A Rockapaedia Obituary
Bands: The Nice also Emerson, Lake & Palmer
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Keith Emerson died aged seventy-one on 11th March 2016 in Santa Monica, California, U.S.A. of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His body was found at his Santa Monica home. Following an autopsy, the medical examiner ruled Keith Emerson's death a suicide, and concluded that he had also suffered from heart disease and from depression associated with alcohol. According to Keith Emerson's girlfriend Mari Kawaguchi, Keith had become "depressed, nervous and anxious" because nerve damage had hampered his playing, and he was worried that he would perform poorly at upcoming concerts and disappoint his fans.
Keith Emerson was buried on 1st April 2016 at Lancing and Sompting Cemetery, Lancing, West Sussex, UK. Although his death had been reported by news sources and an official Emerson, Lake and Palmer social media page as having occurred on the night of 10 March, his grave memorial lists his date of death as 11 March 2016.
His former ELP bandmates, Carl Palmer and Greg Lake, both issued statements on his death. Palmer said, "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." Lake said, "As sad and tragic as Keith's death is, I would not want this to be the lasting memory people take away with them. What I will always remember about Keith Emerson was his remarkable talent as a musician and composer and his gift and passion to entertain. Music was his life and despite some of the difficulties he encountered I am sure that the music he created will live on forever.
Keith Emerson was born in Todmorden, Yorkshire, UK, on 2nd November 1944 his family having been evacuated there from southern England during the Second World War. He grew up in Goring-by-Sea, a seaside resort near Worthing in West Sussex, and attended West Tarring School. His parents were amateur musicians and arranged for him to take piano lessons starting at the age of eight. His father, Noel, played the piano, and thought that Keith would benefit most from being versatile and being able to read music. However, he never received any formal musical training, and described his piano teachers as being "local little old ladies". He learned western classical music, which largely inspired his own style, combining it with jazz and rock themes.
Although Keith Emerson did not own a record player, he enjoyed listening to music on the radio, particularly Floyd Cramer's 1961 slip note-style "On the Rebound" and the work of Dudley Moore. He used jazz sheet music from Dave Brubeck and George Shearing and learned about jazz piano from books. He also listened to boogie-woogie, and to country-style pianists including Joe "Mr Piano" Henderson, Russ Conway and Winifred Atwell. Keith Emerson later described himself: "I was a very serious child. I used to walk around with Beethoven sonatas under my arm. However, I was very good at avoiding being beaten up by the bullies. That was because I could also play Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard songs. So, they thought I was kind of cool and left me alone."
Keith Emerson became interested in the Hammond organ after hearing jazz organist Jack McDuff perform "Rock Candy", and the Hammond became his instrument of choice in the late 1960s. Keith acquired his first Hammond organ, an L-100 model, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, on hire purchase. After leaving school he worked at Lloyds Bank Registrars where he played piano in the bar at lunchtimes. Outside work, he played with several different bands. The flamboyance for which he would later be noted began when a fight broke out during a performance in France by one of his early bands, the V.I.P.s. Instructed by the band to keep playing, he produced some explosion and machine gun sounds with the Hammond organ, which stopped the fight. The other band members told him to repeat the stunt at the next concert.
In 1967, Emerson formed the Nice with Lee Jackson, David O'List and Ian Hague, to back soul singer P. P. Arnold. After replacing Hague with Brian Davison, the group set out on its own, quickly developing a strong live following. The group's sound was centred on Keith Emerson's Hammond organ showmanship and abuse of the instrument, and their radical rearrangements of classical music themes as "symphonic rock". To increase the visual interest of his show, Keith Emerson would abuse his Hammond L-100 organ by, among other things, hitting it, beating it with a whip, pushing it over, riding it across the stage like a horse, playing with it lying on top of him, and wedging knives into the keyboard. Some of these actions also produced musical sound effects: hitting the organ caused it to make explosion-like sounds, turning it over made it feed back, and the knives held down keys, thus sustaining notes. Keith 's show with the Nice has been cited as having a strong influence on heavy metal musicians.
Keith Emerson became well known for his work with the Nice. Outside of the group, he participated in the 1969 Music from Free Creek "supersession" project that included Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. For the session, Keith Emerson performed with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Chuck Rainey covering, among other tunes, the Eddie Harris instrumental "Freedom Jazz Dance".
Keith Emerson first heard a Moog when a record shop owner played Switched-On Bach for him. Without one of his own, Keith Emerson borrowed Mike Vickers' Moog for an upcoming Nice concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Vickers helped patch the Moog, and the concert was a success. Keith Emerson's performance of "Also sprach Zarathustra" (a composition most famous for its use in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey) was acclaimed.
In 1970, Keith Emerson left the Nice and formed Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) with bassist Greg Lake from King Crimson and drummer Carl Palmer from Atomic Rooster. Within a few months, the band played its first shows and recorded its first album, having quickly obtained a record deal with Atlantic Records. ELP became popular immediately after their 1970 Isle of Wight Festival performance, and continued to tour regularly throughout the 1970s. Their set, with a half-million onlookers, involved "annihilating their instruments in a classical-rock blitz" and firing cannons from the stage.
Keith Emerson 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 Janácek and Alberto Ginastera. Occasionally Keith Emerson quoted from classical and jazz works without giving credit, particularly early in his career, from the late 1960s until 1972. An early example of Keith Emerson's arranging was the song "Rondo" by the Nice, which is a 4/4 interpretation of Dave Brubeck's 9/8 composition "Blue Rondo à la Turk". The piece is introduced by an extensive excerpt from the 3rd movement of Bach's Italian Concerto.
On Emerson, Lake & Palmer's eponymous first album, Keith Emerson's classical quotes went largely uncredited. Classical pianist Peter Donohoe has said that "The Barbarian" was an arrangement of "Allegro barbaro" by Bartók, and that "Knife Edge" was based on the main theme of the opening movement of "Sinfonietta" by Janácek. By 1971, with the releases Pictures at an Exhibition and Trilogy, Emerson, Lake & Palmer began to fully credit classical composers, including Modest Mussorgsky for the piano piece which inspired the Pictures album, and Aaron Copland for "Hoedown" on the Trilogy album. Keith Emerson indicated in an interview that he based his version of Pictures at an Exhibition on Mussorgsky's original piano composition, rather than on Maurice Ravel's later orchestration of the work.
Following ELP's 1974 tour, the members agreed to put the band on temporary hiatus and pursue individual solo projects. During this time, Emerson composed his "Piano Concerto No. 1" and recorded it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. According to Emerson, he was motivated by critical comments suggesting that he relied upon adapting classical works because he was unable to write his own music, and further motivated by the London Philharmonic "who weren't that helpful to begin with" and "had the attitude of 'What's a rock musician doing writing a piano concerto?'" Emerson said, "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." The recording later appeared on ELP's album Works Volume 1. Emerson's concerto has since been performed by classical pianists, most notably Jeffrey Biegel, who has performed it several times and recorded it with Emerson's permission.
In 1976, while still in ELP, Keith Emerson also released his first solo record, the single "Honky Tonk Train Blues" b/w "Barrelhouse Shake-Down". "Honky Tonk Train Blues", Emerson's cover of a 1927 boogie-woogie piano song by Meade Lux Lewis, reached #21 on the UK Singles Chart.
After Emerson, Lake & Palmer disbanded in 1979, Keith Emerson pursued a variety of projects during the 1980s and 1990s, including solo releases, soundtrack work and other bands. In the early 1990s, Keith Emerson rejoined the reunited ELP, but the group broke up again by the end of that decade.
In 1981, Keith Emerson released his debut solo album, Honky. Recorded in the Bahamas with local musicians. It departed from Emerson's usual style in featuring calypso and reggae songs, and was generally not well received, except in Italy where it was a hit. Keith Emerson's subsequent solo releases were sporadic, including a Christmas album in 1988, and the album Changing States (also known as Cream of Emerson Soup) recorded in 1989 but not released until 1995, after several of its songs had already been re-recorded and released in different versions on ELP's 1992 comeback album Black Moon. Changing States also contained an orchestral remake of the ELP song "Abaddon's Bolero" with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and "The Church", which Keith Emerson composed for the 1989 Michele Soavi horror film of the same name.
In the 1980s, Keith Emerson began to write and perform music for films, as his orchestral and classical style was more suited for film work than for the new wave-dominated pop/ rock market. Films for which Keith Emerson contributed soundtrack music include Dario Argento's Inferno (1980), the action thriller Nighthawks (1981) starring Sylvester Stallone, (1984 film) Best Revenge, notable because he collaborated with Brad Delp from the band Boston on this soundtrack, that also featured an instrumental piece called "Dream Runner" that became a standard solo performance piece for Keith Emerson during throughout the next decade. He was also the composer for the short-lived 1994 US animated television series Iron Man.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Keith Emerson formed several short-lived supergroups. The first two, Emerson, Lake & Powell, with Lake and ex-Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell, and with Palmer and American multi-instrumentalist Robert Berry. These were intended to carry on in the general style of ELP in the absence of one of the original members. Emerson, Lake & Powell had some success, and their sole album is considered one of the best of both Emerson's and Lake's careers. Progressive rock analyst Edward Macan wrote that Emerson, Lake & Powell were closer to the "classic ELP sound" than ELP's own late-1970s output.
Keith Emerson also toured briefly in 1990 with The Best, a supergroup including John Entwistle of The Who, Joe Walsh of the Eagles, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, and Simon Phillips of Toto). This project focused on covering songs from each of the members' past bands.
In the early 1990s, Keith Emerson formed the short-lived group Aliens of Extraordinary Ability with Stuart Smith, Richie Onori, Marvin Sperling and Robbie Wyckoff. The group's name came from the application process for a US work visa, and the members included several British musicians who, like Keith Emerson, had come to Los Angeles to further their careers. The group turned down a record deal with Samsung because of Keith Emerson's commitment to an ELP reunion and Smith's involvement with a possible reformation of The Sweet.
Keith Emerson married his Danish girlfriend, Elinor, around Christmas 1969. They had two sons, Aaron and Damon, but later divorced. He later had a long-term relationship with Mari Kawaguchi.
Keith Emerson enjoyed flying as a hobby, and obtained his pilot's licence in 1972. When he moved to Santa Monica, California in the mid-1990s, John Lydon, who had openly and harshly criticized ELP during the 1970s when Lydon was a member of the punk band Sex Pistols, was Emerson's neighbour. The two became friends, with Lydon saying in a 2007 interview, "He's a great bloke".
In 1993, Keith Emerson was forced to take a year off from playing after he developed a nerve-related condition affecting his right hand that he likened to "writer's cramp" and that was also reported as a form of arthritis. According to Keith, this coincided with his divorce, his Sussex home burning down, and financial difficulties. During his time off, he ran marathons, customised a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and wrote film scores and his autobiography, Pictures of an Exhibitionist, which opens and closes with an account of his illness and subsequent arm operation. By 2002 he had regained full use of his hands and could play to his usual strength.
In September 2010, Keith Emerson released a message stating: "During a routine medical examination, a colonoscopy revealed a rather dangerous polyp in my lower colon. It is 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".