Keith Emerson – A Pioneer of Progressive Rock

1934706_165014425960_4657743_nThe Progressive Rock genre was seeded in the late 1960’s, but many would consider the decade to follow to be it’s golden age. With that said, there is no question the band known as Emerson, Lake & Palmer was a definite force in the growth and expansion of Progressive Rock. Led by keyboardist Keith Emerson, singer/bassist/producer Greg Lake, and drummer Carl Palmer, the band would become one of the most popular Progressive acts of all time. All these years later their influence is still felt. Tragically, on March 10, 2016 the world lost a one of a kind with the passing of Keith Noel Emerson. Coming as a terrible shock to friends, family, and fans, Emerson’s death was untimely as he took his own life at the age of seventy-one. Now in the wake of this heartbreaking news, the music world universally reflects on the man who is by far one of the most influential keyboardists of modern times.

Born on November 2, 1944 in Todmorden, Yorkshire, England to his parents Noel and Dorothy, Emerson was an only child. Coming from humble beginnings, as a young boy his love for music was ever present. His father was a self-taught piano player and Emerson took a great interest in his playing. From eight to twelve years of age he was able to receive classical piano training, and by his mid-teens he acquired his first Hammond organ, an L-100 model. This is when he began to hone in on his craft.

In his early teens he started playing with other local musicians but by his late teens he found himself moving to London where he would play with the band the V.I.P’s and later with Gary Farr And The T-Bones. Coming into his own at the age of twenty-three, in 1967 Emerson formed The Nice with bandmates Lee Jackson (bass guitar), who he had worked with previously in Gary Farr and The T-Bones, David O’List (guitar) and Ian Hague (drums) as a request for a new back-up band for Soul singer P.P. Arnold. Emerson agreed to this request under one condition, that the band could perform solo by being the opening act for her shows.

By late summer of 1967 they were awarded their own contract by Andrew Loog Oldham, and they broke away from P.P. Arnold. Then in late 1967 The Nice released their debut The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack, an album that was named within the article “50 Albums That Built Prog Rock,” published by Classic Rock Magazine in July of 2010. By the summer of 1968, O’List had parted ways with the band and Emerson decided not to replace him, but instead take a heavier roll in the composing, enabling him to expand his ferocious playing style. The Nice would release four more albums as a trio and the band would be Emerson’s first taste of success. 

The Nice (left to right: Lee Jackson, Keith Emerson, late Brian Davison)
The Nice (left to right: Lee Jackson, Keith Emerson, late Brian Davison)

Still looking to expand his horizons, by 1969 Emerson was looking to start a new project. While his band The Nice was on tour in the United States with King Crimson, Emerson and King Crimsons’ Greg Lake (vocals/bass) clicked, thus making the decision to to form a new band together, a vision that would not transpire until a year later when drummer Carl Palmer would join them to create the force known to all as Emerson, Lake & Palmer. At this point Emerson’s style of playing had progressed, becoming more unique and aggressive as by now he had learned to manhandle his Hammond organ. During the Summer of 1970 the trio recorded their self-titled debut, releasing it in November of that year. Immediately striking success, the record reached No. 4 in the United Kingdom and No. 18 in the United States. Featuring the single “Lucky Man,” the album would go gold and the song would become one of their best-known pieces.

Going on to tour extensively through the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the trio returned to the recording studio to work on their sophomore album entitled Tarkus. Now at the cusp of 1971, bigger things for the band lay just ahead. In April and May of 1971 the band partook in their first North American tour. With more exposure in the American market, Tarkus’ release in June 1971 was a huge commercial success, reaching No. 1 in the United Kingdom, No. 9 in the United States, and easily reaching platinum status.


Continuing to strike gold, they released the live album Pictures At An Exhibition, a live performance from March 26, 1971 at the Newcastle City Hall where they performed a 37-minute Rock adaptation of the eponymous piano suite by Modest Mussorgsky. Pioneering for it’s time, Emerson, Lake & Palmer would help set the platform for more artists to release successful live albums. Quickly following up with the studio album Trilogy in 1972, which would also achieve success, and involved the release of the single “From The Beginning,” which featured Emerson doing an extended synthesizer solo.

The following year, the band’s success resulted in the formation of their own record label, Manitcore Records, as well as the acquisition of an abandoned cinema in the Fulham section of London to be used as their own rehearsal hall. In that same year, from June to September, the band returned to the studio to record their next album Brain Salad Surgery. Released in November 1973, it swiftly reached No.2 in the United Kingdom and No. 11 in the United States and became yet another Platinum seller. Again allowing Emerson’s impeccable skills to shine, the song “Jerusalem” debuted his Moog Apollo polyphonic synthesizer.


The band went on an extensive tour of the United States and Europe from November 1973 to September 1974. A highlight from this tour was headlining the inaugural California Jam Festival on April 6, 1974 in Ontario, California, where they played to an audience of over 250,000 people. Their performance was broadcast throughout the United States. Some critics felt the performance was too theatrical and over the top, but the fans knew better. Here Emerson was playing a piano as it spun end-over-end, and he would be seen using his signature daggers to hold the organ keys down. This extensive tour gave the material for their next album, Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends… Ladies And Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It was released in August 1974 as a triple album and followers loved it, helping the record peak at No. 4 in the United States and No. 5 in the United Kingdom.

At the end of 1974, Emerson, Lake & Palmer was working as hard as any Rock band in the business and it was time for a much-needed break. The break would last into 1976 when they would regroup and head back into the studio. The resulting double LP, Works Volume 1, was released in March 1977 where each band member had their songs featured on one side of each album with the fourth side being collaborative songs. Emerson’s side consisted of the eighteen minute, three-movement “Piano Concerto No. 1.” This release again charted high, reaching No. 9 in the United Kingdom and No. 12 in the United States. In fact, the single “Fanfare For The Common Man” would become their highest charting single in the United Kingdom, reaching No. 2.

Promo photo coutrsey of
Promo photo courtesy of

Later that same year, Works Volume 2 was released in November 1977; a compilation of songs the group had recorded during various sessions from 1973 to 1976. While this album did not receive as much commercial success as their previous ones, it still hit No. 20 in the United Kingdom and No. 37 in the United States. The North American tour that supported these releases started in May 1977, going through until March 1978, and proved to be one of their most costly tours as Emerson encouraged Lake and Palmer to hire an orchestra to accompany them. Due to budget constraints, this expensive arrangement did not last for the full tour. Regardless, the venture yielded a live album that was released in November 1979, Emerson, Lake & Palmer In Concert. Then in 1978 the band returned to the studio for what would turn out to be the last time during this era. The album, entitled Love Beach, was poorly received and sadly did not make the charts. Perhaps it was a sign that it was time to start fresh, and the band collectively decided to move on to other projects.

Following the break-up Emerson would take his talents to the big screen, contributing soundtrack work to films such as Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980), Nighthawks (1981), Lucio Fulci’s Murder Rock (1984), and Michele Soavi’s The Church (1989). While it was a departure from mainstream Rock, Emerson’s craft was well appreciated in helping create a soundscape in the films he contributed to, and as a result gained him a new following among Horror film fans. Emerson looked to reform Emerson, Lake & Palmer in 1985, but Palmer had already moved on to work with Asia. As a result Rainbow’s Cozy Powell was brought in, creating Emerson, Lake & Powell. The only album the trio released came in 1986, retaining the familiar Progressive Rock sound fans loved. Thus it received positive reviews as well as charting well in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Sadly the band’s live tour was marred by disputes with management and Emerson, Lake & Powell disbanded shortly afterward.

Cinevox Records

Still moving forward, Emerson would move on and rejoin with Palmer in 1988. This is when Emerson and Palmer were joined by American multi-instrumentalist Robert Berry as they formed a new band called 3, sometimes to referred to as Emerson, Berry & Palmer. Releasing To The Power Of Three in 1988, while critics did not give the album much kudos, fans happily took to it as it charted to No. 97 in the United States, and the single “Talkin’ Bout” peaked at No. 9 in the Mainstream Rock chart. In 1988 the trio went out on the road, accompanied by Paul Keller (guitar) and Jennifer Steele (backing vocals). Once again they disbanded shortly after the tour, but this would not be anywhere near the end of the road for Emerson’s music.

Keeping true to his undying passion for music, Emerson would reform with Lake and Palmer in 1991 to release a comeback album entitled Black Moon. Their eighth studio album hit stores in 1992 and while it did not receive as much commercial success as the band would have liked, it did chart to No. 78 on the Billboard 200 list. Following very successful touring, in 1994 the band would release their ninth and final album, In The Hot Seat. Unsettling to Emerson, it was reported he had suffered some nerve damage in his right hand, making recording difficult. The setback did not stop him or the band and In The Hot Seat was released in September 1994. After Emerson’s recovery, as well as Palmer recovering from his own bout of carpal tunnel syndrome, the band began to tour again and by August of 1998 they did their final live show in San Diego, California.

Geffen Emerson, Berry & Palmer promo

Living many experiences of his life as a musician, Emerson put it all down on paper and released an autobiography in July 2003, aptly named Pictures Of An Exhibitionist. Originally released as a hard copy it’s success led to a later release in 2004 as a paperback. The book gave fans more insight into Emerson’s world and his thoughts. Inspiring, Emerson continued to still yearn to create and in 2008 formed the Keith Emerson Band with Marc Bonilla (vocals/guitars), Travis Davis (bass guitar) along with Tony Pia (drums), and they released a self-titled album that same year. In the midst of new endeavors Emerson also reunited with The Nice in 2002 and with such strong ties from spending so many years together, Emerson would soon be working with Lake in 2010. The two musicians would embark on a tour of North America in April of that year, presenting the fans with an acoustic take on their music.

The duo later released a CD from a recording of this tour, Live From Manticore Hall in July 2014. Then on July 25, 2010 Emerson, Lake & Palmer would play one show for their 40th anniversary at the High Voltage Festival in Victoria Park, London. This show produced a live double album release in October 2010, High Voltage. Two more live releases would follow in 2011, one treated the fans to past days from a show recorded at Long Island’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on February 9, 1978, and the other was a visual release in the way of DVD and Blu-ray of their 40th anniversary live show in London named Welcome Back My Friends – 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert.

Following such a storied career, on January 24, 2014 Emerson was truly honored to be inducted into the Charter Class of the Hammond Hall Of Fame during that year’s NAMM show event. He also delighted fans the following days by making appearances at the Korg and Moog booths to sign memorabilia and take photos with his fans. Then in April of the same year he made a live performance appearance during the Moogfest 2014 event in Asheville, North Carolina, headlining on April 24th with his Keith Emerson Band. Even until most recently Emerson had shows scheduled for his adoring fans. Tragically he was suffering from depression and anxiety due to nerve damage, which worried him he would unable to meet his as well as fans expectations at upcoming shows. This dark hole led to Emerson’s demise when he reportedly took his own life. With depression plaguing so many worldwide in modern society, Emerson’s loss strikes home in a number of capacities.

His flamboyant, theatrical style of playing made it possible for him to meld Classical music with Rock, forming the basis to help define the Progressive Rock genre. Above his musical talents Emerson was highly regarded by anyone who crossed his path. Long-time bandmate Palmer issued the statement, “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.” An uplifting way to remember this once in a lifetime musician, Keith Emerson will forever be missed and remembered for his irrefutable contributions to music.

Photo Credit Neal Preston/Corbis
Keith Emerson & Greg Lake. Photo Credit Neal Preston/Corbis

Keith Emerson’s impact will reign for eternity in the Rock music world. Read some reflections of other musicians’ of Emerson below:

“For those of us that knew him personally, Keith Emerson was a kindhearted, fun-loving, and a very, very sweet man. You put on top of that the level of artistry he presented and you have one remarkable life. Keith was an expressive composer of music and magnificent player of the keys, and a more than spellbinding high-energy performer. Keith Emerson changed my life. He encouraged me, he mentored me and he was a partner in the most glorious musical experience I’ve ever had. It is a terribly sad loss for the world of music and an incredibly sad day for me personally.” – Robert Berry, 3  Guitarist/Vocalist/Producer

“I had a psychotic reaction in my college dorm room when I first heard “Lucky Man” on WXRT in Chicago. I was already hooked on the song, then that synth glide erupted out of my JBLs and slammed me against the wall. I was more CSN than ELP, but that track was one of those that caused time to stop for me. Keith Emerson’s keyboard virtuosity was not enough to satisfy him. He was not only a musical pioneer in the recording studio, but his innovations as a live performer are legendary and were groundbreaking.” – Kevin Cronin, REO Speedwagon Lead Vocalist/Rhythm Guitarist

“The first concert I ever bought tickets for was Emerson, Lake & Palmer at University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, AL.  I was in high school and went with several friends driving over from Birmingham.  It was a huge arena show, the likes of which i’d never experienced.  My favorite album at the time was Brain Salad Surgery.  When Keith Emerson’s keyboard riff first blasted through the monster sound system, I experienced young man nirvana.  When his keyboard rig sprouted wings and started throwing off fireworks at the encore, I went to heaven.”  – Alan Hunter, original MTV VJ

“To all ELP friends and fans all over the world, I would like to express my deep sadness upon hearing this tragic news. As you know Keith and I spent many of the best years of our lives together and to witness his life coming to an end in the way that it has is painful, both to myself and to all who knew him. 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. My deepest condolences go to Keith’s family. May he now be at peace.” – Greg Lake, Emerson, Lake & Palmer Vocalist 


It is well-worth mentioning Emerson also had a love for flying and kept a pilot’s license since 1972. With that said, on September 5, 2015 there was an entry posted to his website titled “Keith Emerson – His Finest Hour.” The entry was a record video of August 17, 2015 at Biggin Hill. This would be the day before the 75th anniversary of what is historically called The Hardest Day named after the second World War air battle fought during the Battle of Britain between the Nazi German Luftwaffe and British Royal Air Force. In memory, Emerson was able to co-pilot a Spitfire aircraft. This event and Emerson’s experience was documented and included as the soundtrack is Emerson’s recording of Abaddon’s Bolero and the premier of his new composition “Beyond The Stars.” Be sure to watch the video below:

Feature article photograph credit: Kevin Nixon

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