Fanfare for an Uncommon Man
by Gary Gomes
Keith Emerson, noted keyboardist with the T-Bones, The Nice, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and other ensembles through the years, is dead, apparently at his own hand, at the age of 71.
Emerson was a founding member of what later became known as "progressive rock" based on his early work with the Nice. But Emerson was a child student of the piano, had been offered a scholarship to the Royal Conservatory, and in his early years, was interested in a great many rock and roll, jazz and blues pianists, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Russ Conway, Floyd Cramer, Meade Lux Lewis, Dave Brubeck and George Shearing. Emerson's considerable technique came from his classical training, but he was also adept at improvisation, learning it the hard way by transcribing solos, deciphering sheet music transcriptions and figuring out how they worked. His organ sound was influenced greatly by Brother Jack McDuff's Rock Candy and by eccentric organist Don Shinn, who played classical pieces on the organ, but also used a screwdriver to get weird sounds out of the back of a Hammond L100 (a smaller organ than the B-3 or C-3 with a transistorized on/off switch). In his later years, he also expressed admiration for Brian Auger, Jon Lord (Deep Purple) and even Ray Manzarek of the Doors.
Many who know of his work only know of his work in the incredibly famous Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But he had an extensive early career in jazz and blues groups like the Keith Emerson Trio, John Brown's Body, the T-Bones (the successor band to the Yardbirds, managed by Giorgio Gomelsky-Stevie Wonder once sat in with them, as did their namesake T-Bone Walker), the V.I.P.'s (later to become Spooky Tooth--it was in this band that Emerson accidentally starting using the Hammond reverb to make loud crashing sound) prior to forming the Nice as a backing band for former Ikette, P.P. Arnold. The Nice were her backing band, but also had their own solo set prior to Arnold's set. So, Emerson got his first big public musical recognition as musical director for a soul singer. He was encouraged to break off the Nice from Arnold by then manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who also owned Immediate Records, Arnold's, and later the Nice's record label.
With the advent of the Nice, we can see the birth of progressive music (along perhaps with The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album and Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale. Accounts of the Nice's early sets were divided. They actually used explosions to announce one of their first festival appearances, but some early audiences bemoaned the fact that the music was not dance music. The Nice, however, were an incredible amalgam of talent. A keyboard player (Emerson) who (like the Doors and Deep Purple) lead the band, and was really the musical star of the band; a guitarist (Davy O'List) with an eccentric and unique sound and technique, inspired at times, capable of subbing for Syd Barrett when he went AWOL on a tour shared by Hendrix, Pink Floyd and the Nice; a bass player (Lee Jackson) with a speedy right hand who was unafraid to play chords on bass when necessary; and a freewheeling drummer (Brian Davison) who was also a master time keeper, doing so, not as an ordinary rock drummer would do, but propelling the rhythm forward with an aggressive technique similar to Mitch Mitchell's approach (but developed before they met Hendrix) and not afraid to fill in accents like a jazz drummer might. Their first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack was extraordinarily special album, with O'List's squawking guitar, prefiguring some of Robert Fripp's work, Emerson covering the gamut of music from jazz ("Rondo") to Blues Rock ("Bonnie K" and "War and Peace") and experimental ("Flower King of Flies," "Dawn," "The Cry of Eugene"). Every song sounded fresh, eccentric and distinctly original. Emerson pulled classical quotes out of every nook and cranny he could--but it was little different from Clapton or Page copying solos or entire songs note for note. The repertoire was just more familiar. "Rondo," an adaptation (rearranged for 4/4/ time) of Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" was a notable success, as it showed off the group's instrumental talents with a completely improvised on the spot Emerson solo. According to Peter Gabriel, Hendrix actually wanted to join them.
Emerson took over the group as the only soloist when O'List was dismissed from the band over alleged chemical abuse--which O'List denies to this day. Regardless of the reason, and an attempt to recruit a guitarist (Steve Howe was actually selected and accepted but shortly after declined), the group wnent forward as a keyboard led trio. Ars Longa Vita Brevis was a more deliberate attempt (and included some guitar from a hired guitarist). But it also included a small symphony orchestra, two full blown classical adaptations ("Intermezzo from Karelia Suite" and "Brandenburger," and on the American version of the album, an insane version of Leonard Bernstein's "America," which included parts of Dvorak's New World Symphony. It charted as a 6 minute single in the UK, and made a splash in the US because it became associated with the band burning a mockup of the American flag at the Royal Albert Hall.
Emerson finally began to develop a following in the US with the release of the third Nice album The Nice or Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It. The virtuosity of the band on "Rondo 69" and "She Belongs to Me" was undeniable and unique. There had probably not been as profoundly instrumentally talented trio to emerge from England since Cream, Soft Machine or Hendrix. The band was also getting involved in symphonic projects in the US and the UK and Emerson was being noticed as pretty much the most technically accomplished rock musician of his generation (Check out "Five Bridges" and "Elegy"). But, Immediate Records was bankrupt, and although the Nice were starting to do well financially, Emerson wanted to be a superstar.
The Nice were limited vocally and Emerson did want a more versatile vocalist than Jackson. Although he asked several bass players to work with him and sing--Jack Bruce and Chris Squire among them--it was Greg Lake who he ultimately formed a bond and later a group, with, recruiting Carl Palmer after more famous drummers, like Ginger Baker and Jon Hiseman were not deemed quite right for the band. With this trio, Emerson has not only artists of considerable technical accomplishment, but a band that could appeal immediately to a mass audience. Allegedly, both Hendrix and Fripp (like Lake, also from King Crimson) were mentioned as guitarist, but Hendrix's death put an end to any possibility of that happening. The Fripp association has only recently been mentioned, but cryptic discussions about it indicate there were insurmountable obstacles to this.
However, ELP's first shows and records were actually quite experimental, though much more controlled than the Nice. The first album showed Emerson working with Bartok and Janacek pieces, and Keith's first recordings with the Moog modular synthesizer (his involvement with the instrument actually started with the Nice), first on "Tank," then "Lucky Man." Bob Moog himself praised Emerson's solo on the latter, and it is fairly beyond doubt that the ‘70's jump into synthesizers was primed by that solo and by Emerson's use of synthesizers in live performance. There had been earlier uses of the synthesizer by rock bands, including the Monkees, the Byrds, the Mothers (Don Preston had a homemade unit), and the Beatles, but Emerson was the first widely known popular musician to bring one into the risks of large scale touring (to be fair, Paul Bley and Lothar and the Hand People tried this as well), Emerson pioneered the popular usage, and laid the groundwork for hundreds of followers.
With the advent of Tarkus, a Zappa-inspired composition, he introduced fourths and fifths rather than 3rds as the harmonic foundation of his music--a technique only rarely used prior to that time, and probably borrowed from Bartok or perhaps McCoy Tyner. Emerson's technical ability was developing extraordinary levels by the time of Trilogy and especially, Brain Salad Surgery. Only a few rock players were even in his league--Wakeman, of course, Moraz, Kerry Minnear in Gentle Giant to provide specific names--but Emerson's approach was not as loose or freewheeling as it was in the Nice.
With the live Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, the band was playing at an extraordinary level, and used no overdubs. Then in 1974, the band went on a three year hiatus. When it returned with Works, Volumes 1 and 2 in 1977, punk had emerged, but ELP was just as popular as when they left. A touring orchestra did them in financially, and the record company's insistence on the regrettable album Love Beach basically dissolved them as a group.
Emerson engaged in soundtracks for horror movies, cartoons and one notable feature film (Sylvester Stallone's Nighthawks) and maintained a professional life touring Japan and reuniting with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer (separately and together) and making notable appearances on with former band members of the Nice and reuniting with Lee Jackson and Brian Davison in 2002-2003. He also maintained his own band with comparably virtuosic players like guitarist Mark Bonilla and drummer Pete Riley.
As recently as 2012, Emerson reunited with Greg Lake (and for a couple of concerts) with Ian McDonald of King Crimson for a tour, where I saw one show. Emerson's right hand technique had declined considerably and he seemed to be playing awkwardly with that hand, but could still play all the parts very well--just a little slower. His left hand was as exceptional as ever, however.
Before his death, he was planning a tour of Japan, but had developed carpal tunnel and focal dystonia in his right hand. I personally know the frustration of dystonia, as I was born with it. Your body freezes or seizes and will not respond to commands from the brain. For a musician as technically proficient as Emerson (listen to Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" on Elegy or watch Emerson's version of Copland's "Hoedown" in Italy on YouTube, and you'll get an idea of him at his best) this must have been devastating, but he could still compensate. Apparently, a combination of depression, negative Internet chatter and anticipated decline in his ability formed a negative space that he could not escape.
What will Emerson's legacy be? Well, he raised the bar in what a rock musician should be expected to do technically. He was able to trade licks with Oscar Peterson and Kenny Wheeler, and classically trained musicians like John Mayer (I barely touched on the level of experimentation the Nice did, which included working with free jazz musicians and bagpipe brigades in addition to symphony orchestras and Santana). Until Emerson, it was Manzarek and Al Kooper who were the keyboard heroes of my generation. Emerson opened the door for mass acceptance of people like Rick Wakeman, Tony Banks and even Bruce Hornsby. The Nice and ELP also opened the doors for King Crimson, Magma, Egg, and along with Soft Machine, the entire Rock-In-Opposition movement. The Nice's work was--I can speak from personal experience--in turns, majestic, crazy, neurotic, energetic, exciting and threatening. He made the ugliest noises possible on the organ. In Boston. I heard a live version of "America" that was mind numbingly intense, loud and extraordinarily unruly, almost chaotic. It showed what a combination of monstrous technique and volume could do and was more overwhelming live than Cream was.
In ELP, the music was less spontaneous, but Emerson was one of the few progressive musicians I know who still wanted to improvise and he and Palmer did push the envelope. This was not only in the tradition of the best jazz players, but is also a lost legacy of classical music, and is still practiced by classically trained organists. Also, he kept a creative dynamo of the group going and was also a classically influenced composer. He even changed the harmonic language of rock. Asking him to give up that part of his heritage-despite his liberal borrowings of music (many of which were in public domain) would be like asking Eric Clapton to abandon his blues roots. They were all part of his vocabulary.
I have never seen the magnitude of tributes coming into Facebook that I have seen for Emerson. In the US and UK, and to a lesser extent, Australia, progressive music fell into critical, but not popular, disfavor in the mid-1970's. The assumption was the rest of the world followed suit... but they didn't. Emerson retained a massive audience in most of Europe, Japan, and South America. Emerson was a revered elder statesman of music and I would say perhaps the pivotal figure in the birth of progressive music, because he could play virtually anything. He once explained how Bitches Crystal was written and the intro was not taken from minimalism as I thought, but from two boogie woogie piano pieces spliced together.
Whether you like or dislike his music-and everyone is entitled to their likes or dislikes-he left an indelible impression on rock and all music. The showmanship--well, that goes back to Liberace, Pink Floyd, the Mothers, and even the Sex Pistols' spitting on audiences. "It's a dynamo...it's rock and roll!" I like musicians who go over the top and Emerson also personally hurt himself in these displays--probably more than Iggy Pop did in his! In terms of influence, he is unparalleled; in terms of innovation, he is on a par with Robert Fripp; and in terms of instrumental technique, he is at or near the top in the rock world (he once proudly claimed he never used a sequencer on a keyboard). Outside of Frank Zappa, I learned more from him in terms of music outside the world of rock than any other musician I had ever heard. I learned to value Copland, Ginastera, and Prokofiev...and I learned he valued Shoenberg and Cage. I wish he would have stayed to share some more of his talent with us, but we can look back on a remarkable body of work from a supremely talented many which will be remembered.
Also see our Emerson, Lake and Palmer article
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