Keith Emerson has passed away, in Santa Monica, California; he was 71 years old. According to latest reports he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Santa Monica police confirmed that his death was being investigated as a suicide. A police spokesman said Emerson’s body was found in the early hours of Friday morning by his girlfriend Mari Kawaguchi at their flat in the Californian city.
For many, the initials ELP signify everything magnificent, everything pomp, everything over the top about Prog Rock and it’s largely due to the keyboard brilliance of Keith Emerson. Keith Noel Emerson was born in 1944 in Yorkshire, but grew up in the seaside town of Worthing, West Sussex, learning to play the piano and studying classical music.
Yet for many, it’s Keith’s work with The Nice, the band he co-founded in 1967 as the backing band for former Ikette, P.P Arnold that will resonate. The Nice evolved from Gary Farr and the T-Bones, which keyboardist Emerson and bassist Keith “Lee” Jackson played with in the mid-sixties. The Nice played their first gig in May 1967, achieving a major break at the 7th National Jazz and Blues Festival in Windsor in August. Managed by Andrew Loog Oldham they played a set by themselves, as well as backing Pat Arnold; when
Arnold returned to the USA shortly afterwards, Oldham offered the group a contract.
It was The Nice’s second single that proved to be their breakthrough, their arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘America’ was stunning. For anyone who witnessed Emerson in full flow, knives plunged into his keyboard to sustain the notes on the Hammond, while simultaneously setting fire to an American flag, will never forget the raw excitement that juxtaposed his brilliance. The Nice’s albums were among the most thoughtful in the early years of rock music, constantly challenging the accepted norm for what a group should be playing. Their Five Bridges Suite is a tour de force and will as the years roll by come to be accepted as a ground-breaking record.
Two years after ‘America’, Emerson joined Carl Palmer and Greg Lake and formed the first Prog super group, ELP. Their first five studio albums, featuring a unique combination of rock and classical themes were massive hits in America. In 1971 Emerson came up with the idea of turning Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, into a 37-minute rock and classical fusion piece. It still stands up.
This was a band that knew no fear, and it was largely due to Emerson, of whom band mate Carl Palmer says, “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.”
Emerson Lake and Palmer last played together in 2010, when they staged a 40th anniversary reunion at the High Voltage Festival in London. Their most recent album was in 1994, but Emerson himself continued to play and to perform.
Keith Emerson was a keyboard genius, one of a handful of musicians in rock who were able to stand shoulder to shoulder with their classical counterparts…Emerson, the late Jon Lord and Rick Wakeman are the three keyboard players who everyone holds in high esteem.
Go and play, ‘America; and marvel at its audacity and its brilliance.