The composer and musician Keith Noel Emerson was born on this day in 1944.
Emerson was born in the town of Todmorden, near Manchester, close to the end of the second World War. His family later moved to West Sussex, where he grew up. Despite being less than a year old when the war came to an end, Emerson claimed to remember the sound of the bombs falling around him. Perhaps it was the sounds of the war that drove some of his percussive, dissonant sound over the years.
[W]hen you’re stuck behind a keyboard then you have to do something to attract attention to yourself.Keith Emerson with regards to his stage reputation. Retrieved from here.
Emerson formally entered the musical world in the 1960s, playing for groups such as Gary Farr and the T-Bones and the V.I.P.s, where he slowly but surely grew into the legendary musician he is known as today; it was at this time that he began the wild stage act which helped make him famous. While he would eventually be known for such things as a piano which rotated in the air, in the beginning this mostly came down to his onstage treatment of his Hammond L-100. This would see imitations over the years, including famously by Hammond user Jon Lord of Deep Purple. However, despite Emerson’s smaller stature compared to Lord (and frankly, most other famous rock keyboardists!), no one dared go as far as Emerson in rocking, shaking, leaping on top of, dragging, pivoting, or even laying under the instrument during their solos.
Most famously, to hold keys down in concert, Emerson would use large knives. The first of these were gifted by one of his roadies to stand out onstage, as clothespins weren’t quite shocking enough. That roadie was Lemmy Kilmister, later of Mötorhead fame.
Emerson got his big professional break when former Ikette Pat Arnold, known professionally as P.P. Arnold, needed a backing band. Emerson was tasked with providing this band, which earned the name ‘the Nice’ from Arnold. As Arnold was often late to gigs, the Nice developed their own stage show and slowly spun off into becoming their own band rather than a backing band for her. They would end up becoming one of the most famous early progressive rock acts.
After some time with the Nice, Emerson became frustrated with the limits he increasingly saw placed upon him musically, and began to look elsewhere. While he would one day say he wanted to work with Chris Squire to create a new band, it was Greg Lake with whom he began steps towards a new phase in his career late in 1969 after King Crimson and the Nice shared a few bills in the United States. Eventually, the two would recruit Carl Palmer as a third member, becoming the band Emerson, Lake & Palmer and creating a brand of music that can only be defined as “ELP”. Over nine studio albums, many more live albums, ten tours, and hundreds of gigs, they made a name for themselves.
Emerson himself created covers which spanned centuries, including music as early as Bach’s and as recent as Dave Brubeck‘s–sometimes all at once! His own original compositions, meanwhile, brought an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, and rock ‘n roll together into unforgettable works.
He also created film scores for a myriad of projects, working with directors such as Dario Argento and Ryuhei Kitamura. While he sadly left the world far too soon, the music he left while he was here changed everything. Among those who take inspiration from him are Jordan Rudess, Don Airey, and Rachel Flowers, each keyboard wizards in their own right. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that Emerson’s renown will only grow as time goes on.
Today is a good day to play your favorite tunes by ELP or the Nice or watch a video of the keyboard wizard in action for inspiration, but please don’t be inspired to stab your keyboards!
- Note: this was originally published on my personal music blog. It appears here heavily modified from the original version.
- Edit on 2020-05-16: Added information, fixed image.
- Edit on 2020-07-13: Added information and more music
- Edit on 2020-08-30: Optimized for new site
- Edit on 2022-04-13: Readability updates