Keith Emerson


Keith Emerson : biography

2 November 1944 –

As part of a group

For Emerson’s work with The Nice, see The Nice Discography. For Emerson’s work with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, see Emerson, Lake & Palmer discography. For Emerson’s work with Emerson, Lake & Powell, see Emerson, Lake & Powell Discography. For Emerson’s work with 3, see 3 Discography.

Emerson also appeared with the short-lived group Aliens of Extraordinary Ability with Stuart Smith, Richie Onori, Marvin Sperling and Robbie Wykoff.


Emerson was born in Todmorden, Yorkshire while his family had been evacuated from the south coast of England during the war, and grew up in the seaside resort of Worthing, West Sussex. As a child, he learned western classical music, from which he derived a lot of inspiration to create his own style, combining classical music, jazz, and rock themes. Emerson became intrigued with the Hammond organ after hearing jazz organist Jack McDuff perform "Rock Candy" and it subsequently became his instrument of choice for performing in the late 1960s. This blending of elements is illustrated in his participation in the 1969 Music From Free Creek "supersession" project, where Emerson performs with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Chuck Rainey covering, among other tracks, the Eddie Harris instrumental "Freedom Jazz Dance".

Emerson acquired his first Hammond organ when he was 15 or 16, an L-100, on hire purchase.

The flamboyance that Emerson came to be known for began quite by chance when a fight broke out during a V.I.P.s performance in France. The band told him to keep playing so he made some explosion and machine gun sounds with his Hammond organ, which stopped the fight; everyone looked on with amazement. The other band members told him to do it at the next concert, which he did with success.

Emerson first heard a Moog when a record shop owner played Switched-On Bach for him. Emerson said: "My God that’s incredible, what is that played on?" The owner then showed him the album cover. So I said, "What is that?" And he said, "That’s the Moog synthesizer." My first impression was that it looked a bit like electronic skiffle."

Without one of his own, Emerson borrowed Mike Vickers’ Moog for an upcoming The Nice concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London with the Royal Philharmonic. Mike helped patch the Moog and the concert was a great success. Emerson’s performance of Also sprach Zarathustra from the recently released 2001: A Space Odyssey was a show stopper. Emerson: "I thought this was great. I’ve got to have one of these."

With ELP’s record deal with Atlantic came funds to buy the Moog. Keith: "It cost a lot of money and it arrived and I excitedly got it out of the box stuck it on the table and thought, ‘Wow That’s Great! a Moog synthesizer [pause] How do you switch it on?…There were all these leads and stuff, there was no instruction manual." Mike Vickers came through by patching it to produce six sounds and those six sounds became the foundation of ELP’s sound.

In 1969, Emerson incorporated the Moog modular synthesiser into his battery of keyboards. While other artists such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had used the Moog in studio recordings, Emerson was the first artist to tour with one. Emerson’s use of the Moog was so important to the development of new models that he was given prototypes, such as the Constellation he took on one tour and the Apollo, which had its debut on the opening track of Brain Salad Surgery, "Jerusalem."

The Moog was a temperamental device; the oscillators went out of tune with temperature change. Emerson: "I had my faithful roady Rocky tune the instrument to A 440 just prior to the audience coming in, but once the audience came into the auditorium and the temperature rose up then everything went out of tune." His willingness to experiment with the Moog led to unexpected results, such as the time he stumbled into the signature sound for Hoedown, one of ELP’s most popular tunes. Emerson: "We’d started working on that arrangement and then I hit, I don’t know what, I switched a blue button and I put a patch cord in there, but anyway ‘whoooeee.’"