Keith Emerson: The Rise and Fall of a Keyboard Wizard

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The show that never ends came to a tragic finale on March 10th when progressive rock keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson committed suicide in his Santa Monica, CA home. He was 71. He is immediately identified as a founding member of the legendary British progressive rock trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Born in Yorkshire, England on November 2nd, 1944 he started to play the piano at age 8 and was encouraged to learn how to read music by his father, who was convinced such a skill would prove valuable. Studying classical music, Emerson would incorporate his musical knowledge melding classical with jazz, rock and electronic influences.

In 1967 he formed the Nice with Lee Jackson and Brian Davidson for a 3 year, 5 album stint, but in 1970 he would begin a decade long tenure with what would be his most significant musical achievement: Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In an era conducive to super group formation like Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, drummer Carl Palmer (of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster) and bassist/ vocalist Greg Lake (of King Crimson) would write an influential chapter in rock history with Emerson helming the keyboards.

Starting with their self-titled debut LP in 1970, E.L.P. would present 7 studio albums prior to disbanding in 1979. Titles including “Tarkus” and “Trilogy” made the trio best selling international superstars and 1973’s “Brain Salad Surgery” not only marked a musical milestone, but its iconic cover art by Swiss artist H.R. Giger collaterally furthered the graphic artist’s mainstream identity.

ELP were a hot ticket live, with Emerson gaining great fame for his onstage antics (comparable to Jimi Hendrix or Little Richard), during which he would whip, rock, ride and stab his Hammond C-3 and L-100 organs for theatrical impact. Emerson was a pioneer in electronic music, being the very first rock musician to take a Moog synthesizer out of the studio and play it live in concert.

After the split, Emerson emerged as a film composer, scoring the Sylvester Stallone vehicle “Nighthawks” and Italian horror director Dario Argento’s “Inferno”. Partial reunions were attempted with drummer Cozy Powell replacing Carl Palmer in Emerson, Lake and Powell or ELP2 in 1986 and again in 1988 with guitarist/ vocalist/bassist Robert Berry (this time replacing Lake) joining the returning Carl Palmer and Emerson in the band 3. The original ELP would reunite for their 8th and 9th studios releases ( 1992’s “Black Moon” and 1994’s “In the Hot Seat”), but a continued reformation would be disrupted by personal differences and Emerson’s 1993 diagnosis of repetitive stress disorder, which years later would result in extensive nerve damage.

In a pantheon of recognized keyboard peers like Richard Wright (Pink Floyd), Rick Wakeman and Tony Kaye (Yes), Jon Lord (Deep Purple) and Tony Banks (Genesis), Emerson stands shoulder-to-shoulder as a true keyboard wizard. Severe depression and emotional despondency over his keyboard ability being hampered led Emerson to end his life by way of a self-inflicted gunshot. He was a true artist, genius and musical innovator whose presence will be missed and absence with definitely be felt.

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