Keith Noel Emerson (born 2 November 1944 in Todmorden, West Yorkshire) is a British keyboard player and composer. Formerly a member of the Keith Emerson Trio, John Brown's Bodies, The T-Bones, V.I.P.s, P.P. Arnold's backing band, and The Nice (which evolved from P.P.Arnold's band), he started Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), one of the early supergroups, in 1970. Following the breakup of ELP, circa 1979, Emerson had modest success with Emerson, Lake & Powell in the 1980s. ELP reunited during the early 90s. Emerson also reunited The Nice in 2002 for a tour. He is currently on tour (as of Aug/Sept 2008) with The Keith Emerson Band and the new album titled "Keith Emerson Band Featuring Marc Bonilla" is released in Aug/Sept 2008.
He is known for his technical skill and for his live antics, including using knives to wedge down specific keys of his Hammond organ during solos, playing the organ upside down while having it lie over him and backwards while standing behind it. He also employed a special rig to rotate his piano end-over-end while he's "playing" it (purely theatrical, since acoustic pianos cannot function when turned upside down in this manner). Along with contemporaries Richard Wright of Pink Floyd, Tony Banks of Genesis, Billy Ritchie of Clouds and Rick Wakeman of Yes, Emerson is widely regarded as one of the top keyboard players of the progressive rock era.. All Music Guide refers to Emerson as "perhaps the greatest, most technically accomplished keyboardist in rock history." Emerson has performed several notable rock arrangements of classical compositions, ranging from J. S. Bach via Modest Mussorgsky to 20th century composers such as Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, Leoš Janáček and Alberto Ginastera. Occasionally Emerson has quoted from classical and jazz works without giving credit, particularly early in his career, from the late 1960s until 1972. The song "Rondo" by The Nice is a 12/8 interpretation of "Blue Rondo à la Turk" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, originally in 9/8 time signature. The piece is introduced by an extensive quote from Bach's Italian Concerto, third movement. In fact, considering the Bach and Emerson's own improvisations, the Brubeck contribution is merely the anchoring theme.
On ELP's eponymous first album, Emerson's classical quotes went largely uncredited. "The Barbarian" is heavily influenced by Allegro Barbaro by Bartók, and "Knife Edge" is virtually a note-for-note restatement of "Sifonietta" by Janáček. Note-for-note extracts were taken from pieces by Bartók, Janáček and Bach, mixed in with some original material, and credited completely to Emerson, Lake, Palmer and roadie Richard Fraser. By 1971, with the releases Pictures At An Exhibition and Trilogy, Emerson began to fully credit classical composers, Modest Mussorgsky for the piano piece which inspired the first album, and Aaron Copland for "Hoedown" on the second. Emerson was adamant that he did not use Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition in developing his own version.
In 2004 Emerson published his autobiography entitled Pictures of an Exhibitionist, which deals with his entire career, particularly focusing on his early days with The Nice, and his nearly career-ending nerve-graft surgery in 1993.
Emerson has provided music for a number of films since 1980, including Dario Argento's Inferno and World of Horror, the 1981 thriller Nighthawks and, more recently, Godzilla: Final Wars. He was also the composer for the short-lived 1994 animated television series Iron Man.
Emerson has released a number of solo albums and is currently working on another with regular collaborator Marc Bonilla and producer Keith Wechsler. The new album titled, "Keith Emerson Band Featuring Marc Bonilla" was released in August/September 2008. He currently on tours with his own band in Russia and Baltic (Aug/Sept 2008) and in Japan (Oct 2008). The current tour band members are Marc Bonilla (G/Vo), Travis Davis (B), Tony Pia (Dr).
Although the Hammond L-100 with its shorter manuals is considered a “poor man’s” Hammond, Emerson not only played much of the early Nice music on his L-100, but also made good use of some of its unique features which his bigger Hammond C-3 does not provide. The L-100 has a self-starting motor, which - if turned off and on in short intervals - renders the whole organ into a wailing howl while the note generator tries to recover to pitch. The L-100 also features a spring-loaded reverb tank, which produces bomb-like noises if shaken. Both effects can be heard in abundance on “Rondo 69”. On “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” Emerson even uses the reverb tank as a musical instrument, tapping the internal spring against the tank bottom in an effort to create a chromatic scale of "boings".
With ELP, Emerson added the Moog synthesizer behind the C-3 with the keyboard and ribbon controller stacked on the top of the organ. The ribbon controller allowed Emerson to vary pitch, volume or timbre of the output from the Moog by moving his finger up and down the length of a touch-sensitive strip. It also could be used as a phallic symbol, which quickly became a feature of the act. When the Minimoog entered the act it was placed where needed, such as on top of the grand piano. The same location was also used for an electric Clavinet keyboard, used almost exclusively for the encore piece Nut Rocker.
During the Brain Salad Surgery tour of 1974 (one show of which was documented on the 3-LP set, Welcome Back My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends), Emerson's keyboard setup included the Hammond C-3 organ, run through multiple Leslie speakers driven by HiWatt guitar amplifiers, the Moog IIIC modular synthesizer (modified by addition of various modules and an oscilloscope) with ribbon controller, a Steinway concert grand piano with a Moog Minimoog synthesizer on top of it (used for the steel drum part on Karn Evil 9, 2nd Impression), an upright acoustic-electric piano that was used for honky-tonk piano sounds, a Hohner Clavinet and another Moog Minimoog synthesizer. Emerson also used a prototype polyphonic synthesizer produced by Moog, which was the test bed for the Moog Polymoog polyphonic synthesizer. The original synthesizer setup as envisioned by Moog was called the Constellation, and consisted of 3 instruments - the polyphonic synthesizer, called the Apollo, a monophonic lead synthesizer called the Lyra, and a bass-pedal synthesizer, called the Taurus. Moog eventually produced the Moog Taurus bass pedal synthesizer as a separate instrument, as well as the Polymoog Synthesizer and Polymoog Keyboard. The Apollo polyphonic synthesizer is currently at a keyboard museum in Calgary, Canada. Emerson still owns the Lyra synthesizer.
Occasionally Emerson used a pipe organ, when available. In particular, at the Newcastle City Hall he used the Harrison & Harrison pipe organ for the introductory section of Pictures at an Exhibition. The organ is located at the rear above the stage, at the top of a series of steps where choirs can stand. The end of the introductory passage is followed by a drum roll, covering the time while Emerson descended the steps. While all went well for the recording used to produce the album, the debut tour performance at the same venue ground to a halt as the power failed, just as Emerson arrived at the Hammond organ to open the next part of the piece. After a lengthy delay the performance continued with only the Hammond L-100 functioning.
Emerson also used the organ at the Royal Festival Hall for "The Three Fates" from the eponymous debut album by the group. He also used another pipe organ for "The Only Way (Hymn)" from the sophomore Tarkus album. It is not known if he also used it in a live context.
Amplifiers and speakers behind Emerson became more elaborate, including a Leslie unit. There was also a board attached to the front of the stack, intended as a target for his knife throwing. During the Brain Salad Surgery tour, at the end of the show, a sequencer in the Moog Modular synthesizer was set running at an increasing rate, with the Moog Synthesizer pivoting to face the audience while a large pair of silver bat wings was deployed at the back of the synthesizer.
As the technology of electronic keyboard instruments became more sophisticated, Emerson was quick to adopt new instruments, such as the Yamaha GX1 polyphonic synthesizer, one of which can be seen on the video promoting Fanfare for the Common Man. Emerson was reported to have spent $50,000 to buy the Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer at the time of the Works album. Emerson later bought a 2nd GX-1 from John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, to use to repair his GX-1, which was damaged by a tractor crash into Emerson's home studio. At the time that Emerson left England in the early 1990s to move to Santa Monica, California, he sold the majority of his keyboard equipment, though not the modular Moog. The original Yamaha GX-1 was bought by Hans Zimmer of movie soundtrack fame, while the John Paul Jones GX-1 was bought by a collector in Italy. Other more elaborate innovations have been previously described in this article.
In 1978 Emerson became the official endorser of the world's first fully polyphonic synthesizers, namely the Korg PS-3300 and PS-3100. He started recording with them around this time too and the Korg PS-3300 was heavily used on the ELP album Love Beach. Only 50 units were produced of this mega-monster of a synthesizer and it has achieved cult status today partly thanks to Emerson's endorsement. He carried on using it into the 80s, for example the Korg PS-3300 also dominates the 1981 film soundtrack for Nighthawks which starred Sylvester Stallone.
Even on the grand piano, Emerson refused to limit his technique to hitting the keys. He would sometimes reach into the interior and hit, pluck or strum the strings with his hand. The introduction to "Take a Pebble" includes chords and arpeggios played by pressing down on keys, to raise the dampers from the strings, and playing the strings inside the piano as one might play the autoharp. In the live performance of "Hang on to a Dream" with the Nice, recorded for the post-breakup album Elegy, he performed a cadenza of sorts hitting the piano strings with a small hammer, followed by a lengthy wind-down returning to the song in which he alternated keyboard arpeggios with blows directly on the bass strings. The standard finale to the song has him reaching into the piano with fingers spread on both hands to pluck the final chord, presumably depressing the sustain pedal at the same time to lift all the string dampers. This can be clearly seen on a performance filmed for the television show Beat Club.