A Flip Sides tribute to Keith Emerson

By Warren Kurtz

On March 10, Keith Emerson passed away at the age of 71. From 1967 through 1970, Keith Emerson played keyboards in the British band named The Nice. They released a variety of albums and five singles. Of the singles’ A-sides, their interpretation of “America” from “West Side Story” best showcased Keith Emerson’s organ style, while their flip side “Hang On To a Dream” displayed his classical piano skills, both hinting at what would come in his next and biggest group.

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Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Flip side: The Great Gates of Kiev
A side: Nutrocker
Top 100 debut: March 18, 1972
Peak position: 70
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When the self-titled debut for Emerson, Lake & Palmer was released in January of 1971, its single “Lucky Man” did fairly well in the U.S., reaching No. 48 nationally. Greg Lake, from the band King Crimson, had clear lead vocals, and Keith Emerson could be heard on synthesizer near the end. That March in England, a concert was held and two classical pieces were given a rock treatment from the band. Understatedly, Greg Lake said, “We’re gonna give you ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’” and the crowd cheered. This Modest Mussorgsky piece, composed in 1874, began with Keith Emerson playing organ on “Promenade.” For over 30 minutes the trio performed selections from “Pictures” and added lyrics to some of the melodies. “The Old Castle” had a softer folk treatment with acoustic guitar and Greg Lake’s vocals. The various episodes of the suite continued, including wild Moog synthesizer work from Keith Emerson reaching the climactic “The Great Gates of Kiev.” Again, lyrics were added and Greg Lake sang, “They were sent from the gates, ride the tides of fate…” surrounded by Keith Emerson’s organ and the pounding drums of Carl Palmer, who had been a member of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster. The song was a huge finale to this non-stop concert event. The crowd went wild and chanted for more.

As an encore to Mussorsky’s work, the band chose the march from Tchaikovsky’s 1892 “Nutcracker.” This interpretation, called “Nutrocker” debuted in 1962, by the studio group B. Bumble & the Stingers, and went to No. 23, a similar ranking as their prior year hit “Bumble Boogie” adapted from the “Flight of the Bumble Bee.” Emerson, Lake & Palmer stayed true to the 1962 version but extended it with a drum solo, organ sounds, and a cheering scream. The British crowd’s applause was even louder after this encore.

In June of 1971, their second album “Tarkus” was released, which included the powerful organ-driven “The Only Way (Hymn),” and had no singles released from it. In January of 1972, the “Pictures at an Exhibition” live concert was released as an album along with the single “Nutrocker” on the A-side and “The Great Gates of Kiev” on the flip side.

More blending of classical music structures with rock continued on the next two studio albums, and the singles were the softer Greg Lake led “From the Beginning” and “Still…You Turn Me On.” As was the case on “Lucky Man,” it was at the end of “From the Beginning” from their “Trilogy” album where Keith Emerson could be heard on synthesizer. With “Still…You Turn Me On,” Keith Emerson’s contribution was present throughout this selection from “Brain Salad Surgery” (see the Goldmine April 2015 issue for full coverage of the album).

At the end of the decade, the album “In Concert” was released with the trio backed by a full orchestra. The final number was a 15-minute version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” ending with “The Great Gates of Kiev.” The group then disbanded.

In the ‘80s, Keith Emerson composed soundtracks to films including the 1981 thriller “Nighthawks” starring Sylvester Stallone, released between “Rocky II” and “Rocky III.”

In 1986, Keith Emerson was in the U.S. Top 100 for a final time with the powerful synthesizer-driven song “Touch and Go” as part of Emerson, Lake and Powell, with Cozy Powell on drums while Carl Palmer was committed to the band Asia. Its flip side, “Learning to Fly,” captured the sound of synth-pop popular at the time.

 

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