BIOGRAPHY OF KEITH EMERSON
(2 November 1944 - 11 March 2016)
Regarded as a legendary figure in the world of keyboards, Keith Emerson emerged as one of the most influential musicians from the vibrant UK rock scene of the 1960s and 1970s. His prominent role as a leader in the progressive rock movement set him apart, as he skillfully blended rock 'n' roll with diverse musical styles, including classical, jazz, and world music. A true maestro of both electronic and acoustic keyboards, particularly the organ and synthesizer, Emerson set an unmatched standard for others to aspire to. With his bands "The Nice" and "Emerson, Lake & Palmer" (ELP), he crafted and recorded some of the most adventurous and captivating rock music of his time, captivating audiences with his virtuosity and captivating stage presence.
Born on November 2, 1944, in Todmorden, Lancashire, England, Emerson quickly gained recognition as a piano prodigy in his hometown of Worthing, Sussex, at the young age of fourteen. In his late teens, he moved to London and joined the bands "V.I.P.'s" and "Gary Farr and the T-Bones," backing their mentor T-Bone Walker at the iconic Marquee Club. Emerson drew inspiration from jazz greats like Fats Waller, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Jack McDuff, and Big John Patton, as well as classical composers such as J.S. Bach, Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich, Béla Barók, and Alberto Ginastera.
In his twenties, Emerson formed the band "The Nice" with Lee Jackson on bass/vocals, Brian Davison on drums, and David O'List on guitar. The group initially backed ex-Ike and Tina Turner singer P.P. Arnold but soon developed a distinctive blend of classical, blues, jazz, and rock. During this period, Emerson embraced the Hammond Organ as his instrument of choice and gained fame for his audacious stage antics and inspired musical performances. "The Nice" recorded several albums and gained notoriety for their performance at London's Royal Albert Hall. Additionally, Emerson was captivated by Walter Carlos' "Switched on Bach" and became the first artist to tour internationally with the newly invented Moog Synthesizer, thanks to its creator, Dr. Robert Moog.
In 1970, "The Nice" disbanded, and Emerson formed the legendary group "Emerson, Lake & Palmer" (ELP) with Greg Lake on bass/vocals and Carl Palmer on drums. Their debut at the Isle of Wight Festival catapulted them to instant fame. The trio made a resounding entrance by delivering a powerful rock adaptation of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," concluding with a barrage of cannon fire. Their first single, "Lucky Man," from the album "Emerson, Lake & Palmer," featured a groundbreaking Moog synthesizer solo that took the world by storm. ELP went on to release six platinum albums between 1970 and 1977, including "Tarkus," "Trilogy," "Brain Salad Surgery," "Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends," and "Works Vol. 1."
They headlined the monumental 1974 California Jam festival, performing to an audience of over 500,000. In 1977, ELP embarked on a tour with a handpicked orchestra, presenting Emerson's "Piano Concerto No. 1." Following the orchestra tour, ELP continued as a trio, releasing two more albums, "Works Vol. 2" and "Love Beach," before disbanding in 1979. In subsequent years, Emerson collaborated with Palmer in "Emerson, Lake & Powell" and the band "3," respectively. The original ELP lineup reunited in 1992 with the highly acclaimed album "Black Moon," followed by world tours and live performance releases such as "Live at the Royal Albert Hall" in 1993 and "Then And Now" in 1999.
Emerson's solo career saw the release of his first album, the Caribbean island-inspired "Honky," in 1980. He also recorded and released "The Christmas Album," showcasing his unique interpretation of classic Christmas songs alongside original seasonal pieces. Additionally, Emerson delved into motion picture soundtrack composition, crafting scores for various films from 1979 to 1989, including the orchestral score for the Universal Studios feature "Nighthawks," starring Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams, as well as Dario Argento's cult Italian horror masterpiece "Inferno." He also composed the music for Marvel Animation's cartoon action TV series "Iron Man" in 1994. Emerson's talent extended to scoring the soundtrack for Toho Film's 2004 release "Godzilla: Final Wars," directed by Japanese filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura.
Throughout his career, Emerson periodically released new material and graced the stage with remarkable performances. He even reunited with his former bandmates Brian Davison and Lee Jackson from The Nice, along with Dave Kilminster, Pete Riley, and Phil Williams, for a show in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2002, resulting in the album "Vivacitas: Live at Glasgow 2002." In the same year, he also released the solo piano album "Emerson Plays Emerson." Emerson chronicled his journey in the autobiography "Pictures of an Exhibitionist" in 2003. His contribution to music received recognition with the two-disc compilation "Hammer It Out: The Anthology" released by Castle Records in 2005. Emerson embarked on tours across the USA, UK, Europe, and Japan from 2004 to 2006 with his Keith Emerson Band, occasionally collaborating with orchestras in Naples, Italy, and Beijing, China, to raise awareness about environmental issues.
Throughout his illustrious career, Keith Emerson consistently emerged as the recipient of the coveted Overall Best Keyboardist award in the annual Keyboard Magazine Readers' Poll. Since the magazine's inception in 1975, he held a position of honor on their advisory board, a testament to his remarkable talent and influence. In recent years, Emerson's pioneering contributions to electronic music were recognized by The Smithsonian Institution, where he was honored alongside Dr. Robert Moog.
In 2004, Emerson penned his autobiography, "Pictures of an Exhibitionist," which chronicles his life journey up until his nearly career-ending nerve-graft surgery in 1993, providing a profound insight into his experiences and challenges.
In December 2007, Emerson took part in the Ahmet Ertegun tribute concert, a historic Led Zeppelin reunion held at the O2 Arena in London. He joined forces with a remarkable ad-hoc "superband" comprising Chris Squire and Alan White (Yes), and Simon Kirke (Bad Company/Free) to open the concert, leaving an indelible mark on the memorable event.
Mid-2008 saw the release of Emerson's new album, "Keith Emerson Band Featuring Marc Bonilla," a collaborative effort with the talented guitarist, vocalist, and composer Marc Bonilla, and producer Keith Wechsler. Following the album release, Emerson embarked on a tour of Eastern Europe, the Baltic, and Japan, accompanied by Travis Davis on bass and Tony Pia on drums. The tour was commemorated with the release of the DVD "Moscow" in 2010. Additionally, Emerson delighted audiences by occasionally joining jazz orchestras to perform captivating new arrangements of ELP pieces alongside standard jazz compositions.
In March 2010, Emerson was bestowed with the prestigious Frankfurt Music Prize by the city of Frankfurt, honoring his exceptional contributions to music. Around the same time, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra presented the premiere performance of Takashi Yoshimatsu's arrangement of "Tarkus." The live recording of this monumental event, titled "Tarkus: Classic Meets Rock," was released by Nippon Columbia. In 2013, Emerson attended a Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra concert conducted by Sachio Fujioka, during which they performed Yoshimatsu's version of "Tarkus" in Tokyo, Japan. While in Tokyo, he was featured in a comprehensive network television show that showcased his illustrious career and body of work. The orchestrated rendition of "Tarkus" served as the theme music for a year-long epic drama series on the national television station, further highlighting Emerson's far-reaching impact.
In April/May 2010, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake embarked on a captivating duo tour across the United States and Canada. The live recording of the tour titled “Live from Manticore Hall “ was released in 2014.
On July 25, 2010, the iconic trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer reunited for a momentous one-off concert, taking center stage as the main act at the High Voltage Festival in Victoria Park, London. The extraordinary event served as a testament to the enduring legacy of the band and was immortalized in a DVD release in 2011, allowing fans to relive the magic of their reunion.
In his later years, Keith Emerson's compositions reached new heights as notable classical music composers, conductors, and musicians such as Jeffrey Biegel, Michael Kieran Harvey, and Yutaka Sado began performing orchestral renditions of his acclaimed works, including "Tarkus" and "Piano Concerto No.1," across the globe. Additionally, Emerson continued to collaborate with jazz orchestras, infusing fresh arrangements of ELP pieces alongside standard jazz compositions. Demonstrating his versatility and passion for music, Emerson made his conducting debut with the Orchestra Kentucky of Bowling Green, Kentucky in September 2013. In October 2014, he conducted the South Shore Symphony at his 70th birthday tribute concert at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York. The concert featured the premiere of his Three String Quartets and a stunning performance of his "Piano Concerto No. 1" by Jeffrey Biegel.
In September 2011, Emerson embarked on a fruitful collaboration with the Norwegian conductor Terje Mikkelsen, accompanied by the Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla and The Munich Radio Orchestra. Together, they crafted enchanting orchestral renditions of ELP classics as well as new compositions. The work received its UK live premiere on July 10, 2015, at London's Barbican Centre, where the BBC Concert Orchestra joined the celebration of the life and work of Robert Moog.
In September 2015, Emerson graced the stage at a festival in Palermo while pianist Primavera Shima performed the "Piano Concerto No. 1," conducted by Scott Jackson Wiley. This event marked his final public appearance.
Tragically, Keith Emerson passed away on March 11, 2016, at his home in Santa Monica, California. Remarkably, this date coincided with the fifth anniversary of his composition of a poignant piano solo piece dedicated to the victims of the tsunami in Japan. His remarkable musical journey came to a close at the age of 71, leaving behind a profound and enduring musical legacy.
In May 2016, an unforgettable event took place in Los Angeles, California: The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert. This momentous gathering was spearheaded by Marc Bonilla, a long-time collaborator and dear friend of Keith Emerson, along with his fiancée Mari Kawaguchi. The concert brought together an extraordinary lineup of talented musicians and friends who paid homage to Emerson's musical legacy. Among the performers were Jordan Rudess, Steve Porcaro, Gregg Bissonette, Brian Auger, Karma Auger, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Steve Lukather, CJ Vanston, Marc Bonilla, Philippe Saisse, Vinnie Colaiuta, Troy Luccketta, Aaron Emerson, Jonathan Sindelman, Rachel Flowers, Joe Travers, Terje Mikkelsen, Ed Roth, Mike Wallace, Mick Mahan, Rick Livingstone, and Travis Davis. The concert and subsequent DVD release, titled "Fanfare for the Uncommon Man," generously donated all proceeds to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. This meaningful contribution aimed to support research and raise awareness for the ailment that Keith Emerson had battled.
In July 2017, "Keith Emerson: A Musical Celebration of His Life" took place in Birmingham, England, further commemorating the remarkable musician. The event featured an extraordinary lineup of artists, including Rick Wakeman, Marc Bonilla, Terje Mikkelsen, Rachel Flowers, Aaron Emerson, Thierry Eliez, and even Keith's grandson, Ethan Emerson. Their heartfelt performances paid tribute to the indelible mark that Keith Emerson left on the music world.
Continuing to honor Keith Emerson's legacy, in November 2022, Rocket 88, the creator of "Emerson, Lake and Palmer – Official Illustration Book," released a comprehensive 224-page publication titled "Keith Emerson: The Official Illustrated Story." This unique book was created in collaboration with Emerson's family and friends, providing an in-depth look into his life, career, and musical journey. Additionally, the Estate of Keith Emerson has plans for further posthumous releases, ensuring that his profound contributions to music continue to be celebrated and cherished by fans worldwide.
(Updated June 2023)