The Progarchy Interview: Aaron Emerson and Chris Welch on Keith Emerson

Rocket 88’s new biography of prog pioneer keyboardist Keith Emerson has been getting a lot of attention in these parts. Last week it was my privilege to talk with Chris Welch (the venerated British music journalist who assembled the new book) and Keith’s oldest son Aaron. Their reminiscences of the man and their insight into putting together a unique kind of biography made for an animated, engaging, enjoyable conversation! A full transcription follows the video.

So, it’s great to talk to Chris Welch, legendary music journalist, and Aaron Emerson, son of the even more legendary keyboardist Keith Emerson, regarding the new book that Rocket 88 is putting out!  I’m waiting for my hard copy, but I’ve also seen a preview copy, and it’s just a sumptuous book, with so much wonderful insight and information.  So, my first question is: how did this new book come about, and where did each of you become involved in the process of putting it together?

Chris Welch [CW]: Shall I start, Aaron?

Aaron Emerson [AE]: Go ahead, yeah.

CW: Great.  I was approached by the publisher last year, Rocket 88, and they told me about – they do some wonderful other books on rock music; you’ve probably seen them.  And the format they wanted was interviews with all the family and fellow musicians.  And the idea was to do a real portrait of Keith’s life.  And that was the best way to do it, in the words of the people that knew him best.  My job was to assemble the interviews, do all the talking and recording the interviews, and that took a long time, actually.

And of course, it’s quite emotional talking to family members about their loss, about their husband, their father, grandfather and friend.  So was quite an emotional process, I have to say.  But I was glad I did it; I was very proud and pleased to see the result, actually.

Aaron, do you have anything to add to that?

AE: Many years ago, my dad released a biography called Pictures of An Exhibitionist.  And it was up to that point.  And I know he was always wanting the story to continue.  And when we were going through, selling things like  – in the attic there was so much of pictures and newspaper clippings that he’d kept all these years, and all stored up.  And when the idea was brought up, I thought it was a great idea to put it all together like a coffee table book.  So, it’s like a biography, but everyone gets a chance to talk about their experience with Dad, and how his life effected them.

So, you hear many stories, and put together with many pictures not seen before, which I thought was a nice thing to do.

Yes, the results, as I said – it’s a gorgeous book.  Aaron, you and I talked a bit about who you talked to, and who you may have inadvertently missed talking to.  But my other question is, what was the range of reactions when you asked people about Keith Emerson?

AE:  Everyone jumped to do it!  Everybody wanted to join; everybody wanted to have a chat and talk.  There was just too many people; we got everyone in there, and everyone’s got lovely things to say. Go ahead, Chris.

CW: I was very surprised to talk to Jeff “Skunk” Baxter in particular, who obviously was famous for his work with Steely Dan.  I remember interviewing him years ago.  And it was great to know that he formed a friendship, a relationship with Keith when they formed a band [The Best] that played — only in Tokyo, I think it was.  A great sort of a supergroup that they’d got together. 

And he was full of praise for Keith, and called him the greatest keyboard player in the world!   Coming from someone from his background, his reputation, that was a great tribute, I thought.  It was great to hear an American musician praising a British musician, because American musicians tend to be the groundsetters, the pacesetters, and the best in the world anywhere.  But for him to say Keith was one of the best is really nice!  I was very impressed.

I remember at the tribute concert I have the video of, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter did this amazing chicken-pickin’ solo on “Hoedown”, which was absolutely perfect for the context!   But as you say, the worldwide respect [Keith] had as a musician is so core to, I think, his long-lasting appeal. 

Chris, you got to know Keith beginning in the 1960s as I understand, just as the progressive tendencies on that British rock scene were accelerating.  What, in your view, was his ultimate influence on that scene?  What kind of role did he carve out for himself?

CW: In that era, the early rock scene in the 60s — there were a lot of keyboard players in that stage in London, where I was based.  There were bands like the Graham Bond Organisation and Brian Auger’s Trinity, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames.  So, the Hammond organ was very popular, but mainly as a kind of jazz instrument, rhythm and blues.  When Keith came along, he introduced so many different facets to using the Hammond organ to introduce classical music.  He was a master of all of that!

So, the combination of his feeling for rock and roll, jazz, blues and classical music, this was quite new and refreshing, I thought.  And it came to a head with The Nice, which I saw in its very early days, actually.

I could tell you a quick story about the first time I met Keith.  Whenever you’d meet Keith, he always had a piano somewhere near him!  Surrounded by keyboards and pianos.  The piano was the central point of his life.  When I first met him, it was in a flat in Earls Court in London — in David O’List’s flat, he wasthe guitar player in The Nice.  The first time I met him, he didn’t say anything; he just sat down at the piano and played [Dave Brubeck’s] “Blue Rondo a La Turk”.  That was the introduction; that’s the way he talked to people was through the piano!

Of course, he was quite shy, actually, a quite shy person.  Hard to believe when you saw him leaping about onstage.  But he could be quiet.  But we always got so very well!  That was our first meeting; he played me the piano.

Let me ask one more quick follow-up.  From The Nice, he moved on to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was probably, at least in terms of worldwide fame and impact – I guess to call it the height of his career is the best I can come up with, though I don’t think it’s adequate.  Did that period, especially the early 70s where it seemed like ELP could do no wrong – did that period change him at all?  How did he cope with what I imagine was a great deal of added pressure?

CW:  In a funny way, I think ELP gave Keith more confidence.  He was growing frustrated with The Nice, because he had all these ideas.  And they were great musicians and all friends.  Keith hated the idea of breaking up The Nice, but it was something he felt he had to do, if only to express all the ideas.  He wanted to be a composer as well as a man famed for jumping about with knives and a dagger! [Laughs]

That wasn’t Keith at all really – he was really into composing, writing, creating music, tackling ideas that other people had.  He had great respect for the great classical composers.  Eventually they accepted him, the ones that were still alive!  Living composers like Aaron [Copland], the man who wrote “Fanfare [For the Common Man]”.

Yes, to have the respect of Copland and [Alberto] Ginastera, I’m sure was incredibly fulfilling for him.

CW: Yes, so, that’s what Keith wanted.

AE: “Creole Dance” [by Ginastera] is one of my favorites.  When I saw him play that, it was a fantastic song!

Yes, I heard him do that live with [Greg] Lake and [Cozy] Powell and it was mind-blowing.  Aaron, you had a very different experience.  Your first impression of your dad, well, was as your dad!  I guess I have to ask you overall, what was he like as a father?

AE:  Exactly like how you’d meet him out and about, really!  Chris is right.  To go to see another band play or go backstage wasn’t really his thing.  But he would definitely go to any jazz bar or any classical [concert] of his contemporaries.  He very much was very introverted, just a friend and very relaxed and fun!

To be honest with you, what he really wanted to do was retire and be a fisherman in Cornwall!  [Laughs]

Interesting!

AE: He wanted to throw the whole thing away!  I mean, coming towards the end of it, he did talk many times about wanting to go to Cornwall, get a little cottage and be a fisherman. [Laughs]

It was always the music every time.  Playing in the car would be a lot of [jazz pianists] Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck and allsorts.  Anything on Blue Note Records.  We went to the Blue Note Café in America once.  We went to Ronnie Scott’s [in London], that he loved.  He would always come alive with that sort of stuff.

Obviously, when I was growing up, that music was around all the time and I was breaking away to listen to other things that didn’t have a lot of keyboards in them.  Just sitting there with distaste: “What are you listening to?  That one’s got three chords in it!”

But I think he always said that the hardest songs were the simplest songs.  He found the easier ones the more challenging.  He said it was very, very difficult to write those “singles” songs, with the three chords and stuff like that.  It wasn’t him.

I remember an interview where he was talking about playing in The Best, and as you said, he had to learn songs by Steely Dan like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, and things like that.  As you say, these masterpieces of simplicity, and he found that a challenge, I gather.

He would have found that challenging, yeah.

But Aaron, you also had what I would have considered an incredible privilege – you at least picked up the rudiments of piano from your dad!  And you talked about how you reacted against that, as so many of us do.  But what did you take away from that particular part of his being your dad, helping you into the rudiments of music?  How did that help you, influence you not just in your pursuit of music but in living your life?  

AE: All I can say is  – he played outside of the box.  He played outside of the chords!  He always said that to me.  And just to give it a go, just to try it and not hold back, and enjoy it. 

And I did look up to him, of course I looked up to him!  I didn’t like every song he played, but I liked a lot.  To watch him play the piano, his skills and his theatrics.  For me, obviously, you look at that and just go, “Well, there’s no chance!  [Laughs] I’ve got no chance!” He does his thing and I do my thing.  I never tried to copy the same style, the same thing.  But obviously I was very proud to see him up there and do his thing!

Honestly, at the High Voltage show, I hadn’t seen him for a long time.  And of course, everything happening and seeing that whole big crowd – it had been a while since I was in a crowd that big watching ELP play.  And they really triumphed with that; they played so great!  Greg’s voice was fantastic; Carl’s playing was fantastic. 

I miss Greg’s voice; I think there’s no one that sounds like him.  I think they worked together, although they probably didn’t hang out all the time.  But when they got together to work on their craft, they were very serious about what they did.  Some of their work — I remember one time when I was probably about 16 or so, and I had some friends come over, we put a record on.  We all got into it, y’know?  We’re talking about Trilogy, we’re talking about Pictures and Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery.  I’ll be honest with you – some of the tracks on Love Beach I actually like.  I mean, “Salt Cay” [from Emerson’s solo album Honky] is one of my favorite songs [laughs], cause it just reminds me of a great time and a place where it happened.  I do remember a lot of keyboards coming back broken! [Laughs]

Understood!  So after ELP – both of you were right, there was this amazing musical chemistry with Greg and Carl.  It was just unique, and any time they reformed – I never saw them in their heyday.  As I said, I saw Keith and Greg with Cozy Powell in the 80s; I saw the three of them get back together on the Black Moon tour in the 90s.  And that was incredibly special just to see the three of them, so tight and working together at that point.

AE: I was going to say, Cozy was a fantastic drummer.  Very hard-hitting; I remember his drumsticks being solid, tree trunk things!  Very solid drummer.

But as you say, Keith was always writing.  He had music going on constantly.  And so, after ELP, or between ELP incarnations, he pursued any number of new avenues for his music.  He spent some years scoring films.  He tried different bands and band members; as we’ve seen, that included different combinations of folks that he had worked with previously.  He jammed on the LA scene; that’s how he got to know Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.  To your knowledge, were any of those especially important for him?  And might any of them be particular favorites for you now?

CW: Well, he was very proud of his own bands.  That was an ambition of his.  I’m never sure whether Keith was fully satisfied with all the things he did post-ELP.  I couldn’t quite work that out, because he tried so many different things, they were all like experiments in a way.  He hoped they’d work out. 

And of course, he was always conscious of the fans; there was this great groundswell of fans, ELP’s fans that forever wanted to see the band back together again, that special magic. But he did produce his own band when he revived The Nice at one point and did a show in London at the Odeon Hammersmith. 

So yeah, he was always searching, actually.  I did have a drink with Keith at Waterloo Station in the bar after our lunch.  He was saying, “What shall I do next?”  And I said, “Why don’t you do a jazz album?”  And he said, “Oh, no, it’s all …”  Did you suggest that too, Aaron?

AE:  I suggested that to him as well.  I said, “Why are you not doing a jazz album?  [Rolling Stones drummer] Charlie Watts has done one!  You’re always listening to it.  Why don’t you do a jazz album?”  I did mention that many times.

CW: That would have been satisfying for him.

AE: I think there was one moment’s time that he was gonna go on tour with Rick Wakeman, but it sadly didn’t happen.  That would have been fun!

CW: Yeah!   All three of them, actually; [Deep Purple keyboardist] Jon Lord as well.  I think that was the plan.

AE: Was it really?  OK!

CW: Of course, Jon Lord passed away.  I think Rick and Keith and Jon together would be rather amazing!

I agree; that would have been astonishing.  As you mention, I think one of the reasons that the new book is really valuable because it is the first one to cover what Keith did in the 21st century.  As you mention, Chris, there was the Nice reunion; there were his bands — with Dave Kilminster first; I saw them on that US tour where they were opening for Scorpions and Tesla.  And as he mentions in the book, basically he’s playing as everyone’s filing in.  And “Tarkus” is just ripping the stadium apart, and everybody’s going “What?  What is this?  Huh?  What?”  And I’m going, “Come on, don’t you get it, folks?”  And I actually left after he finished playing; I didn’t stick around for the other bands.

And then there was the later band with Marc Bonilla, which toured relatively extensively; the Three Fates project; his other orchestral collaborations.  You’ve mentioned, Chris, that you felt like he was always searching, and he also maybe felt pressure from the fanbase.  Because we know prog fans aren’t demanding at all! 

CW: Mm-hmm! [Laughs]

To bring the old firm back together.  What’s your overall impression of how he viewed his music, his career during that later period?

CW: That’s a very good question, actually, ‘cause we did talk about it.  He was always keen to support the new bands he was working with, with Marc Bonilla or Dave Kilminster.  He found them sympathetic musicians to play with.  I think that’s what he was looking for, to find the ideal group of people he could get on with as well, personality-wise.  Because ELP could be a strain at times; they all had great egos, and they all had their own directions, personal ambitions.  But together, it’s a bit like all three-piece bands seemed [to have this problem]:  Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Police.  I don’t know why it this that three-pieces should be [this way].

AE: Yeah.  Lucky number! [Laughs]

CW: The lucky number, magic number! [Both laugh]

AE: Maybe; I don’t know.  They were touring a lot with Greg and Carl, and I think he never really had a bond with them as such.  And he did have that with Marc –

CW: And Dave Kilminster.

AE:  The Keith Emerson Band, he was just searching [for] musicians that were great, as well as that he was getting on with!  And trying to find another part of music, yeah.

CW:  It’s a strange balancing act to strike. You have to please the record company; you’re gonna make a record that’s gonna be a hit.  You have to please the fans, and he had to please his fellow musicians. I think that caused Keith quite a lot of stress.

AE:  Yeah, for sure.  Absolutely.  And that’s why I was very set in idea for him to make this jazz album, to get into the jazz thing.  I dunno why.

CW: I think there was one, wasn’t there, from his youth that they discovered?  Keith Emerson Trio; and it was put out, wasn’t it?  I’ve not heard it, but he did actually make a jazz album.

Yes, I have that album.  And it’s really quite – you sense, because it is a young man’s record and a young man’s band, just how ahead of the game he was.  In terms not just of having his chops together, but a real musical approach, what he wanted to do.  How he wanted to make his mark on the scene.  But as both of you say, there was also this intriguing modesty about him.  As you say, this reluctance to make a jazz album, maybe because he didn’t feel like he could come up to the standards of somebody like Brubeck or Oscar Peterson or people like that.  Which I think is a modesty that – I’d call that a blind spot, to be fair.

AE: Well, I think to be honest with you, back in the 70s and 80s and the early 90s, he could easily have done all of that.  But obviously, his hand problem, his focal dystonia, his hand muscles – after his operation, I think it left doubts in his head to be able to do what he could do.  And I know he was down about it; he didn’t talk to me an awful lot about it.  I didn’t really know that much about it.  So, I was quite unaware, to be honest; he kept that quiet, sort of to himself.

CW: No, I didn’t know that, either.

Well, one more question.  Because in the wake of his passing – and I compliment you in the book for covering it so sensitively.  And covering his struggles!  As you note, his struggles were very personal and private, but yet, I feel like the book covers them with a real grace and a real modesty that helps us feel for him. 

But in the wake of his passing, there were so many, and there are so many tributes to Keith Emerson as a musician and as a man. The final question for each of you, and I’d like Aaron to start, is: how would you want Keith Emerson to be remembered?  And how do you see this book as contributing to his legacy? 

AE: Well, it says it all in the book!  But for me, foremost, he was to be known as a composer.  One of the greats!  He contributed a lot to music; he made a stamp on music.  To go without talking about a Moog synthesizer or his spinning pianos or his smashing up the organs, he made a stamp on the world when he was here.  And he’s made an impact on a lot of piano players’ lives, music.  I certainly look up to him.

I agree with you!  I’m a church musician; I would not be playing keyboards today, certainly not the way I am playing them, if it was not for him.  He had that influence on me in my formative years as well.  Chris, how about you?  How would you want Keith Emerson to be remembered, and how do you see this book as contributing to that?

CW: I think he deserves so much more respect for his achievements.  Sorry, I’m going to have a glass of water. [Pause] It [should’ve been] a glass of brandy!  [All laugh.] I think Keith deserved more respect than he often got in his lifetime.  He was criticized; people didn’t understand what ELP or Keith was trying to do.  Classical musicians maybe more fully understood or appreciated what he was trying to do.  In that sense, I think that this brings together, from family and fellow musicians, real respect for his achievements.  And also, an understanding of his personality, which was a great humorist, a great wit, very funny, a warm-hearted man as well.  So, I’d like to think that the book really serves as that kind of tribute to his memory.

OK!  Well, I believe that it does; I think those who purchase it will find it a wonderful complement to what Keith did with his life and his music.  And we’ve lost Aaron, but Chris, again it’s an honor to speak with you, and I appreciate your talking to me.  And I’m looking forward to getting my hard copy of the book and reading it again.  So, best of luck with this new biography and with all your future endeavors!

Classic and Signature editions of Keith Emerson are available direct from Rocket 88.

— Rick Krueger

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