Take Five: Keith Emerson

Classically trained pianist Keith Emerson is best known for the boundary-pushing progressive rock he made with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer as ELP. But Emerson – who left us in 2016 and would have celebrated his 79th birthday last November 2 – was a master of many other styles. Here are five tracks that illustrate the breadth of interest and skill of Keith Emerson.

Gary Farr & the T-Bones – “Together Forever” (1965)
British blues/folk singer Gary Farr was inspired to change his style when the British blues/r&b boom took hold. Forming the T-Bones, he became a regular fixture at trendy London clubs like the Marquee and Crawdaddy Club. Near the end of the group’s run, a 19-year-old Keith Emerson joined the band. That lineup cut this song, though it went unreleased at the time, and the band folded soon after.

The V.I.P.’s – “Rosemarie” (1967)
This hard-charging soul/r&b group out of Carlisle, England was bursting with talent. Though The V.I.P.’s didn’t break through to the big time, most every member of the band would go on to greater fame. Lead singer Mike Harrison and bassist Greg Ridley went on to Spooky Tooth (Ridley went from there to launch Humble Pie). Guitarist Luther Grovesnor resurfaced in Mott the Hoople. And organist Keith Emerson was with the band from 1966-’67. During that time they cut the Stagger Lee EP, which featured this raving cover of an Oscar Hammerstein II tune.

The Nice – “America” (1968)
In addition to possessing an unequaled technical proficiency on his keyboards, Emerson was a master showman. His next group, The Nice, featured incendiary performances in which the keyboardist would plunge daggers into his Hammond organ (ostensibly to sustain certain notes). The group’s controversial cover of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” gained them notoriety both in the UK (where the song was a hit) to the US, where it was viewed as blasphemous, and thus not so well received.

Keith Emerson – “I’m a Man” (1981)
For all his dazzling prowess as an instrumentalist, one thing Keith Emerson didn’t do was sing… except when he did: as he told this writer in an interview just prior to one of his final concerts, his friend “Sly” (that’s Sylvester Stallone to you and me) coaxed him into singing a cover of the Spencer Davis Group hit “I’m a Man.” Emerson initially demurred. “Why not get Steve Winwood to sing it?” he suggested, but his actor friend insisted. The recording appears on the soundtrack of Stallone’s 1981 action film Nighthawks.

Keith Emerson – “Honky Tonk Train Blues” (1977)
Emerson was a scholar of popular music, and his interest in its various forms was legendary. When Emerson Lake & Palmer compiled their second album of sort-of solo pieces titled Works Volume II, this cover of a Meade “Lux” Lewis boogie woogie classic would be a highlight of the set.