One of the giants of prog rock has gone when we lost the keyboard maestro from Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Keith Emerson. Like many prog rock acts, they had a massive following but UK chart-wise, never massively successful. If you’re old enough and were a regular listener to Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman, whether it be his Pick of the Pops or his legendary rock show, you’ll remember one of his regular audio drops in’s he often opened a show with and that was the one that went: ‘Welcome back, my friends to the show that never ends, we’re so glad you could attend! Come inside! Come inside!’ He used those to tremendous effect and that was Emerson Lake and Palmer.
Keith was born in November 1944 in West Yorkshire but grew up on the south coast town of Goring-by-Sea after being evacuated during the War. As a child his family never own their own record player so it was from the radio that Keith learned about music and seemed to favour jazz and contemporary keyboard players of the fifties including Russ Conway, Winifred Atwell and Dudley Moore. He was also attracted to the flamboyance of both Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and so a keyboard career he was to pursue.
Oft classed, quite accurately, as a supergroup, they formed in 1970 and all three were accomplished and experienced musicians. Keith had been a member of The Nice who were originally formed as a backing band for P.P. Arnold. Greg Lake – bass and vocalist – along with his school friend Robert Fripp had been a founding member of King Crimson and drummer Carl Palmer had used his sticks with both the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster and then, in the eighties, Asia.
After a breakout performance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, the trio signed with Island Records and released their self-titled debut album the same year. Their second album, Tarkus would be their most successful when it topped the UK album chart. The sleeve of that album featured an armadillo which began as a doodle after the commissioned designer William Neal. Neal recalled, “I had produced a gun belt made up of piano keys, which somehow led to WW1 armoury, nobody liked the idea. I also had an armadillo on the pad and had added tank tracks to it. Keith spotted it and loved the idea, so we developed him further.” The armadillo later became a manticore and that became the name and logo of their own record label they launched in 1973.
Much of ELP’s early works were rocked up covers of classical works and following media criticism citing they had to rely of covers classics, Keith composed his first Piano Concerto No. 1 which he recorded it with the help of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He hit back with, “I wanted people to say, look, I’m a composer, I do write my own music, and what greater challenge than to write a piano concerto.”
Their only UK hit was a cover of Aron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man which was released on Atlantic records and reached number two on the UK singles chart behind Hot Chocolate’s So You Win Again.
Their shows became very theatrical and included many stunts with one of the most famous being Keith sitting at a piano being suspended approximately 20 feet up in the air and then rotated. It was so amazing that every interview any member of the trio did they were continually asked how they did it. One will never quite know as Greg Lake maintained it was a fake piano whereas Keith explained in much detail how he learned it after being taken to a show where as ex-circus performer performed special stunts for TV shows. He claimed he was invited on stage to have a go. Keith got a bit fed up being asked the same question as he wanted people to recognise his musical talent instead of the theatrics. The legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck was also curious and Keith recalled in an interview with Classic Rock magazine, “When I had the honour of meeting the great jazz pianist just before he died, he said, Keith you’ve got to tell me how do you spin around on that piano? Dave Brubeck was 90 years old then and I said, ‘Dave, don’t try it!'”
In 1993, Keith had his share of problems. He went through divorce, lost his house when it burnt down and cost him a fortune and developed a condition which he likened to writer’s cramp. He took a year off during which was wrote his biography and in his spare time customised a motor bike. He made a full recovery in 2002, but in 2010 he had another setback where he announced that a colonoscopy revealed a rather dangerous polyp in my lower colon and had to cancel a tour.
In March 2016 it was announced that Keith had died. It transpired it was caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His long term girlfriend Mari Kawaguchi said he had been “tormented with worry” about an upcoming tour. She told the Mail on Sunday, “His right hand and arm had given him problems for years. He had an operation a few years ago to take out a bad muscle but the pain and nerve issues in his right hand were getting worse. It affected his playing and was worried about letting down his fans.” She added, “He hadn’t been feeling well the previous evening, so I tucked him up in bed and was sleeping when I left and I thought he was sleeping when I got back, but then I realised what had happened. He was gone. I am still in total shock.”