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Keith Emerson the First Synth Rock Star Dies at 71

The keyboardist for Emerson Lake and Palmer brought new prominence to the synthesizer.
March 11, 2016, 11:25pm
Photo by Barrie Wentzell

Keith Emerson, band member of the seminal prog rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and the man widely considered one of the greatest keyboardists in modern music, has died at 71.

"We regret to announce that Keith Emerson died last night at his home in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, aged 71." Emerson, Lake & Palmer wrote on their Facebook page. "We ask that the family's privacy and grief be respected."

The English-born keyboardist arguably popularized synthesizers, most notably the Moog modular, to English and American audiences during his time with ELP by taking them out of recording studios and onto the road where he played them with bravado. His first synthesizer-like instrument was a Hammond, an organ whose sounds were produced by an electric current that could be manipulated with a sliding bar. Playing the instrument with his first band, the Nice, Emerson developed a reputation for his theatrical performances of jumping on the organ or holding down keys with knives.

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But it was his towering Moog Modular Synthesizer, nicknamed "the Monster Moog" that he used on tours with ELP that shifted the notion of keyboardist as a sideman to a more prominent position at the front. His Moog was built from 81 modules (the parts that make up the modular) and, according the New York Times weighed "550 pounds, stood 10 feet tall, and took four roadies to move." During performances, Emerson would reportedly toss his trademark knife onto a wooden board drilled onto its side panel and conclude shows by deploying bat wings from the modular unit's backside. Among its most famous appearances on an ELP record is the modular opening and outro solo on the track "Hoedown" on their 1972 album Trilogy.

Emerson's commitment to modular as a live instrument led to a collaboration with the instrument's inventor Robert Moog who would give the musician prototypes of new Moog's to test out while on tour. These include an early version of the Polymoog and the now ubiquitous Minimoog, which Emerson would often play both at the same time and spread out as he fully faced the audience, with his right hand on one set of keys and the left on the other.

After the breakup of ELP in 1979, Emerson became a known for his rock reworkings of classical compositions and later as score composer for several Hollywood films, including the Nighthawks (1981) which starred Sylvester Stallone.

In 2014, Moog honored its longtime patron with the Emerson Moog Modular System, a faithful replica that took three years to research and later manufacture. "The EMMS is a faithful recreation of the most visible and widely-heard modular system in the world," Moog wrote on its website. "It is handcrafted from the original circuit designs, and utilizes the same hand assembly methods found at the Moog Music factory in Trumansburg, NY in 1969."

Emerson was invited to be the featured keynote speaker at the 2014 Moogfest.

He is survived by his former wife and two sons.