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Remembering Keith Emerson: From The Beginning...

The music world is still mourning the loss of keyboard legend Keith Emerson. Prog looks back over the virtuoso’s illustrious career: from schooldays to backing bands, ELP to film scores, and b

Keith Emerson once admitted that he began to play piano while at school as a means of survival.

“I was very studious at school, and kept in the background,” he said. “I used to walk around with Beethoven sonatas under my arm. However, I was very good at avoiding being beaten up by the bullies. That was because I could also play JerryLee Lewis and Little Richard songs. So, they thought I was kind of cool and left me alone.”

Emerson was essentially self-taught, although he did have piano lessons as a child. His love of music was wide-ranging, and he was particularly influenced by the jazz great Dave Brubeck in his formative years, which you can hear on 2015’s Keith Emerson Trio album. Recorded in his parents’ living room in 1963, this very early example of Emerson’s style shows his strong jazz roots, although he also took on board influences from boogie woogie and classical music.

By 1965, Emerson had moved from Sussex to London, and joined Gary Farr And The T-Bones. It was here that Emerson started to gel together his influences, ranging from Brubeck and Fats Waller, to Bach, Aaron Copland, Oscar Peterson and Shostakovich. He was also becoming increasingly adept on the Hammond organ, with which he was to become so closely associated.

When The T-Bones started to fall apart, Emerson briefly joined British R&B band The VIPs. It was during a gig with the group in France that Emerson began to develop a more flamboyant approach. When a fight broke out in the crowd, he was told to keep playing, coaxing some unusual sounds from his Hammond by rocking it back and forth and climbing on top of it. Not only did this stop the fight, but he was encouraged to carry on playing in this manner at subsequent shows.

In early 1967, Emerson was asked to form a band to back American soul singer PP Arnold. He agreed, as long as the band in question could also play their own set. And so The Nice were born. In August the same year, the band landed a major break when they appeared at the National Jazz & Blues Festival in Windsor. Their performance attracted significant attention, and when Arnold decided to return to America, her manager Andrew Loog Oldham took on The Nice.

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