Top 10 Keith Emerson Songs
Emerson first came to broad notice as a member of the Nice, a group of proto-proggers who set an initial template for where ELP would go. This earlier band gave Emerson a chance to hone the showmanship skills that were so often lauded on the bigger stages that Emerson Lake and Palmer provided. Through he was largely limited as a member of the Nice to the Hammond organ – whereas later, Emerson worked with a much wider palette of electric and synthesized instruments – key moments like his fleet interpretation of “Rondo” informed both repertoires.
He began dabbling in solo material as early as 1976, returning to his R&B roots, and then provided one of his most completely realized personal explorations of classical themes for Works. Both showcased another side of Emerson that’s not often celebrated. He was, of course, best known in rock circles for his flights of fancy on electric keyboards, but Emerson more than held his own in an acoustic setting – playing with fire and inventiveness across a dizzying array of styles.
Emerson Lake and Palmer concluded their studio career (in 1994) and then their shared performances together (in 2010), but Emerson’s legend was already well established. He died in 2016, after years of suffering with a degenerative nerve problem in his right hand. Our collection of Top 10 Keith Emerson Songs, while representing some of his peak performances, really only scratches the surface of what he’d done by then.
“Hammer It Out”
Included as a bonus addendum to what became ELP’s final studio effort, “Hammer It Out” works as an impressive solo showcase for the ailing keyboardist. Already suffering from nerve issues in his right hand, Emerson displays a reliable virtuosity, blending in concepts from stride to classical. Emerson would return to solo work, though the nerve problem only worsened over time.
The Nice’s second single, later added to reissues of their debut album, found Emerson building a cutting protest song out of a new arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” theme from ‘West Side Story.’ Next, Emerson stirred in elements of the “New World Symphony” by Dvorak, and a child’s spoken-word intonation that makes clear his anti-violence message: “America is pregnant with promise and anticipation, but is murdered by the hand of the inevitable.” Later versions included the subtitle “(Second Amendment).”
“Honky Tonk Train Blues”
It can be easy, amidst all of the prog-fueled flights of keyboard fancy, to forget the bedrock talent that Keith Emerson always possessed. This boogie-woogie piece, an update the best-known song by pre-war R&B star Meade “Lux” Lewis, serves as a rollicking reminder. Emerson, who got his start backing soul singer P.P. Arnold, returned to the U.K. Top 30 without his bandmates by digging deeply into his earliest influences.
“Take a Pebble”
Emerson famously used every part of his instruments, even the inside. “Take a Pebble” finds him strumming the strings of his piano, as you would a harp, after pressing down on the keys to raise the dampers. These arpeggios give the tune a cascading beauty that wasn’t always part of Emerson’s physical experiments. He also sometimes punched his piano, and was known to toss an organ around on stage to create new sounds.
“Piano Concerto No. 1″
This double album afforded each member of Emerson Lake and Palmer an opportunity to fill one side with solo material. (They then rounded out the album with a fourth side of collaborative music.) Emerson’s showcase opened ‘Works,’ as the pianist took a full measure of his life-long interest in classical themes. It’s an often-demanding journey for rock fans, but Emerson’s individual piano asides boast a shimmering beauty.
Keith Emerson was an early adopter of the then-new Moog technology, and even lugged them on tour despite the machine’s finicky technical demands and enormous bulk. Recognizing that, the Moog company would ship Emerson early editions of its newest models – including the Apollo, a prototype polyphonic synth which debuted on this ELP deep cut built around a hymn by Hubert Parry.
‘Fanfare for the Common Man’
The opening cut from ELP’s band-created side on ‘Works’ found Emerson leading a dramatic reworking of a legendary theme composed by Aaron Copland for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Later edited down for a single that went to No. 2 in the U.K., “Fanfare for the Common Man” was Emerson’s second remake of a Copland tune – following “Hoedown” on 1972’s ‘Trilogy.’
Emerson liked this early 4/4 re-interpretation of Dave Brubeck’s nervy jazz classic “Blue Rondo a la Turk” so much that he returned to it with ELP for the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. The Nice had originally fought for, and won, the right to include the entire eight-minute composition on this album – something largely unheard prior to the prog era. It paid off for Emerson: He was able to stir in an introductory quote from Bach, before unleashing a series of his own fizzy interpretive runs.
One of the signature moments in all of progressive rock, the side-long “Tarkus” opened ELP’s second album with a statement of creative purpose. Rather than stringing together ideas (or, in the classical parlance, movements) this was one focused piece of musicmaking – and well ahead of its time. As with the armadillo-tank on the album cover, there’s a hard edge to this track, one strongly recalling Frank Zappa. Emerson also credited the influence of composer Alberto Ginastera.
“Karn Evil 9: 2nd Impression”
Emerson wrote the music for all three “impressions” in this apocalyptic carnival ride of a song – but its the second, all instrumental section which best showcases his lasting genius. Said to be a musical interpretation of humanity’s blind ignorance to the fate that surely awaits, “Karn Evil 9: 2nd Impression” is also a definitive reminder of Keith Emerson’s sweeping intellect as a musician. One moment he’s banging away; the next he’s moving with delicate grace. But his fierce vision for where it will all end up remains.