Keith Emerson

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Keith Emerson
Keith Emerson StPetersburg Aug08.jpg

Keith Emerson performing in St. Petersburg, Russia, September 2008
Background information
Birth name Keith Noel Emerson
Born (1944-11-02) 2 November 1944 (age 69)
Todmorden, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Genres Rock, progressive rock, jazz, jazz fusion, European classical music
Occupations Musician, songwriter, composer
Instruments Piano, keyboards, accordion
Years active 1966–present
Labels Edel Records
Victor Entertainment
Shout! Factory
Varèse Sarabande
Rhino Entertainment
Manticore Records
J!MCO Records
Sanctuary Records
Marquee Inc.
Charly Records
Gunslinger Records
Cinevox Records
Associated acts Gary Farr & The T-Bones, The V.I.P.’s, P.P. Arnold, The Nice, Free Creek, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Emerson, Lake & Powell, 3, Keith Emerson Band, Ayreon
Website Official website

Keith Noel Emerson (born 2 November 1944) is an English keyboardist and composer. He was formerly a member of the Keith Emerson Trio, John Brown’s Bodies, The T-Bones, The V.I.P.’s, P.P. Arnold‘s backing band, The Nice, and in 1970 a founder of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), one of the early supergroups. Following the break-up of ELP, circa 1979, Emerson had modest success with Emerson, Lake & Powell in the 1980s as well as with 3, with the album To the Power of Three. ELP reunited during the early 1990s, releasing the album Black Moon. Emerson also reunited The Nice in 2002 for a tour. His latest album, Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla, was released in 2008.

Along with contemporaries Richard Wright of Pink Floyd, Tony Banks of Genesis, Billy Ritchie of Clouds, Rick Wakeman of Yes, and Jon Lord of Deep Purple, Emerson is widely regarded as one of the top keyboard players of the progressive rock era.[1][2][3][4] Allmusic refers to Emerson as “perhaps the greatest, most technically accomplished keyboardist in rock history”.[5]


Emerson performing in concert with Emerson, Lake & Palmer in 1977

Emerson was born in Todmorden, Yorkshire while his family had been evacuated from the south coast of England during the war, and grew up in the seaside resort of Worthing, West Sussex.[6] As a child, he learned western classical music, from which he derived a lot of inspiration to create his own style, combining classical music, jazz, and rock themes. Emerson became intrigued with the Hammond organ after hearing jazz organist Jack McDuff perform “Rock Candy” and it subsequently became his instrument of choice for performing in the late 1960s. This blending of elements is illustrated in his participation in the 1969 Music From Free Creek “supersession” project, where Emerson performs with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Chuck Rainey covering, among other tracks, the Eddie Harris instrumental “Freedom Jazz Dance”.

Emerson acquired his first Hammond organ when he was 15 or 16, an L-100, on hire purchase.[7]

The flamboyance that Emerson came to be known for began quite by chance when a fight broke out during a V.I.P.s performance in France. The band told him to keep playing so he made some explosion and machine gun sounds with his Hammond organ, which stopped the fight; everyone looked on with amazement. The other band members told him to do it at the next concert, which he did with success.[8]

Emerson first heard a Moog when a record shop owner played Switched-On Bach for him. Emerson said: “My God that’s incredible, what is that played on?” The owner then showed him the album cover. So I said, “What is that?” And he said, “That’s the Moog synthesizer.” My first impression was that it looked a bit like electronic skiffle.”[8]

Without one of his own, Emerson borrowed Mike Vickers‘ Moog for an upcoming The Nice concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London with the Royal Philharmonic. Mike helped patch the Moog and the concert was a great success. Emerson’s performance of Also sprach Zarathustra from the recently released 2001: A Space Odyssey was a show stopper. Emerson: “I thought this was great. I’ve got to have one of these.”[8]

With ELP’s record deal with Atlantic came funds to buy the Moog. Keith: “It cost a lot of money and it arrived and I excitedly got it out of the box stuck it on the table and thought, ‘Wow That’s Great! a Moog synthesizer [pause] How do you switch it on?…There were all these leads and stuff, there was no instruction manual.” Mike Vickers came through by patching it to produce six sounds and those six sounds became the foundation of ELP’s sound.[8]

In 1969, Emerson incorporated the Moog modular synthesiser into his battery of keyboards. While other artists such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had used the Moog in studio recordings, Emerson was the first artist to tour with one. Emerson’s use of the Moog was so important to the development of new models that he was given prototypes, such as the Constellation he took on one tour[8] and the Apollo, which had its debut on the opening track of Brain Salad Surgery, “Jerusalem.”

The Moog was a temperamental device; the oscillators went out of tune with temperature change. Emerson: “I had my faithful roady Rocky tune the instrument to A 440 just prior to the audience coming in, but once the audience came into the auditorium and the temperature rose up then everything went out of tune.”[8]

Emerson with the Moog.

His willingness to experiment with the Moog led to unexpected results, such as the time he stumbled into the signature sound for Hoedown, one of ELP’s most popular tunes. Emerson: “We’d started working on that arrangement and then I hit, I don’t know what, I switched a blue button and I put a patch cord in there, but anyway ‘whoooeee.'”[8]

The so-called “Monster Moog,” built from numerous modules, weighed in at a whopping 550 pounds, stood 10 feet tall and took 4 roadies to move. Even with its unpredictability, it became an indispensable component of not only ELP’s concerts but also Emerson’s.[9]

He is known for his technical skill and for his live antics, including using knives to wedge down specific keys of his Hammond organ during solos, playing the organ upside down while having it lie over him and backwards while standing behind it, and has cited guitarist Jimi Hendrix and English organist Don Shinn as his chief theatrical influences. He also employed a special rig to rotate his piano end-over-end while he was playing it, though this of course is purely for visual effect, as a piano cannot operate as an instrument while upside down.

Emerson has performed several notable rock arrangements of classical compositions, ranging from J. S. Bach via Modest Mussorgsky to 20th-century composers such as Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, Leoš Janáček and Alberto Ginastera. Occasionally Emerson has quoted from classical and jazz works without giving credit, particularly early in his career, from the late 1960s until 1972. The song “Rondo” by The Nice is a 4/4 interpretation of Blue Rondo à la Turk by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, originally in 9/8 time signature. [10] The piece is introduced by an extensive excerpt from Bach’s Italian Concerto, third movement. With the additions of Bach and Emerson’s own improvisations, the work may be regarded as Emerson’s personal arrangement of Brubeck’s classic.

On ELP’s eponymous first album, Emerson’s classical quotes went largely uncredited. “The Barbarian” is heavily influenced by “Allegro barbaro” by Bartók, and “Knife Edge” was virtually a note-for-note restatement of “Sinfonietta” by Janáček. Note-for-note extracts were taken from pieces by Bartók, Janáček and Bach, mixed in with some original material, and credited completely to Emerson, Lake, Palmer and roadie Richard Fraser. By 1971, with the releases Pictures at an Exhibition and Trilogy, Emerson began to fully credit classical composers, Modest Mussorgsky for the piano piece which inspired the first album, and Aaron Copland for “Hoedown” on the second. Emerson was adamant that he did not use Maurice Ravel‘s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition in developing his own version.

Emerson, photographed in the mid-1980s.

Emerson provided music for a number of films since 1980, including Dario Argento‘s Inferno and World of Horror, the 1981 thriller Nighthawks and, more recently, Godzilla: Final Wars. He was also the composer for the short-lived 1994 animated television series Iron Man.

In 1990 Emerson toured with The Best, a short-lived supergroup which also included John Entwistle, Joe Walsh, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Simon Phillips.

In 2002 Emerson re-formed and toured with The Nice, though performing a longer set of ELP music using a backing band including guitarist/vocalist Dave Kilminster.

In 2004, Emerson published his autobiography entitled Pictures of an Exhibitionist, which dealt with his entire career, particularly focusing on his early days with The Nice, and his nearly career-ending nerve-graft surgery in 1993. Emerson was the headliner of both the first and third Moogfest, a festival held in honour of Robert Moog at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City in 2004 and 2006 respectively.[11][12]

Emerson opened the Led Zeppelin reunion/Ahmet Ertegun tribute concert at the O2 Arena in London on 10 December 2007, along with Chris Squire and Alan White (Yes) and Simon Kirke (Bad Company/Free). The supergroup played the new arrangement of “Fanfare for the Common Man (Emerson, Lake & Palmer song)“.

The album Keith Emerson Band Featuring Marc Bonilla was released in August 2008. He toured with his own band in Russia, the Baltic States and Japan between August and October 2008. The tour band members were Marc Bonilla, Travis Davis and Tony Pia. On 30 June 2009, Emerson appeared as a guest during Spinal Tap‘s ‘One Night Only World Tour’ at Wembley Arena, during the songs “Short And Sweet” and “Heavy Duty”.

In March 2010, Emerson received a Frankfurt Music Prize from the city of Frankfurt. In the same month, Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra made a premier performance of “Tarkus” arranged by a renowned Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu.

Keith Emerson & Monster Moog synthesiser, May 2010

Emerson toured with Greg Lake in the US and Canada during spring of 2010, doing a series of “An Intimate Evening with Emerson and Lake” duo shows in which they performed newly arranged versions of the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Nice, and King Crimson as well as Emerson’s new original composition.

On 25 July 2010, a one-off Emerson, Lake & Palmer reunion concert closed the High Voltage Festival as the main act in Victoria Park, East London to commemorate the band’s 40th anniversary.

In September 2010, Emerson released a message stating “During a routine medical examination, a colonoscopy revealed a rather dangerous polyp in my lower colon. It is of the conclusion of the doctors here in London that I must undergo surgery immediately. Unfortunately, the timing of this urgent surgery does not allow me to start touring in early October because of the required period of hospitalization and recuperation. I must remain optimistic that all will turn out well”.

In September 2011, Emerson began working with the renowned conductor Terje Mikkelsen, along with the Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla and The Munich Radio Orchestra on new orchestral renditions of ELP classics and their new compositions. The project “The Three Fates” were premiered in Norway early September 2012 supervised and some performed by Norwegian professor and musician Bjørn Ole Rasch for the Simax Label. Recent years, several notable classic music composers, conductors and musicians have been performing various orchestral versions of Emerson’s compositions, such as Tarkus and “Piano Concerto No.1”, around the world. As of 2012, the documentary film about Emerson “Emerson: Pictures of an Exhibitionist” is in post production. He occasionally sits in with jazz orchestras performing new arrangements of ELP pieces as well as standard jazz pieces.

In 2014 Emerson was inducted into the Hammond Hall of Fame.[13]

Instrumentation and playing style

On stage Emerson started out on Hammond organ, with a grand piano toward the back of the stage. By the end of his time with The Nice, the standard arrangement was two Hammond organs, a C-3 (only cosmetically different than a B-3) and an L-100, placed facing each other with the C-3 to the left from the audience point of view. The L-100 took plenty of abuse during the stage act and was usually reinforced, to the point where it weighed so much that, on at least one occasion, Emerson became trapped beneath it and had to be rescued by a roadie. At any given time Emerson has owned several L-100 models, in various stages of repair, to support his act. The C-3, in contrast, seems to have lasted for years.

Although the Hammond L-100 with its shorter manuals is considered a “poor man’s” Hammond, Emerson not only played much of the early Nice music on his L-100, but also made good use of some of its unique features which his bigger Hammond C-3 does not provide. The L-100 has a self-starting motor, which – if turned off and on in short intervals – renders the whole organ into a wailing howl while the note generator, which is tied to a synchronous motor, tries to recover to pitch. The L-100 also features a spring-loaded reverb tank, which produces bomb-like noises if shaken. Both effects can be heard in abundance on “Rondo 69”. On “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” Emerson uses the reverb tank as a musical instrument, tapping the internal spring against the tank bottom in an effort to create a chromatic scale of “boings”.

With ELP, Emerson added the Moog synthesiser behind the C-3 with the keyboard and ribbon controller stacked on the top of the organ. The ribbon controller allowed Emerson to vary pitch, volume or timbre of the output from the Moog by moving his finger up and down the length of a touch-sensitive strip. It also could be used as a phallic symbol, which quickly became a feature of the act. When the Minimoog entered the act it was placed where needed, such as on top of the grand piano. The same location was also used for an electric Clavinet keyboard, used almost exclusively for the encore piece “Nut Rocker“.

During the Brain Salad Surgery tour of 1974 (one show of which was documented on the 3-LP set, Welcome Back My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends), Emerson’s keyboard setup included the Hammond C-3 organ, run through multiple Leslie speakers driven by HiWatt guitar amplifiers, the Moog 3C modular synthesiser (modified by addition of various modules and an oscilloscope) with ribbon controller, a Steinway concert grand piano with a Moog Minimoog synthesiser on top of it (used for the steel drum part on Karn Evil 9, 2nd Impression), an upright acoustic-electric piano that was used for honky-tonk piano sounds, a Hohner Clavinet and another Moog Minimoog synthesiser. Emerson also used a prototype polyphonic synthesiser produced by Moog, which was the test bed for the Moog Polymoog polyphonic synthesiser. The original synthesiser setup as envisioned by Moog was called the Constellation, and consisted of three instruments – the polyphonic synthesiser, called the Apollo, a monophonic lead synthesiser called the Lyra, and a bass-pedal synthesiser, called the Taurus. Moog eventually produced the Moog Taurus bass pedal synthesiser as a separate instrument, as well as the Polymoog Synthesiser and Polymoog Keyboard. The Apollo polyphonic synthesiser is currently at a keyboard museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Emerson still owns the Lyra synthesiser.

Occasionally Emerson used a pipe organ, when available. In particular, at the Newcastle City Hall he used the Harrison & Harrison pipe organ for the introductory section of Pictures at an Exhibition. The organ is located at the rear above the stage, at the top of a series of steps where choirs can stand. The end of the introductory passage is followed by a drum roll, covering the time while Emerson descended the steps. While all went well for the recording used to produce the album, the debut tour performance at the same venue ground to a halt as the power failed, just as Emerson arrived at the Hammond organ to open the next part of the piece. After a lengthy delay the performance continued with only the Hammond L-100 functioning.

Emerson also used the organ at the Royal Festival Hall for “The Three Fates” from the eponymous debut album by the group. He also used another pipe organ for “The Only Way (Hymn)” from Tarkus. Emerson used the Royal Festival Hall pipe organ again in October 2002 for the introductory quotation from Dvořák’s 9th Symphony (From The New World), before running back to the stage and performing “America (2nd Amendment)”.

Amplifiers and speakers behind Emerson became more elaborate, including a Leslie unit. There was also a board attached to the front of the stack, intended as a target for his knife throwing. He was given his trademark knife, an authentic Nazi dagger, by Lemmy, who was a roadie for The Nice in his earlier days.[14] During the Brain Salad Surgery tour, at the end of the show, a sequencer in the Moog Modular synthesiser was set running at an increasing rate, with the Moog Synthesiser pivoting to face the audience while a large pair of silver bat wings was deployed at the back of the synthesiser.

As the technology of electronic keyboard instruments became more sophisticated, Emerson was quick to adopt new instruments, such as the Yamaha GX1 polyphonic synthesiser, one of which can be seen on the video promoting “Fanfare for the Common Man“. Emerson was reported to have spent $50,000 to buy the Yamaha GX-1 synthesiser at the time of the Works Volume 1 album. Emerson later bought a second GX-1 from John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, to use to repair his GX-1, which was damaged by a tractor crash into Emerson’s home studio. At the time that Emerson left England in the early 1990s to move to Santa Monica, California, he sold the majority of his keyboard equipment, though not the modular Moog. The original Yamaha GX-1 was bought by Hans Zimmer of movie soundtrack fame, while the John Paul Jones GX-1 was bought by a collector in Italy.

In 1978, Emerson became the official endorser of the world’s first fully polyphonic synthesisers, the Korg PS-3300 and PS-3100. He started recording with them around this time too and the Korg PS-3300 was heavily used on the ELP album Love Beach. He carried on using it into the 1980s, the instrument dominating the 1981 film soundtrack for Nighthawks which starred Sylvester Stallone.

He would sometimes reach into the interior of his piano and hit, pluck or strum the strings with his hand. The introduction to “Take a Pebble” included chords and arpeggios played by pressing down on keys, to raise the dampers from the strings, and playing the strings inside the piano as one might play the autoharp. In the live performance of “Hang On to A Dream” with the Nice, recorded for the post-breakup album Elegy, he performed a cadenza of sorts hitting the piano strings with a small hammer, followed by a lengthy wind-down, returning to the song in which he alternated keyboard arpeggios with blows directly on the bass strings.

In addition to his experimentation and innovation listed above, Emerson also incorporated unique musical stylization into his work. Emerson is recognized for integrating different sounds into what he would write, utilizing methods of both horizontal and vertical contrast. Horizontal contrast is the use of distinct styles in a piece of music, combined by alternating between two different segments (most frequently alternating classical and non-classical); this technique can be seen in numerous works, such as “Rondo,” “Tantalising Maggie,” “The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack,” and others. Vertical contrast is the combination of multiple styles simultaneously; Emerson would frequently play a given style in one hand, and a contrasting one in the other. This structure can be seen in works such as “Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite,” “Rondo,” and others. [15]



  • Inferno – soundtrack (1980)
  • Nighthawks – soundtrack (1981)
  • Honky (1982)
  • Best Revenge – soundtrack (1985)
  • Murder Rock – soundtrack (1986)
  • The Emerson Collection (1986)
  • Harmageddon/China Free Fall (1987)
  • The Christmas Album (1988)
  • Changing States (aka Cream of Emerson Soup) (1995)
  • Emerson Plays Emerson (2002)
  • La Chiesa – soundtrack (2002)
  • Godzilla: Final Wars – soundtrack (2004)
  • At the Movies (2005)
  • Hammer It Out (anthology) (2005)
  • Off the Shelf (2006)
  • Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla (2008)
  • “Moscow” – live album CD & DVD (2010)
  • The Three Fates Project (The Keith Emerson Band) (2012)

As part of a group

For Emerson’s work with The Nice, see The Nice Discography. For Emerson’s work with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, see Emerson, Lake & Palmer discography. For Emerson’s work with Emerson, Lake & Powell, see Emerson, Lake & Powell Discography. For Emerson’s work with 3, see 3 Discography.

Emerson also appeared with the short-lived group Aliens of Extraordinary Ability with Stuart Smith, Richie Onori, Marvin Sperling and Robbie Wykoff.[16]

Partial list of pieces based on other composers’ works

Note that lack of credit does not imply plagiarism. It is certain that, where required, royalties were paid to composers or their estates. Permission to use pieces was sometimes denied by the composer’s family or estate, as for instance with Gustav Holst‘s Mars, the Bringer of War. Aaron Copland was said to be somewhat puzzled by Emerson’s take on Fanfare For the Common Man, but approved its use. Alberto Ginastera, on the other hand, was thrilled by Emerson’s electronic realisation of his first piano concerto, the fourth movement of which appeared on their album Brain Salad Surgery under the title “Toccata,” and declared that he wished he could have done it in that fashion.

With the Nice

With ELP

With Billy Sherwood

Contemporary usage

The surreal comedy series, Big Train, featured Emerson portrayed by Kevin Eldon, as a Roman slave fighting his enemies with progressive rock.[18]

See also


  1. ^ “ Keith Emerson: Biography”. Retrieved 23 February 2012. 
  2. ^ Contemporary Keyboard 3 (10): 22–30, 32, 36, 38, 52. 1977. 
  3. ^ Contemporary Keyboard 6 (9): 16–23. 1980. 
  4. ^ “25 giants of keyboard music”, Keyboard, January 2000  “No one else captured the hearts of fledgling rock keyboardists through the ’70s and ’80s the way he did.”
  5. ^ “AllMusic profile”. “Keith Emerson has proven himself perhaps the greatest, most technically accomplished keyboardist in rock history.”
  6. ^ Hanson, Martyn. Hang On to a Dream – The Story of the Nice. Helter Skelter Publishing. ISBN 1-900924-43-9. 
  7. ^ Fortner, Stephen (December 2010), “KEITH EMERSON Interviewed by You”, Keyboard Magazine 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco (2002). Analog Days, The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Harvard University Press. 
  9. ^ Bernstein, David (29 September 2004), “A Comeback for Another Classic Rocker: The Moog Synthesizer”, The New York Times  “Mr. Emerson’s towering, 10-foot-tall, 550-pound Monster Moog, as he called it, was an indispensable part of the group’s concerts, even though it was often unreliable and difficult to play.”
  10. ^ Emerson, Keith. “MEETING MR. BRUBECK AGAIN”. Official Keith Emerson Website. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  11. ^ Emerson, Keith (18 May 2004). “Photos – 18 May 2004 – MoogFest”. Official Website. Retrieved 2011-11-10. 
  12. ^ Lewis, Mick (29 September 2011). “An Electrifying Journey: Origin of a Music Festival Celebrating Innovator Bob Moog”. Brooklyn, NY: The Tuned Inn. Retrieved 2011-11-10. 
  13. ^ [1]
  14. ^ Maconie, Stuart (2004). Cider With Roadies (1st ed.). London: Random House. p. 53. ISBN 0-09-189115-9. 
  15. ^ ‘Can You Still Keep Your Balance?’: Keith Emerson’s anxiety of influence, style change, and the road to prog superstardom (5th ed.). London: Cambridge University Press. 2005. p. 227-230. doi:10.1017/S0261143005000425. 
  16. ^ “Hard Rock Service”. Retrieved 1 February 2012. 
  17. ^ Vaughan Williams: Greensleeves/Tallis Fantasia. The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra/Wordsworth. Argo 440 116-2 (1994)
  18. ^ Big Train – Keith Emerson
  • Forrester, George, Martyn Hanson and Frank Askew. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Show That Never Ends, A Musical Biography. (2001) Helter Skelter Publishing ISBN 1-900924-17-X.
  • Keith Emerson, Pictures of an Exhibitionist. (2004) ISBN 1-84454-053-7

External links

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