November 18, 2022

Of very few musicians can it be said they were a seminal presence, in the sense they helped turn music in a different direction or did things on their instrument few would have thought possible. Nobody would ever say Chuck Berry was a virtuoso musician but his songs helped lay the foundations for Rock ‘n Roll, and the impact Jimi Hendrix had in the 1960’s was little short of cataclysmic. Into this category can be slotted Keith Noel Emerson, a seminal keyboard player, the man who introduced the idea of ‘the keyboard hero’ to rival the ‘Clapton is God’ tendency. To say he was gifted on the keyboard is like saying Ronaldo’s scored a lot of goals. He helped to redefine the possibilities of what the keyboard could be like in rock music, and his classical training and influences saw him bringing music based on classical pieces to the masses long before Freddie Mercury was screaming ‘Scaramouche’.  

One of Keith Emerson’s major contributions, as author Chris Welch points out in this delightful book, packed as it is with insights and anecdotes, was in changing the role of the keyboard player in bands. During the rock ‘n roll era and through the sixties, many bands had good players on the organ, notably the Graham Bond Organisation, Spencer Davis Group and Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames – though, to the audiences, they were usually just musicians at the side of the stage, stuck behind a singer or guitarist. But Emerson was a full-on, up-front performer with his epic showmanship, sheer musicality and stage antics, all of which demanded and got the crowd’s attention. He made the keyboard player a counter-cultural item. It’s no coincidence the embryonic prog rock genre – which like it or not, Emerson did as much as anybody to create the template for – mainly centred on keyboards, mellotrons and synthesisers, all of which Emerson was a master practitioner of. In turn, he became one of the ruling overlords of prog rock, which in its inception was the attempt by classically trained musicians to give credibility to rock music by injecting it with some of the features of classical music. As Keith’s friend, Rick Wakeman, states: ‘Keith Emerson definitely influenced so many people in the way rock music was developing at this time by showcasing the organ as a front-line instrument.’

His early life was all about astounding family and friends with his ability to play the piano (Lee Jackson on first hearing Emerson playing: ‘he’s not just good, he’s ******* brilliant’), and moving into mid-teenage, trying to escape the drudgery he experienced while working for Lloyds Bank. Music, to the young Emerson, wasn’t ‘just something you kept for the weekend,’ (Keith’s dad); to him it was an all-consuming passion. The advice he eventually received from his cousin Mandy proved to be pivotal … ‘go for it, you only get one life. It’s in your soul and you can always come back to this.’ His decision led to a family schism but he proved to his father he made the right decision.

Emerson’s career begins with several lesser known bands, including Gary Farr & the T-Bones, but it’s with The Nice, alongside Lee Jackson, Davy O’List and Brian Davison, where he makes his name. They ‘literally exploded’ into the public consciousness at the Windsor Jazz & Blues festival (later to become the Reading Festival) in August 1967. Emerson’s antics – stabbing knives between the keys to produce different sounds (one knife was provided by roadie Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister) and riding the L100 like a bucking Bronco – bring him to public attention, but it’s the music he plays which gets the real kudos. His dabbling with orchestras, however, ultimately creates the conditions for the band’s demise, and their last gig in San Francisco, December 1969, sees The Nice on the same bill as King Crimson, where Emerson meets Greg Lake. Back in England early 1970, a meeting with Carl Palmer, whose CV includes stints with Chris Farlowe, Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster, sees the formation of ELP, cruelly described by John Peel as a ‘waste of talent and electricity’. After a warm-up gig in Plymouth, they perform at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, using two huge cannons to announce themselves. This reviewer was lucky enough to catch ELP on their 1971 ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’ tour and was amazed at the sheer musical virtuosity of all three performers.

This book is a major undertaking by long-time music journalist, Chris Welch, who began his writing career at the late lamented Melody Maker in 1964, and could well be the last word on Keith Emerson and will probably become the ‘go to’ book about his life, influence and achievements. It covers in some considerable depth the life and times of a man he knew well as a friend for more than fifty years, notably focusing on his work with The Nice and Emerson Lake & Palmer. There are several previously unseen pictures of Emerson with his earlier bands, which included John Brown’s Bodies and the VIPs, later to become Spooky Tooth. There are also contributions from musicians who played with Emerson in the later years after ELP, such as Robert Berry, now with Six by Six, who talks of the enormous impact Emerson had on how he played his music. It draws heavily on the archives of the Emerson family and features anecdotes and the occasional criticism of Emerson, but what comes across is the warmth, humanity and the surprising degree of insecurity such an amazing musician had. The book features a number of new interviews with people who knew Keith well, notably his ex-wife and his children, plus with musicians who never played with him, but who openly acknowledge the role Emerson had in their early development. This includes Geoff Downes, who states it was seeing Emerson with The Nice at the 1969 Isle of Wight festival which inspired him to become a musician.

Keith Emerson was probably fortunate in that he came to prominence and made his name in the late ’60s through to the late ’70s when, as he himself said, ‘it was the most prolific, creative time for modern progressive music,’ and he took full advantage of both the opportunity and the new technology ‘to show the world pop, jazz and the classics could co-exist successfully’.

The book is available in two formats, a hardback copy, retailing at £40, plus a Signature edition, at £250, which includes amongst other extras a copy of the sheet music of 12-year-old Keith Emerson’s first ever composition, Quatermass Boogie Woogie.

In an interview just before his 70th birthday, Keith said his father had died when he was 71, but he’s ‘not near to snuffing it yet’. Tragically, a few months later he did, and by his own hand. But as this book suggests, Emerson’s legacy will be eternal.