr. Emerson's own compositions, which included the massive Tarkus, an enormous three-part rock opus titled Karn Evil 9 (on the exquisitely named Brain Salad Surgery) and even a piano concerto, (released on the album Works, Vol. 1 The music press (and later, the punk rockers) sneered, but ELP became world-famous on the backs of hit songs like Still, You Turn Me On and Lucky Man, Mr. Lake's contributions to the group. The latter, released on ELP's first, eponymous album was one of the first radio hits to feature the Moog.

The band borrowed cheerfully from Bernstein, Prokofiev, Ginastera, Janáček and Aaron Copland, scoring a hit with their version of the latter's Fanfare for the Common Man. Another hit single, 1985's "Touch and Go" featured the first variation from Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Greensleeves reworked as arena rock. Although this may not have been their intention, ELP succeeded in introducing a generation of young rock fans (this writer included) to orchestral masterpieces that they may not have heard otherwise.

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition was an early favorite, released on a classic live album that became a best seller. A later album featured a thunderous adaptation of Gustav Holst's Mars, The Bringer of War. Tours featured extensive solo passages and virtuoso showmanship from Mr. Emerson, who played a piano flying over the stage and dazzled audiences with the sounds that erupted from his towering Moog synthesizer.

The trio toured the world, playing their arrangements of classical pieces and their own compositions. Later tours included a choir and orchestra, but the band ceased recording after their album Love Beach was poorly received. In 1985, the band reformed as Emerson, Lake and Powell (with drummer Cozy Powell) but only releasing one album before splitting again. The original lineup put out two more records in the 1990s. Their last was the poorly received In The Hot Seat, released in 1994. Meanwhile, Mr. Emerson released solo albums, soundtracks, and performed on the festival circuit. The last full ELP reunion was in 2010.

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