The Music of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

Updated on December 16, 2017
Reginald Thomas profile image

25 years as a conductor, professional trombonist, and teacher. This author enjoys writing about his passion for music.

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer was an English rock trio that formed in 1970. The group consisted of Keith Emerson on keyboards, Greg Lake as singer, bassist and producer for the group, and Carl Palmer as the drummer/percussionist.

I remember as a freshman in college listening to ELP for the first time. Someone in the dorm had a recording of Pictures at an Exhibition. I knew the title and remembered listening to the Chicago Symphony perform this multi-movement orchestral work in high school. It was originally composed by Modest Mussorgsky nearly a century before (1874). So, when a friend said “You have got to hear ELP play this piece," I was ready to be amazed.

And amazed I was! The sounds and treatment that these three guys gave to this great composition was truly amazing. I never thought these sounds were possible, and when I thought they were all done they came up with new material.

This article will discuss the success of this group and how they helped build a special "niche" for themselves in the world of music.

The Rise to Stardom!

Keith Emerson and Greg Lake met in 1969 at a series of concerts in San Francisco while they were with separate bands (Keith with the Nice and Greg with King Crimson). To make a long story short, they were both looking for another band and agreed to join forces. They eventually hired Carl Palmer and, having trouble coming up with a suitable name for the group, settled on Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

The group has been categorized or labeled a “progressive rock band." This is due to the fact that their music was not geared to the mainstream “pop" culture. And it wasn't “rock ‘n’ roll." But it was different!

Critics back then we’re not big fans of this "progressive rock" thing, primarily because they didn’t understand it. So they put a label on it and thought that it would go away quickly. Guess what? It didn’t!

These three gentlemen were all at the right place at the right time when they joined each other. Without question or too much explanation, it was Keith Emerson who ran the group and was the featured musician. Not to take anything away from Greg or Carl, but Keith was the brains behind the music. Their music was new from the concept of sound and timbre. Many of the numbers were arrangements or adaptations of compositions from the 17th 18th and 19th centuries.

Their first year was a success, with a performance at the Isle of Wite Festival. They also signed a recording contract with Atlantic Records and released their first album called Emerson, Lake, and Palmer in 1970, their second album Tarkus in 1971, Pictures at an Exhibition in 1971, Trilogy in 1972, and Brain Salad Surgery in 1973.

The group was on their way. Their recordings were a great success as they sold more albums than they had anticipated. Brain Salad Surgery was my favorite. The concert touring schedule was hectic but very rewarding as they filled various venues across Europe and the United States.

The Later Years

They broke up for three years and returned with a Works Volume l in 1977, Works Volume 2 1977, and Love Beach in 1978. The group disbanded in 1979 and reformed again in the 1980s as Emerson, Lake, and Powell, with Cozy Powell as the new drummer. Lake was replaced later with Robert Berry on bass to form the band's third incarnation.

The original trio got back together for two more albums, Black Moon in 1992 and In the Hot Seat in 1994. They also did a little bit of touring between 1992 and 1998. Their final performance was in London at the high-voltage festival to commemorate the band's 40th anniversary. Keith Emerson and Greg Lake both died in 2016.

When you are listening to any of the pieces by ELP you'll notice that they showcase Keith Emerson and his superb keyboard skills. I don't think that there is a keyboard artist in rock music that has the "chops" that Keith had. His creative magic on the keys is such that you want to hear the pieces again and again. I don't think I have a favorite chart.

These three musicians (and I emphasize the word musicians) complimented each other to sound like a well-oiled machine. Words that help describe what you hear with this group are:

  • Intense!
  • Drive!
  • Great improvisation
  • Imaginative
  • Great drumming

With nine RIAA– certified gold record albums in the United States—and an estimated 48 million records sold worldwide, they were the most popular and commercially successful progressive rock band of the 1970s.

Keith Emerson died on March 11, 2016 of a gunshot wound to the head that was ruled a suicide. There were several stories about his death, one centered around the fact that Keith had developed nerve damage to his hands later in his career, making it very difficult for him to play his keyboards. This led him to become depressed and ultimately take his own life.

Greg Lake died that same year, on December 7, from cancer. Carl Palmer is the only surviving member of the incredible musical group, known as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Keith Emerson

Considered by most as the best rock keyboard player.
Considered by most as the best rock keyboard player. | Source

Keith Emerson

Probably the best of the best, when it comes to rock keyboard players, is Keith Emerson. The only one that could come close to his skill level and creativity would be his good friend Rick Wakeman. For comparison purposes, I have included a video at the bottom by Rick Wakeman. Listen and compare the two styles of keyboard mastery.

Keith was born November 2,1944 and died on March 11, 2016. He was an English pianist and composer. He was brought up in a musical environment, as both his parents were amateur musicians. They made sure that he had piano lessons at the age of eight. His father who also played piano wanted his son to be able to read music and not play "by ear".

Keith studied the classics and became a versatile pianist. He liked listening to music on the radio. Many of the artists that played a part in influencing him as a young up and coming pianist were people like:

  • Floyd Cramer
  • Dudley Moore
  • Joe Henderson
  • Russ Conway
  • Jerry Lee Lewis
  • Little Richard

Keith had a real interest in the Hammond Organ after experienced it being played by Jack McDuff and at the age of 15 he started playing one.

In 1967, Keith formed the "Nice" with Lee Jackson, David O'List and Ian Hague. This was to be back up to singer P.P. Arnold. Ian Hague was replaced with Brian Davidson and the group rapidly grew a strong live following.

The "sound" of this group was centered around Emerson's Hammond Organ. Very different arrangements of classical music themes as "symphonic rock". But he still didn't have his sound. He added visuals to his show. Strange onstage routines for effects but his music was developing.

Interesting story though about how Keith Emerson got his sound. In some ways I like to compare it to how Glenn Miller arrived at his special sound for his swing band back in the 40s. Try new things until you find that particular one that works for you. This persistence was the method by many including Keith Emerson to become successful later.

Keith was visiting a music shop one day, when the owner was playing a recording of “Switched on Bach“. The music Keith was listening to was originally written for the organ by Johann Sebastian Bach from the 1600’s. The uniqueness of this sound was that it was being played on a “Moog Synthesizer”. A new instrument to Emerson’s ear. And now, he had his new sound! And what he came up with was pure genius.

Below is a video of a piece written by Bach and played on the Moog Synthesizer. Please listen to it so that you can get a good idea of what Keith heard and what ultimately changed his life forever.

Carl Palmer

 Rated as one of the best drummers coming out of the 1960s.
Rated as one of the best drummers coming out of the 1960s. | Source

Carl Palmer

Born March 20, 1950 in Handsworth, England, Carl Palmer was a seasoned drummer by the time he got to be with ELP and a perfect level of musicianship for the group. When you listen to a jazz or rock drummer, you can tell pretty quickly how "tight" the group is because of the drummer. A good drummer drives the group and keeps the locomotion steady. And this is what Palmer did. An accomplished drummer is first a "percussionist" and Carl was a great percussionist and a great drummer.

Carl began taking drum lessons as a youngster in Piccadilly. The first band he played in what is known as the “King Bees”. Before becoming a member of the Emerson Lake and Palmer group, how performed with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and Atomic Rooster. He also played some studio gigs for other groups in a 1966 he played with the Thunderbirds.

Carl Palmer was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1989 and awarded “Prof God“ at the 2017 Progressive Music Awards.

Greg Lake

Born on November 10, 2016, Greg Lake began to play the guitar at the age of 12. He wrote "Lucky Man", at the same age. He started playing seriously at the age of 17, playing in several rock bands until a guitarist Robert Fripp invited him to join the band King Crimson (1969). This group became very popular with their album, In the Court of the Crimson King.

After a short success with King Crimson, Greg left to join up with Keith Emerson to form ELP. He would become their bassist, singer, and producer.

Greg vocals were a perfect blend to balance off what Keith and Carl were doing on the keyboards and drums.


Rick Wakeman - White Rock

© 2017 Reginald Thomas

Let me know if you were a fan of ELP.

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    • Reginald Thomas profile image
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      Reginald Thomas 4 weeks ago from Connecticut

      Thank you! Glad you enjoyed and appreciate ELP.

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      paul yarema 4 weeks ago

      Absoulutely Superb presentation of one of the most influential groups of its time and a new genre.

      Three truly gifted musicians on a high level spelled breaking rules and achieving new sounds....

      Thank you Reginald for the most entertaining and informative dossier on this great band and how they were influenced by music of their past.

      Well Well Done! Thank you!

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