We’ve lost another one. Keith Emerson, the instrumentalist who set the standard for keyboard instrumentation in rock music — and with it, a level of performance bravura that riled critics as it thrilled audiences — has died at age 71. The specific cause has not been announced.
Emerson’s uses of organ and, eventually synthesizers, were as renowned as they were revolutionary. His playing was introduced at the height of 1960s psychedelia with the power trio (and, briefly, quartet) The Nice, a band that tossed Brubeck, Bernstein and Dylan into a prog rock pot where keyboards served as the dominant spice. But it was in the 1970s with the advancements of Moog synthesizers that Emerson’s bold musicianship turned to stardom alongside bassist/vocalist Greg Lake and drummer Carl Palmer in the aptly named Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
“I suppose it was rather like the early airplane pilots,” Emerson recalled of ELP’s early days with synthesizers in an interview I conducted with him in 1996. “We were really dealing with equipment that wasn’t designed to fly. The early modular synthesizers, which I was using then, were very prone to changing keys and picking up radio signals. They would even catch transmitter calls from passing taxis when we would be playing. It was quite extraordinary.”
Audiences ate the music up, especially Emerson’s onstage antics, which included shoving knifes into the keys of a Hammond organ to sustain notes and feedback. The growing punk movement, though, used bands like ELP as targets of generational outrage, making most commercially successful prog bands dinosaur acts by the end of the decade. Still, Emerson found his way to Rupp Arena twice — one with ELP in January 1978 and again in August 1986 with the late drummer Cozy Powell replacing Palmer.
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For all his wildness (Emerson’s autobiography was titled Pictures of an Exhibitionist), nothing compared to when he unplugged the synths and played freely on piano — whether it be the acoustic interlude of Take a Pebble from ELP’s self-titled debut album in 1971 to the barrelhouse rolls of Honky Tonk Train Blues from the trio’s last vital studio recording, Works, Volume 2 in 1977. And then there was his Piano Concerto, No. 1 which took up all of side one of Works, Volume 1 and served as a bright reaffirmation of Emerson’s classical roots.
“Even though we’re still very dependent on the synthesizers today, there remains a feeling of apprehension when one goes out onstage because they can always break down,” Emerson said during our 1996 talk. “I’m far happier playing a piano.”