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Off the Beaten Tracks: Keith Emerson, the Hendrix of the keyboards

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I NEVER had the good fortune to witness a live performance by the ultimate guitar showman, but I did get to see Jimi Hendrix’s keyboards counterpart in full flow. Keith Emerson would hurl daggers at his Hammond organ, lash it with a bullwhip and writhe around with it on top of him. Concertgoers watched incredulous as he and his piano rose 20ft into the air and together performed somersaults. Oh, and he could play a bit, too, so here’s his story.

Keith Noel Emerson was born on November 2, 1944. His family were from the South but were evacuated to Todmorden, on the border of Lancashire and West Yorkshire. After the war they wasted no time relocating to Goring-by-Sea, in Sussex, where the young Keith received piano lessons from ‘local little old ladies’. The family had no record player but he was a keen radio listener and was captivated by the keyboard work of Floyd Cramer and Dudley Moore (yes, that Dudley Moore). He was also influenced by populist pianists such as Russ Conway, Winifred Atwell and Joe ‘Mr Piano’ Henderson.

‘I was a very serious child,’ he told interviewer Malcolm Dome. ‘I used to walk around with Beethoven sonatas under my arm. However, I was very good at avoiding being beaten up by the bullies. That was because I could also play Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard songs. So, they thought I was kind of cool and left me alone.’  

Hearing jazzman Jack McDuff perform Rock Candy  convinced  Emerson that the Hammond was the instrument for him, and he bought one on hire purchase at the age of 18 after two years saving for the deposit. To help with the finance, he played in bars and pubs at lunchtime and evenings while working for Lloyds Bank Registrars but was unable to combine the two successfully and got the heave-ho from the office job.

In 1965 Keith joined the T-Bones, backing group for the blues singer Gary Farr, and then the R & B group the VIPs. One night in 1966 they were playing the Star Club in Hamburg when the roadie mislaid Emerson’s organ stool, forcing him to stand and deliver. He realised that this gave him the freedom to give an expansive physical performance unlike rivals such as Georgie Fame, Alan Price and Brian Auger who remained resolutely seated.

At a gig in rural France, Emerson recalled in his autobiography Pictures of an Exhibitionist,  a brawl broke out between farmers in the audience who were there with the sole purpose of getting pie-eyed. ‘As the Frogs shook the living daylights out of each other, I mimicked them by shaking and climbing atop the organ, switching it off and on, letting it wail as if with a mind of its own. The notes were no longer important. I wanted to go beyond those boundaries and limitations by playing outside the instrument; let the accidents happen and let them happen with total abandon, to hell with the consequences. Seized with more energy than my 9st frame had ever realised, I threw 350lb of instrument across the stage in one final explosive display as the audience gazed spellbound in disbelief.’ This stopped the fight, and led Emerson to repeat the stunt at performances henceforth.

In 1967 he formed the Nice with former T-Bones colleague Lee Jackson on bass, Davy O’List on guitar and Ian Hague on drums. They agreed to act as soul singer P P Arnold’s backing group provided they could perform their own set blending rock, jazz and classical themes as a warm-up. Her manager Andrew Loog Oldham nearly bit their hand off since he was getting two acts for the price of one. As well as playing beside Arnold on the main stage at the 7th National Jazz and Blues Festival in Windsor, the Nice performed without her in a side tent and went down a storm, leading Oldham to offer the band their own contract. Emerson in particular was keen to develop the ‘progressive’ side of the act and when Hague demurred, he was replaced behind the drum kit by Brian ‘Blinky’ Davison.

Over the autumn of 1967, the Nice recorded their first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, the latter two words being a contraction of the four members’ surnames. This includes  psychedelic pop curios such as Flower King of FliesCry of Eugene,  Bonnie K, Tantalising Maggie and the title track, but is noted mainly for the brilliant eight-minute instrumental Rondo, based on the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Blue Rondo a la Turk with a soupcon of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

By the end of the year the band found themselves on a package tour with the Move, Amen Corner, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. Emerson had been impressed by the work of another keyboard player, Don Shinn, whom he had seen on stage producing some impressive sounds while tackling his Hammond organ with a screwdriver after the back fell off. ‘I realised from watching Don that you could sustain notes on the Hammond by sticking things in the keyboard,’ he told interviewer Anil Prasad. ‘At first, I started doing it with a screwdriver. Then I thought, rather than stick a screwdriver in it, I’ll get a knife. We had a roadie, who was none other than Lemmy (future front man of Motorhead). He said, “If you’re going to use a knife, use a proper one.” He then gave me two Hitler Youth daggers. That was the start of that.’

An inevitable development in the act involved throwing the daggers at the organ. At first Emerson’s marksmanship was lacking and he caught the drummer a glancing blow, but he eventually became more proficient. All this deeply impressed the watching Hendrix and the two men inspired each other to ever more outrageous stage antics. At one time they considered working together – now that would have been a show. Interviewed years later, Emerson conceded that not everyone was impressed by his flamboyance. ‘A lot of people hated it, said it was totally unnecessary. They thought that was all I could do. Some people still think that.’

In 1968 the Nice released as a single a souped-up arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s America, from West Side Story, described by Emerson as the first instrumental protest song and inspired by the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It begins with a reference to Dvorak’s New World Symphony and concludes with P P Arnold’s three-year-old son stumbling over the lines: ‘America is pregnant with promise and anticipation, but is murdered by the hand of the inevitable.’ The disc was titled America (Second Amendment), a reference to the US Bill of Rights and its inclusion of the right to bear arms. A publicity poster showed members of the group with small boys sitting on their knees. On the boys’ heads were superimposed the faces of the dead Kennedys and Martin Luther King.

On June 26, the band played an anti-apartheid event at the Royal Albert Hall, part of a weird line-up which also included Sammy Davis Jr and the cast of the TV comedy series Till Death Us Do Part. The Nice left America to the end of their set. Having played the Dvorak part on the mighty pipe organ, Emerson tried to set fire to an American flag draped behind the band but could not get his matches to strike. Warren Mitchell, who played Alf Garnett in Till Death, lent Keith his lighter and the Stars and Stripes duly went up in flames while having daggers thrown at it into the bargain. Among the incredulous audience was David K E Bruce, the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom. ‘Everyone went silent,’ Emerson recalled. ‘We’d been going down well until that happened.’

The band were swiftly shepherded off stage. On the van ride home they heard on Radio Luxembourg that they had been banned from the Albert Hall for life.

‘The next day we did a gig in Norwich and arrived to find the queue going round the block,’ Lee Jackson told Classic Rock. ‘They all turned up hoping to see Keith burn the flag.’

With America riding high in the charts and the Nice about to tour the US for the first time, they were summoned to the American Embassy. ‘They had us swear on a stack of Bibles that there would be no more flags burnt,’ said Emerson. ‘Actually, I did do it one more time in America, which horrified Lee.’

Leonard Bernstein was asked what he thought about the Nice’s version of his song. ‘I utterly loathe what they’ve done,’ he replied. ‘They’ve corrupted my work.’

Some years later Emerson was introduced to Bernstein, who was married to a woman but obviously gay. ‘I’ve met composers of the music we covered and got on with them all,’ said Keith. ‘And then there’s Bernstein. I’ll leave it that he liked my leathers, if you get my drift.’

Also in 1968, the Nice became a three-piece with the departure of O’List. According to Emerson, Jackson and Davison, he was sacked for being unreliable although the guitarist himself claimed he quit because manager Tony Stratton-Smith had ruled that Emerson should be the undisputed front man. O’List went on to become a founder member of Roxy Music before being replaced by Phil Manzanera. Guitarist Steve Howe, later of Yes, had a productive audition with the Nice but decided not to join.

In November that year came the band’s second album, Ars Longa Vita Brevis, which again combined pop songs with classical reworkings, the latter being the Intermezzo  from Sibelius’s Karelia Suite and Brandenburger, based on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3.

The first track on the album Nice, released in 1969, is Azrael Revisited,  a reworking of the B-side of their debut single The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack. In his sleeve notes, Emerson wrote: ‘For the number I detuned the strings on the piano slightly to give it a “honky-tonk” effect which helped in creating an air of something ageing. I’d like to apologise to Amen Corner for not retuning the piano afterwards. They had to use the same piano after our session.’ Azrael is followed by a sensitive version of Tim Hardin’s Hang On To A Dream

Side two of Nice comprises two songs recorded live during the band’s first American gig at the Fillmore East in New York, Rondo 69  and Bob Dylan’s She Belongs To Me. The album was a big hit, reaching No 3 in the UK charts.

Later in 1969 the Nice were commissioned by the Newcastle Arts Festival to write the neo-classical Five Bridges Suite in celebration of the then five crossings over the Tyne (there are now seven). This combines the trio with a full orchestra, the London Sinfonia. Here’s the fifth and final movement, which also includes a jazz horn section. A week after the suite was premiered in Newcastle, it was recorded live at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon along with another stab at Karelia  plus Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique (Symphony No 6, 3rd Movement) and a combination of Dylan’s Country Pie and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 6Five Bridges was an even greater success than its predecessor, reaching No 2 in the charts. But Emerson announced that the Nice had ‘outlived its usefulness’ and he was ready to move on.

What happened next? Stay tuned for the next instalment.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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