The Sage: Keith Emerson, 1944-2016

You’ll excuse me if I’m mixing prog metaphors, but right now I feel like Fish (of Marillion keith-emerson-1fame) in the first line of Script for a Jester’s Tear: “So here I am once more … in the playground of the broken hearts.” It wasn’t that long ago I was here, writing about the tragic and untimely loss of Riverside’s Piotr Grudzinski. And now, here I am again, for one of the giants of the first wave of prog, Keith Emerson.

I really, really don’t want to get good at writing these things.

In the heyday of the 1970’s prog scene, the relative merits of Emerson and his Yes counterpart Rick Wakeman were the subject of numerous debates among prog fans. But Wakeman was the only one ever mentioned in the same breath with Emerson, as the duo stood head and shoulders above other keyboardists of the day (no disrespect to Tony Banks, Patrick Moraz, Eddie Jobson, et al.). And make no mistake about it, Emerson was a giant among keyboardists, one to be admired and emulated by all those who followed. His work, first with The Nice, and later with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (or ELP as they are more affectionately known) made an indelible mark on the music world. He made being a keyboardist every bit as cool as being a guitarist.

Earlier today I saw where someone described Emerson as “the Hendrix of keyboardists.” And of the many suitable descriptions, this one certainly fits. Emerson did things with keyboards that nobody else had done. He almost single-handedly made the synthesizes of Robert Moog an indispensable instrument for any band that includes keyboards, prog and non-prog alike. He brought a multitude of keyboard styles into rock, from the jazzy piano interludes in ELP’s Take a Pebble, jazz organ, honky tonk, and, most notably, classical.

Nobody prior to Emerson, first with The Nice and late with ELP, did more for fusion of rock and classical music. Emerson took it even further, with ELP, taking classical pieces and making them into rock – first with Modest Mussorgsky’s Picture’s at an Exhibition. Later, ELP did their own versions of Aaron Copland’s Hoedown and Fanfare for the Common Man. And in one of ELP’s most unusual and spectacular interpretations, they did their own version of Alberto Ginestera’s Toccata on the Brain Salad Surgery album.

I’ve said before that symphonic prog was a gateway drug to classical music. If so, Emerson was the lead pusher. The reason I have Aaron Copland disks in my CD collection can be narrowed down to two words: Keith Emerson. The first time I heard so much as a note of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story was when I heard the version of America performed by The Nice – with Emerson’s keyboards playing the staring role.

Recently, on YouTube, I stumbled across a video of an orchestra doing a version of Tarkus (link here). I love the symmetry of that – an orchestra taking Emerson’s progressive rock, and making it into a full-blown classical piece. Beautiful … just beautiful.

The mind boggles at the band being assembled in Heaven right now … Emerson on keyboards … Chris Squire on bass … Piotr Grudzinski guitar … and perhaps, Emerson’s one-time band mate, Cozy Powell on drums. But to the, ahem, management up there putting this thing together, can we maybe keep this as an instrumental band for a while? Please?

Rest in Peace, Keith.


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