Unless you are a fan of progressive rock, you probably have never heard of Keith Emerson. But if you do know who he is, this is a dark day. The founder of the group, Emerson, Lake and Palmer was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head on Friday morning. Police are investigating his death as a suicide. His longtime girlfriend found him at their home in Santa Monica, California.
Emerson was widely held to be a maestro, both at the keyboards and as a composer. A child prodigy, the Yorkshire-born musician was playing in London clubs in his teens. He formed his group, The Nice, in his twenties and went on to found Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1970, with drummer Carl Palmer and vocalist/guitarist/bassist Greg Lake. At about the same time he began using the Moog synthesizer, bringing it into the musical spotlight. ELP, as the band is known, were wildly experimental, playing classical music like Pictures At An Exhibition and Aaron Copeland’s Hoedown and Fanfare For The Common Man, as well as Prog-rock opuses like Karn Evil 9 and Tarkus.
After ELP broke up — and after a brief reunion in 1999 — Emerson composed movie scores and created other new material. He formed another band, calling it The Keith Emerson Band. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, the band toured to help promote environmental awareness. There were also occasional collaborations with various orchestras to promote the environmental issues.
After the tsunami of December 2004, Emerson held a small benefit with some pals in his “local pub” the Six Bells in Sussex, England. The impromptu appeal raised over £1,000 for tsunami victims. In September 2005, Emerson and the “Los Angeles Rock & Roll crowd” held a concert to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Emerson has won the Best Keyboardist award in the annual Keyboard Magazine reader’s poll every year since the magazine debuted in 1975. He was honored at the Smithsonian along with Robert Moog, the inventor of the instrument Emerson made his trademark. He received the prestigious Frankfurt Music Prize in 2010. Emerson was also involved with NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants, in their efforts to keep music programs in public schools.
Emerson’s longtime partner, Mari Kawaguchi, said in a statement Friday afternoon that Emerson preferred to listen to jazz or classical music at home.
He hated being called rock star or prog-rock star…he wanted to be known as composer. He never succumbed to being commercially successful. He had no interest. He always said: ‘I’m not a rock star. I’ve never been a rock star. All I want is to play music.’ He was just natural. The music was always in his head, always. Even when he was sleeping, you know, I could tell he was always thinking about music. Sometimes he would wake up and compose music. And it was all so, so beautiful.
The world of Prog rock has lost one of its brightest stars. Musicians of all genres are paying tribute to Keith Emerson today, including his former bandmate and friend, Carl Palmer, who posted this on his Facebook page:
I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my good friend and brother-in-music, Keith Emerson. 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.
If you were lucky enough to see Keith Emerson play live, you know how much of a showman he was. The neurological problems he had with his right arm and hand didn’t seem to slow him down much. He had tour dates set for this year. It’s a real shame that we won’t be gifted with any more of his amazing keyboard performances.
I was lucky enough to see ELP when they reunited in 1999 and it was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. Keith Emerson was a maniac and maestro, playing his keyboards backward, upside down, with a switchblade (no, really!) even spinning around, belted on to his bench. The man was a force of nature. He did good not only with music but with his life. May he find peace.
Here is a video of Keith Emerson playing with ELP in the 1970s:
And, if rock isn’t your thing, he could do this, too:
Featured image via Wikipedia