Tribute to Todmorden-born rock superstar Keith Emerson

ELP in their heyday with Keith, centre, Greg Lake, left, and Carl Palmer, right
ELP in their heyday with Keith, centre, Greg Lake, left, and Carl Palmer, right

The world of music has been paying tribute to Keith Emerson, Todmorden-born founder of progressive rock giants Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who died on March 10 at the age of 71.

Los Angeles coroner’s office ruled this week that the musician, also a founder member of 60s psychedelic rock band The Nice, had taken his own life.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer built on ground developed by The Nice to become one of the biggest bands in the world in the early 1970s, as albums like Pictures At An Exhibition, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery sold in their millions at a time when albums artists were in their ascendency.

World tours saw virtuoso playing and highly-developed on-stage showmanship give the band’s concerts the “wow” factor.

Keith was born in Todmorden on November 2, 1944, his family having been evacuated north during the second world war, and grew up in Worthing, Sussex.

He returned in later life to look his birthplace up, as he recounted to the Lancashire Evening Post ahead of a 2003 gig in Preston.

Calling from his home in Santa Monica, he said: “Preston? That’s near where I was born in Todmorden. I went back to Todmorden four or five years ago and went into a pub and asked where Canal Street, now demolished, was. Started a discussion that did. After a couple of hours of all the locals arguing it seemed nobody knew where it had been so I went off to the Town Hall to find out. Beautiful part of the country.”

Encouraged by his father Noel to play piano, and loving rock and roll, jazz and classical music, Keith wove these strands into a successful career. Showmanship like his had rarely been seen before, beginning by throwing knives into his Hammond organ and earning composer Leonard Bernstein’s displeasure by burning the Stars ‘n’ Stripes during The Nice’s brilliant deconstruction of “America” from West Side Story, which was a hit, to boot.

In ELP, pyrotechnics and even a suspended-in-the-air spinning piano were utilised, and Keith did not always escape unscathed.

But in the end it was his music that was most important, a legacy that will last each time anyone plays albums like The Nice’s Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack or ELP’s mighty Tarkus.

He leaves his partner, Mari Kawaguchi, and his sons Aaron and Damon from his marriage to Elinor, which ended in divorce.