Keith Emerson, the flamboyant, English prog-rock pioneer who rose to fame as the keyboardist for supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the ’70s, died in Santa Monica, Calif. on Thursday March 10th at age 71. Although the cause of death was not revealed, an official statement was issued by bandmate, percussionist Carl Palmer.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my good friend and brother-in-music, Keith Emerson,” wrote Palmer in the statement. “Keith was a gentle soul whose love for music and passion for his performance as a keyboard player will remain unmatched for many years to come. He was a pioneer and an innovator whose musical genius touched all of us in the worlds of rock, classical and jazz. I will always remember his warm smile, good sense of humor, compelling showmanship, and dedication to his musical craft. I am very lucky to have known him and to have made the music we did, together. Rest in peace, Keith.”
Emerson, born Nov. 2, 1944 in Todmorden, Yorkshire, was weaned on Western classical music and was a pioneer in combining classical, jazz and rock themes. The Hammond organ would become his instrument of choice in the late 1960s but he would soon incorporate an entire battery of keyboards, including the Moog synthesizer, the Yamaha GX1 polyphonic synthesizer and the pipe organ, in his performances.
In 1970, he was a founding member of ELP, two years after the formation of Yes and three years after the birth of Genesis, the two other prog-rock giants of the era that achieved similar success.
The nature of progressive rock meant that the group had few radio-friendly singles, but the ballad “Lucky Man” from their debut album did garner some play, as did “From the Beginning” and “Still You Turn Me On.”
The power trio made a huge splash at the Isle of Wight that year, its first proper concert, playing in front of more than a half million people on a bill that included the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. But ELP’s set was something never seen before, combining classical selections such as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and an amped-up version of the Dave Brubeck jazz classic, “Blue Rondo ala Turk” with the kind of showmanship that would become the band’s signature. It was a stunning display of virtuosity that would characterize the band’s recording output through the decade.
Those first four albums, “Emerson, Lake & Palmer” (1970), “Tarkus” (1971), “Trilogy” (1972) and “Brain Salad Surgery” (1973) would help set the standard for all prog-rock in its wake, with pristine production, a pronounced level of experimentalism and a high level of musicianship. The recordings were all top five sellers in England, and certified gold in the U.S.
Among his innovations in the pop realm, Emerson would sometimes pluck or strum the strings of his piano, a method evidenced in “Take a Pebble,” from ELP’s debut LP.
The group split in 1979, with Emerson enjoying modest success in his solo career before the band reunited breifly in the 1980s and then again in the early 1990s with the album “Black Moon.”
Emerson also reunited the first notable group in which he was a member, the Nice, in 2002 for a tour. His last album, “The Three Fates Project,” was released in 2012.
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