Variety is reporting that prog rock musician Keith Emerson, of the influential British supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer, has died. Regarded as one of the greatest rock keyboardists of his generation, Emerson’s combination of technical skill and professional showmanship helped catapult the prog rock movement into the public mainstream in the 1970s, spurring ELP on to a decade of success.
Emerson first gained prominence as a member of The Nice, the backing band for soul singer P.P. Arnold, in the late 1960s; it was while playing with them that he originally started adding the then-new Moog synthisizer into his repertoire, alongside the electric Hammond organ. When the band toured with King Crimson in 1969, Emerson met guitarist and singer Greg Lake, and the two quickly hit it off. The pair eventually recruited Carl Palmer of Atomic Rooster to round out their trio on drums, cementing a partnership that would persist off and on for the next 40 years.
After gaining heavy attention from a packed show at 1970’s Isle Of Wight Festival, where they performed alongside Miles Davis, The Doors, and The Who, Emerson, Lake & Palmer secured a contract with Atlantic Records. They released their first album later that year, including the ballad “Lucky Man,” one of the band’s only songs of a suitable length for regular radio play. They followed it up with 1971’s Tarkus, an album that helped to define the prog rock movement with both its electronic sounds, lengthy musical digressions, and heavy science fiction themes.
Classically trained and interested in both jazz and rock, Emerson helped pioneer several elements of electronic music during the ’70s. Most notable was his use of and experimentation with Moog machines; he reportedly needed four roadies to transport the 10-foot-tall “Monster Moog” that ELP used in shows. His playing was also characterized by an extreme theatricality, up to and including using knives to pin down keys, and a “flying piano” that flipped in the air as he played:
ELP’s popularity began to diminish in the late ’70s, with the band’s seventh studio album, 1978’s Love Beach, receiving consistently lackluster reviews. The group broke up shortly after, although they continued to collaborate and reunite over the subsequent decades, releasing their last album together in 1994.
Emerson’s death was announced on Facebook by his former bandmate, Carl Palmer, who wrote:
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my good friend and brother-in-music, Keith Emerson. Keith was a gentle soul whose love for music and passion for his performance as a keyboard player will remain unmatched for many years to come. He was a pioneer and an innovator whose musical genius touched all of us in the worlds of rock, classical and jazz. I will always remember his warm smile, good sense of humor, compelling showmanship, and dedication to his musical craft. I am very lucky to have known him and to have made the music we did, together. Rest in peace, Keith.”
Emerson was 71; according to Billboard, his death is being investigated as a possible suicide by Santa Monica police.