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Keith Emerson

a life story

If, in some celebrity packed hall, a sparkling starlet announced the award for the world's most famous synthesiser solo, what notes would drift out of the PA as the happy recipient collected the prize?

"The one that starts 'ohh... OHHH," is the usual reply whenever we've posed the question. Invariably the answering expert starts on a low note and glides upwards by exactly an octave.

What they don't realise is that with those two notes they're re-writing the history of the keyboard. Those notes, and the solo that follows them, mark one of the earliest rock appearances of the Moog synth. They arrive at the end of "Lucky Man", on the first ELP album, and they were played by Keith Emerson.

First stabs

Keith Emerson was born on November 1, 1944, and hadn't even made it to junior school before being addicted to the piano.

Lessons came early from an ancient teacher who would visit the household at weekends, taking over from Keith's father who had already taught him the rudiments. By the time Emerson entered his teens, he had a grade seven standard certificate under his belt.

But after-school hours were spent listening to jazz records, and earliest gigs were to be as part of a local Worthing big band performing Basie and Ellington swing arrangements.

And it was around this time that Emerson's long affair began with boogie woogie and the likes of piano greats such as Oscar Peterson and Meade Lux Lewis.

Tired of pounding the ropey pianos provided at south coast gigs, he saved some cash and, with the help of a loan from his father, went out in search of an organ, finally settling, almost by chance, on a Hammond L100. They did have to fix an extra amp in the back, but he was at least mobile... ish.

He progressed to r'n'b bands gigging around Europe where it wasn't uncommon for the audience to erupt in fights. Neither was it too unusual for the band to join in, at least with the excitement if not the fist slinging. It was these occasions which seemingly gave birth to Emerson's stage act which involved leaping on top of any keyboard he didn't happen to be throwing around the stage.

The first major break came when he was recruited for the backing band behind Pat Arnold, a former singer with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, which visited Britain in 1966.

Arnold was signed to Immediate Records and slotted into a studio with various r'n'b celebrities of the time, including Jimmy Page. A successful single prompted a UK tour and the need for a band. First to be contacted was a bass player called Keith 'Lee' Jackson, who had moved from the north-east gig circuit to join Gary Farr and the T Bones. Emerson was also playing with Farr. They were lured away and joined to a drummer, Brian Davidson, and guitarist David O'List, who had previously played with The Attack.

In fear of there being too many Keiths, Jackson adopted his "Lee" surname full time. It was perhaps a better choice of titles than the entire band later elected for itself. They plumped for The Nice.

At that year's Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival (also attended by Fleetwood Mac and the Yardbirds) the "backing" band found themselves with half an hour in which they could impress the audience before Pat Arnold came on stage. They never glanced back, and a parting of ways soon followed.

The Nice

When the four musicians first went out on their own, they were billed as "PP Arnold's Backing Band", but had left those days laps behind. Emerson began experimenting with classical arrangements and knife throwing — and the Hammond L100 was the target for both.

"I remember years ago there was a big scene where groups used to do classical things and bang the hell out of them," he once told journalists when The Nice's career was; at its peak. "Nero and the Gladiators would play 'Hall Of The Mountain King' and B Bumble and the Stingers would do 'Nut Rocker'. These tunes were just beaten up without any respect for what the composer had in mind. They would alter the values of the notes to force them to swing. When we played 'Karelia' we used the proper symphonic arrangement. I wrote out the classical bass line for Lee to play on bass guitar." (MM 22/3/69).

Residencies at the Marquee and acclaimed American tours built the band's following and reputation. Their debut album "Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack" arose from sessions in Barnes under the hand of Rolling Stones engineer Glyn Johns. The bizarre album heading had been hammered together from the first halves of each musician's surname. When it was released Emerson was 22 years old. In retrospect, they were not too hot with titles.

A second album "Ars Longa Vita Brevis" compounded their success and in 1969 Emerson was commissioned to write an orchestral piece for the Newcastle Arts Festival. Taking the local river as inspiration, he produced the Five Bridges Suite, but such was the demand for The Nice, he had only days in which to write out the score, yet has since cited it as one of his favourite works. The first five bars were reportedly written on the back of an airsick bag during a flight to the town in question.

But stranger developments were waiting. In a regular repair visit to a music shop (where he was told they couldn't fix his stabbed Hammond's any longer), the organist heard as album called "Switched On Bach" by a certain Walter Carlos using a device described as a Moog Synthesizer.

Urgent enquiries revealed that Manfred Mann's keyboard player, Mike Vickers, had one of these animals in his flat, having forked out about £4,000 to bring it into the country. Even so he'd just been beaten to the first one by George Harrison.

Considering the myths and legends that were later to be circulated about the synthesiser, Vicker's explanation at the time proved impressively down to earth: "A lot of people have the wrong idea about Moogs. It's not hard to get noises out of them, but if you want the sound of just one instrument it's often cheaper and easier to book a musician."

Easier, certainly, because the Moog Emerson saw was a collection of electronic modules linked by jack-to-jack leads. New sounds involved furious swapping of cables. Which is why when Emerson finally convinced Vickers to let him borrow the synth for a concert with the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall, he also had to borrow Vickers himself who lurked behind the machine, occasionally leaping up to swap patches.

But the bug had bitten and Emerson was soon ordering his own from America — a "preset" version with fewer leads and a collection of punched cards that would call up certain patches. In fact the cards were mostly there to change tunings.

And it was a temptation. By 1969 Emerson was beginning to grow tired of The Nice and the Moog precipitated his departure:

"It had become stereotyped. The surprises had gone because we knew what to expect from each other. When I was playing the Moog Synthesiser at the Royal Festival Hall for the first time I felt the new possibilities of the instrument and that reminded me of the element of surprise." (MM 29/3/69)

And while touring in the States the previous September, he'd stumbled across a soul mate... another Scorpio. "I felt the need to work with other musicians' influences to inspire new elements of my musical nature. I met Greg Lake at the Fillmore East and since then we have talked and played together and found we were both on the same scene." (MM 29/3/69)

In fact Lake had been singing and playing bass with King Crimson who shared the bill with The Nice at the Fillmore gig. When both returned to England they began searching for a drummer. In the time being, rumours were flying about that Emerson and Lake were collaborating with Hendrix or Frank Zappa, or both. So few were prepared for the recruitment of Carl Palmer who completed the three vital initials, ELP.


By mid 1970 ELP were completing their first album and much of the lightheartedness of The Nice had been left behind. In October Dr Robert A Moog paid a visit to Emerson's Olympia flat, waxing enthusiastic about his latest device, the £600 Minimoog which would do away with patch cords and bring synthesis within the grasp of the pauper in the street.

His host had been playing and recording with the patchable Moog 1C system which had grown steadily over the years as the good doctor had dispatched more oscillators, filters, and sequencers to Britain.

"The only trouble is that there really isn't anybody in this country who fully understands them," quoth the pianist. "I've had one module go which was easy to unscrew and replace, but I don't know what would happen if something blew that I couldn't diagnose. I've not had a lot of trouble with it really; the main problem has been that it reacts quite a lot to changes of temperature." (MM 31/9/70)

"Emerson Lake and Palmer", the album, arrived like a cultural bomb shell in the midst of 1971's fascination for the heaviness of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. It had been completed at Advision Studios with the final session using the organ at St Mark's Church, Finchley.

That year Emerson could be found touting around the Moog 1C, a Hammond C3 (for playing), a Hammond L100 (for stabbing), two Leslie 122 speaker cabs, a PRO 900 amp, two custom-built horns, a customised Leslie, two 100W Hiwatt amps and speakers, and a Hohner Clavinet L.

In 1971 they scooped four places in the annual Melody Maker readers' poll — best pianist/organist, best drummer, best group and best album. The album was Tarkus, their second release, and a stunning leap in vision and use of synthesisers. One side was devoted to a 20 minute piece of interlinked songs and instrumentals, many using the Moog for strange effects and unusual tunings.

"The main idea for Tarkus came from an improvisation that I was playing one night on tour... I found myself playing a new type of music that I couldn't relate to anything else." (HOR)

ELP were approaching the zenith of their popularity. The band were so sought after it was decided to rush release a third album comprising live tracks made before Tarkus was undertaken. The material was already popular as showstoppers, so how could it fail? The tracks in question were ELP's versions of Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition".

The rush wasn't fast enough. Ads began appearing in the weekly rock press apologising for delays in production of the album. Then when it did come out, the band found themselves in the midst of a row between record company, who'd recommended it should sell for £1.49, and shops who were pushing it out at £2.

To top it all they were due to start a tour in Newcastle but had to cancel the dates when the gear was flown by mistake to Frankfurt.

Sweating it out

In mid 1972 ELP went to Japan and sparked riots at airports and concerts. But what probably worried Emerson more was how the Moog would stand up to the heat and humidity of Tokyo.

Tuning had always been a problem and he'd long ago resorted to building a tuner into the final output so at the flick of a switch the Moog could be silenced and he'd press an A to make sure it read 440Hz on the screen.

Humidity was the major challenge. Part of the Moog's switching system depended on Keith's moist finger making contact between two metal plates — and the air was already doing that for him.

A frequent calamity was that after releasing a key, the pitch would droop. This Bob Moog later diagnosed as moisture causing capacitors in the keyboard to discharge when they ought to be holding stable and maintaining the original pitch.

In Tokyo, Emerson was still on the phone an hour before the gig trying to get through to Moog in America to ask advice — without success.

"It's like being an astronaut on the moon and you've got a problem. The only guy who can help is at Mission Control thousands of miles away." (MM 20/8/72)

The roadies commandeered dozens of fans and kept them pointing at the 1C throughout the concert. Perhaps it was to cool his own nerves that Emerson let the Hammond off its usual dagger attack and merely subjected it to blows from a borrowed Samurai sword.

This time round ELP took seven places in the MM poll: best group (British section), best group (International section), best drummer, best keyboard player, best producer, best composer and best arranger.

As a thank you to fans they staged a concert at the Oval cricket ground by which time the synths had grown to become a IIIC Moog and a Minimoog Model D. Though by now Emerson had racks of Dr Bob's sequencers teetering above the control panels, they were still at the stage of being used as effects, not as bass lines nor compositional tools.

It was about this time when the first signs of the ELP backlash materialised. John Peel called them "...a waste of electricity." The next album, "Trilogy", saw a drop in sales and ELP seemed stuck for an answer. Emerson was philosophical: "All bands go through this kind of lull. In the past we've always had something ready in the bag. When we did 'Pictures' we already had 'Trilogy' recorded and ready. Now the recording gap has caught up, the thing is not to panic." (HOR)

Emerson had often maintained that one of his favourite ways of composing was to scribble ideas direct onto a musical stave. Critics were attacking them as mechanical and dependent on science. Rumours spread of a general malaise within the band and the possibility of a split, but in interviews Emerson merely put it down to a temporary breather.

Matters had not been helped by the hardly lucrative Trilogy Tour where the task of taking a proscenium arch from gig to gig had vampirised the profits.

The next album, "Brain Salad Surgery", showed the band attempting to shake themselves up by returning to the Tarkus scheme of one lengthy track (Karn Evil 9), yet with an earthier sound than they'd ever applied before.

(The public didn't respond, and when the live sides of "Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends" was put out, the title seemed almost a cruel hoax. ELP had vanished.

In fact, contrary to general assumption, they hadn't split, but spent most of 1974 and 1975 rethinking a musical style, which in their own words, they had condemned as exhausted.

In 1977 the first of these born-again ELP projects was released — a double album with one side given over to each member and the final side saved for two band pieces... "Pirates" and the highly successful "Fanfare For A Common Man". Emerson's version of this Aaron Copeland piece has perhaps ironically lived on to be ELP's most frequently heard track, it being used for radio jingles, TV shows and ads. It's ironic because few people know who they're listening to.

The album was "Works Volume 1", and if nothing else it clarified a mysterious quote that had issued from Emerson more than a year earlier concerning a new instrument and a possible break with Moog: "I don't want to say too much about it, but I firmly believe it will be good for myself and the band. People think we're relying on new inventions. We're not. We just want to make the biggest possible sound with three people."

And so it was that when viewers first saw an early video of ELP performing "Fanfare" at Montreal's Olympic stadium, they wondered what the hell Emerson was playing: a massive, polyphonic device with three keyboards.

It was the GX1, Yamaha's first move towards digital synthesis and reported variously as costing between £30,000 and £40,000. Stevie Wonder had the other one.

But the rejuvenated instrumentation and two year rest hadn't helped. "Works Vol 2" was a mish mash of out-takes and spare tracks. A proposed 44 date American tour with a 70-piece orchestra was virtually bankrupt within days. In what must have been an enormously depressing meeting, they decided to pay off the musicians and struggle through alone.

In 1978 came the AOR flirtation of "Love Beach", followed the next year by one more live album 'In Concert' and then, finally, in 1980, ELP did return to its constituent initials with barely a whisper.

Last cuts

Despite Emerson's early involvement with Yamaha, it was another Japanese company that eventually captured his interest. He'd lost enthusiasm for Moog products when the founding Dr left the company.

While recording "Love Beach" in Nassau, the engineers showed him a Korg PS3100 polyphonic which distracted him temporarily, but love of his old, fat-sounding Moogs dragged him back. It wasn't until Korg released the CX-3 organ, a super Hammond impersonator complete with variable distortion and key click, that his interest was really excited.

The rest of the Korg catalogue soon followed. From Lambdas to Poly Sixes, but not onto the road. Emerson put his money and efforts into creating his own home studio and then composing in it. He turned away from bands and concentrated on writing film music where his talents for atmosphere, energy and classical interpretation have found an ideal outlet.

His first in 1979 was "Inferno", followed in 1981 by the soundtrack to Sylvester Stallone's "Night Hawks" which features GX-1, Korg and Fairlight. He even sang on one track.

Since then Emerson has been quoted as wishing to return to small gigs but only with the right band, and pursuing film music, yet without compromising his own feelings about composition and orchestration. Korg are also reportedly working on a computer controlled keyboard with sound sampling for him.

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One Two Testing - Copyright: IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


One Two Testing - Jul 1984

Donated & scanned by: Simon Dell


Keith Emerson


Keyboard Player

Related Artists:

Carl Palmer

Feature by Paul Colbert

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