Keyboardist Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer dies at 71

Keyboard player Keith Emerson, whose innovative experiments on synthesizers in the 1970s introduced strange new sounds to arena rock, has died at the age of 71. The news was confirmed by his former bandmate, the drummer Carl Palmer. Along with Greg Lake, the trio combined to form the progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The band became one of the bestselling rock bands of the arena-rock era. On albums including "Tarkus," "Brain Salad Surgery" and "Pictures at an Exhibition," ELP built works that helped expand the sound of rock music to include high-concept themes, multi-movement structures and state-of-the-art technology.  

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Wrote Palmer on his Facebook page: 

"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."

One of Emerson's notable moments is his Moog solo on "Lucky Man," ELP's most recognizable hit. Standing before a massive wall of plugs and wires, Emerson let loose on the machine while the technology was still in its infancy, and he embraced the mysteries inside its circuits to create previously unheard musical noises.

A rock showman with the chops to back it up, Emerson played his keyboards with the enthusiasm of a long-haired, blue-spangled Jerry Lee Lewis. The evidence is in the band's wild performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. 

Dismissed by many conservative rock critics of the era for the band's disinterest in mimicking the tropes of classic American rock 'n' roll, the members of Emerson, Lake & Palmer reveled in their musicianly skills. They enthusiastically traded basic structures and sounds for a kind of gymnastic maximalism, and in the process expanded the musical conversation at a key moment.

For example, here's Emerson stabbing his keyboard with a knife:

Emerson embraced inventor Bob Moog's keyboard just as the invention's tones were making its way into the culture. Recalled Emerson of the era, "I think Bob was as in awe of his invention as those of us who got to play it and incorporate it into our music. We all had different styles and ways of making it work for us."

Emerson described his Moog as "the world’s most dangerous synth," but night after night the player proved he could wrestle it into submission.  

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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