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?

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