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Emerson, Keith

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(1944-2016) Legendary progressive-rock keyboard and synth player. Emerson's career as a player of electronic keyboards started out in his teens, when he became enamored of jazz Hammond organ players such as Jimmy Smith. Emerson had been educated from a young age in various classical, jazz, and rock styles, and he began developing his own blend of these elements when he acquired his first Hammond in the mid-1960s. Emerson joined the touring band of soul singer P. P. Arnold; this backing band soon spun off into its own quartet, The Nice -- one of the first progressive rock bands. The Nice's musical aspirations were as highbrow (they frequently borrowed from classical pieces) as its stage show was gritty, and Emerson proved to be a first-rate rock showman. A pivotal moment in Emerson's career occurred when the band fired guitarist David O'List during the recording of their second album, and decided to continue without guitar, giving Emerson much more latitude within his keyboard playing.

Emerson purchased his first modular Moog synthesizer in 1969. Unlike most performers of the day, who kept their expensive and fragile Moogs confined to the studio, Emerson took his on tour with him. He frequently improvised with the Moog on stage, as well as performing written parts, and he extensively explored the capabilities of the instrument.

The Nice broke up in 1970, and Emerson joined forces with bassist Greg Lake and drummer Carl Palmer to form the legendary Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In this context, Emerson continued and greatly expanded what he had started with The Nice. The band's first album found them exploring a variety of styles from classical to folk to heavy rock. The song "Lucky Man" became a surprise FM-radio hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and for many music listeners of the era, Emerson's melodic and fluid Moog solo at the end of the song was the first time they had ever heard a synthesizer.

As the band grew more successful, the Moog grew larger; Bob Moog himself frequently consulted with Emerson, and the modular gained a number of custom and specialized modules, some of which were specifically designed to ease the task of re-patching the instrument on stage. (Even so, much of the onstage patching was done by a roadie, working from a patch sheet, while Emerson played parts on other instruments.) A ribbon controller produced by Moog was made into a strap-on performance device, and also loaded with special effects such as a smoke generator.

Around 1973 Emerson began adding other synths. Two Minimoogs joined the setup and were used for melodic solos, with the modular being reserved more for unusual sounds to reduce on-stage patching. When Moog launched its Constellation project, Emerson became one of its beta customers. He used the Lyra monophonic synth extensively on Brain Salad Surgery. However, shortly after Bob Moog broke his ties with the company. Emerson, dissatisfied with the synth that eventually became the Polymoog, turned to the massive Yamaha GX-1 organ/synth combo to address his desire for a polyphonic synth. He used this synth heavily on the two Works albums; a notable use it was for the brass sounds on the band's version of Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man".

Emerson grew more interested in Japanese synths (which were uncommon in America and Europe at the time); he became a Korg endorser and heavily used their PS3300 polyphonic model in the late '70s. However, ELP broke up after recording the poorly received Love Beach album in 1979. Emerson turned his attention to soundtrack work, filling in with other bands, and various attempts at composing classical works. There were several reunions and reformations. In 1984, Emerson and Lake joined forces with drummer Cozy Powell for one album, the successful Emerson, Lake and Powell. The original trio reunited in 1992, but broke up again after one successful album and one unsuccessful. A proposed reunion in 2000 did not come together, and Emerson did limited touring with his own band after that time.

Emerson passed away in his home in Santa Monica, California on March 10, 2016. Reports state that he took his own life.

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