I was sorry to hear that Keith Emerson died yesterday at age 71.
After hearing the news this afternoon, I played some ELP on my show and talked about him, realizing that — as with George Martin earlier this week — even the rock stations in town weren’t bothering to pay tribute to an artist who contributed so much to the format. Along with Rick Wakeman of Yes, Emerson was one of the most important keyboardists of the progressive rock era. His work with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer led to legendary shows where Emerson played multiple keyboards simultaneously on songs like “Karn Evil 9,” “Still You Turn Me On,” “Hoedown,” and my favorite, “Nut Rocker”…
I don’t have much history with Emerson other than as a fan, although I did have the pleasure of interviewing him twice. This is a transcript of the second conversation on October 4, 1997, just as ELP were embarking on a reunion tour…
Harris: Keith, it’s been a few years since I’ve talked to you. Believe it or not, the last time was about seven or eight years ago when we all sat down for an interview live from Abbey Road, there in London.
Emerson: Oh, right, yes! I remember that.
Harris: That was a terrific day and you are in London now, right?
Emerson: I’m in London now, yes.
Harris: Now, before we talk about your concert coming up this Saturday, let’s talk a little bit about what the mood in town there is like in middle of this whole Diana week.
Emerson: Yeah, right. Well, as you can expect, it’s pretty somber.
Harris: Is it weird? Are people all over town, is that the only thing people are talking about?
Emerson: Well, not really. Londoners tend to get on with their life. They express their grief in different ways. For example, I just saw a cab driver, a London taxi cab, and on his aerial he had black ribbons. It’s just expressed in different ways, but the whole feeling here is just sort of like very somber. You know, it’s just, it’s dreadful. You know, I must confess that I was not extremely shocked by what happened. I think it was inevitable by the end of the day, sadly.
Harris: Because of paparazzi or because of other reasons?
Emerson: I think of that for that one reason, yes. To a lesser degree, anybody in the public eye has been exposed to that sort of thing.
Harris: Have you had trouble with that sort of thing?
Emerson: Yeah. Well, to a much lesser degree, yes. What we try and do is, if they want a photograph, then just take it. You know, I think that if that had happened at the Ritz and she’d given one to the photo corps, she would still be here today.
Harris: I know at the height of your tours in the late seventies, where you were playing these big halls, you must have been in a crush of people, not just photographers, but fans. Did that ever get dangerous for you?
Emerson: Well, it got stupid. There was one occasion that I was not actually aware of at the time, where I was in my hotel room, and a personal assistant to the band went after a photographer that had taken some photographs of the band and had gotten into a fight with him. And as a consequence, I was sued. It had nothing to do with me, but there was a lawsuit against me because I employed this person.
Harris: That must have been a surprise for you when that subpoena came down.
Emerson: Well, it was! I was going on stage and this guy came up to me and shoved this piece of paper in my hand. I had no idea about it but, oh boy.
Harris: When we talked to you years ago at Abbey Road, I asked you if you ever got injured doing stuff, and you told me that sometimes when you were doing those weird concerts where you were flipping upside down and backwards and all over the place, that you would occasionally get bloody hands from playing so hard.
Emerson: Not only that. I’ve broken my nose, I’ve broken ribs. You name it. In fact, we just got back from South America and I fell over a monitor speaker on the stage and almost ended up in the front row of the audience. I managed to sprain my wrist on that one but luckily nothing was broken.
Harris: Well, that’s not the one you want going into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, is it? “You know I used to play my keyboards upside down and spinning!” “Yeah, so what happened to you?” “Well, I tripped over a monitor!”
Emerson: [laughing] Yeah, right!
Harris: Now, when you come to Wolf Trap this Saturday, for this concert that we’re all looking forward to, will you be spinning upside down or are those days behind you?
Emerson: [laughing] I will be mentally spinning upside down. No, those days aren’t behind. As far as the Wolf Trap show goes, we’ll be doing a lot of stuff, that’s musically athletic, I think. The spinning piano, I don’t know what is going to be happening with that. I’ve got to make a call to my keyboard tech and see what’s happening about that. It’s not a thing that you can do at every venue because it does require a very high ceiling or a very low floor, you need room.
Harris: [laughing] You don’t want to be spinning around and see the floor is only eight feet below the stage.
Emerson: No, no. When I did it at the California Jam, I was actually high over the stage and hovering with a twenty foot drop below me. So, there was plenty of room.
Harris: Do insurance agents hang up on you a lot?
Emerson: [laughing] Yeah, yeah. They did when I started my flying lessons. Especially when I landed at the wrong airport. But that’s another story.
Harris: Now, we’re giving away some tickets to the show and we are also giving away these special invitation-only tickets to your soundcheck that afternoon. What will people see when they come to see your soundcheck that’s different from what they’ll see during the regular show?
Emerson: Oh, since this our first show, I think they’ll see us sweat a lot. They’ll see us screaming a lot, going, “Oh, god…how do ya…what chord…what’s the note on that one?”
Harris: So you’re actually up there practicing and rehearsing stuff and trying to remember how to do it that night?
Emerson: Yeah, I guess so.
Harris: You know, when I looked back over the ELP history, I did not realize that when you played the Isle of Wight in 1970, that was the debut of Pictures at an Exhibition?
Emerson: Well, I guess you could call that the debut. We played a concert about two nights before that at Plymouth Guild Hall.
Harris: But when you guys did this huge Isle of Wight festival, you had only been together for about four days, right?
Emerson: Well, we’d been rehearsing for something like a month prior to that.
Harris: How was that, to go out for one of your first couple of gigs and go out in front of a huge festival audience like that?
Emerson: I felt that the concert we did before that, two days before that at the Plymouth Guild Hall went a lot better than that, mainly because the acoustics were contained. At the Isle of Wight, the sound went out and kind of kept on going. And I wasn’t…when I came off stage I was kind of unhappy about how we had played. But now, I listen back to those recordings and it’s not bad. In fact, we are releasing that concert and it’s coming out this month. The whole concert, the Isle of Wight Festival, ELP live at the Isle of Wight.
Harris: So it’s a big fall for you guys, with getting back out on the road. Is everything okay between the team of Keith and Greg and the team of Carl?
Emerson: Well, it’s great, yeah.
Harris: Because you guys had some problems over the years.
Emerson: We don’t ever say that, quite honestly. No, but if it wasn’t good, I wouldn’t be going back out on tour. It’s because we manage to bounce ideas off one another. Every band fights but at the end of the day, we’re very positive about the way we fight. At least we come out with a result at the end of the day.
Harris: One other thing I wanted to ask you about is one of your solo projects. You did the music for a movie called “Nighthawks” with Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams, Rutger Hauer, and Lindsey Wagner played Sly’s wife.
Harris: How did that come about? Was that a one-on-one project with Sly or was he not even involved at all?
Emerson: Well, he was very much involved right from the word go. I was sent the script and a brief video about what they were doing with “Nighthawks” and came up with a main title theme and flew to Universal Studios in California. I then waited in an office in Universal, and then Sly walked in, and I was amazed. I had only seen him in the Rocky films and I expected this huge guy to walk in. He wasn’t much taller than myself.
Harris: I’ve heard a lot of people say that. He’s only about 5’9″, isn’t he?
Emerson: Well, he’s a bit taller than me and I’m about 5’10”, but a helluva nice guy. He had heard the main title theme that I had come up with and then he disappeared with the producer for about a half an hour and then the producer came back and said, “Hey, you’ve got yourself a job.” I said, “Oh good.” After that, I sat down with Sly and he expressed what he wanted and it was a great relationship. I really admire him.
Harris: It’s a terrific sound track, too. Have you stayed in touch with him? Do you want to work with him again?
Emerson: I’d love to work with him again. Yes, I have stayed in touch with him. The last time I saw him was in California at Elton John’s AIDS Benefit and I introduced him to Greg and Carl and we all got along great.
Harris: Well we’re looking forward to the show on Saturday, where people will be guaranteed a good time at the show that never ends, right?
Emerson: Yep, absolutely. We’re looking forward to it.
Harris: We’ll call this one…it can’t be Karn Evil 9 or 10…at this point we must be up to about Karn Evil 25, aren’t we?
Emerson: Well, who’s counting? [Laughing]
Harris: Keith, thanks for checking in with me.
Emerson: Okay, Paul. Take care.
Copyright 1997, Paul Harris.
Transcript by Phil Egenthal.