In Remembrance of Keith Emerson: 1944-2016

Keith Emerson proudly poses with his beloved plane, circa 1970s. Keith Emerson held a pilot’s license and flying was one of his passions. Photo courtesy of the Keith Emerson Official Website. Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.


“You’ve got to keep things ‘flying high’ in your personal life, Shirley! Stop letting people use and abuse you!  Remember: you are no one’s ‘little slave’…unless you want to be!” -Keith Emerson

It’s hard to believe it, but yesterday marked the first anniversary of the death of a beloved Progressive rock music icon: Keith Emerson. It’s been 24 years since I met him, but in my mind it was only yesterday.

My introduction to Keith Emerson began with a naughty “gift” that he (with the assistance of Carl Palmer) left waiting for Greg Lake and me aboard Greg’s boat; left conspicuously on a table near the bed. In January of 1993, when Greg and me descended into Greg’s boat (docked at a marina in the Los Angeles area) the first thing that caught my eye was six Polaroid shots (close-up) of Keith’s bare derriere, in all its glory. “What in the hell is THIS?!” I demanded to know, as I picked up the photos and looked them over, wondering how (and why) they got there. Smooth as silk, Greg took the photos from my hand, studied them carefully, then replied: “There were some Swedish students that were using the boat recently. It looks like one of them was messing about and took some naughty photos of his bum! Never mind, Luv. That’s a grim thing to find waiting for you, but pay it no mind.” With that, Greg took away Keith’s ‘calling cards’, never to be seen again.

The poster for the first annual Keith Emerson Official Tribute Concert, held in West Hollywood in 2016. The tribute concert boasted an all star lineup of artists. Poster courtesy of The Emerson, Lake & Palmer Appreciation Group. Used with the permission of Aaron Emerson. All rights reserved.

The poster for the 2nd annual Keith Emerson Official Tribute Concert, held in Birmingham, England in 2017. Poster courtesy of The Emerson, Lake & Palmer Appreciation Group. Used with the permission of Care After Combat. All rights reserved.

Two days later, as we got ready for Greg to drive me home to Camarillo (North of Los Angeles, in Ventura County) Greg casually asked me, “How would you feel about driving over this morning to meet my mates? They’re not far from the marina, and I know they’d love to meet you!” I agreed. Minutes later, Greg and me were back on the highway.

As we entered, there was Carl: sitting in his bathrobe, black stubble on his handsome face and a cup of coffee in his hand. As I looked at him, I immediately thought of my mother (except for the black stubble!) as this was her daily ritual every morning of her life. “Here’s SHIRLEY!” announced Greg, as he dropped me practically in Carl’s lap, then disappeared god knows where. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” Carl asked. Why thank you. Don’t mind if I do.

After we’d laughed ourselves stupid for at least a half hour, my peripheral vision caught sight of yet another handsome man in a bathrobe, swiftly approaching on my right. It was Keith Emerson. I reckon our laughter woke him up. “Keith, you won’t believe the shite that Greg has been pulling all this weekend!” With a roll of his eyes, Keith replied, “If it’s Greg, then I’ll believe anything!” With that pithy observation, Carl cast Keith a knowing look, as he introduced me. Keith gave me a sweet, gentle smile, then settled into the serious business of hearing exactly what his bandmate had been up to that weekend.

Keith Emerson with ELP bandmate Greg Lake, in 1977. Keith Emerson and Greg Lake both died in 2016, a mere nine months apart. Photo courtesy of The Emerson, Lake and Palmer Appreciation Group. All rights reserved.

Once Keith joined us, the mood remained fairly solemn until the subject of those photos popped up, at which point Keith suddenly got the biggest grin I have seen anyone get in my 61 years of living. Keith howled with laughter, as I recalled Greg’s makeshift explanation for how those photos got there. “That liar!” Keith retorted. “He knows damn well there hasn’t been any ‘Swedish students’ aboard his boat at any time!” With that, Keith looked directly into my eyes as he asked, “Did it upset you to find the photos lying there?” “No” I replied. “Once I realized it wasn’t Greg’s hairy bottom on display, and it certainly wasn’t that of any woman I could imagine, then everything was okey-doke with me!” With that, Keith threw his head back and began laughing. He and Carl continued laughing to the point of tears for several minutes, as I calmly sat there drinking my coffee,
smiling demurely.

Later that day, alone just the two of us, Keith admitted it was he who had been the “model” for those ‘alluring’ shots that have-sadly-disappeared into the sands of time; alongside the countless photos taken of me clowning around with the guys on that fateful, unforgettable day. It remains a very special moment in my life. It’s a moment that I now know I won’t forget, long after I’ve forgotten so many other special moments in my life. Keith’s warm, wonderful, genuine smile is a major reason that I won’t forget that special day, ever.

Keith Emerson possessed a smile that you felt from your head to your toes when he directed it your way. A smile you’ll never forget, ever. Photo courtesy of the Keith Emerson Official Website. Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

Tragically, twenty-three years after our delightful first meeting, for reasons I (and countless others who love Keith) will never fully understand, Keith Emerson decided that Friday, March 11, 2016 was a good time to leave us. Keith was seventy-one. Like his bandmate Greg Lake, Keith Emerson never did say “goodbye.” Maybe that’s why (speaking for myself) it feels like Keith Emerson has never left us. A year has passed, and I catch myself talking about Keith in the present tense, often.

Today I closed my eyes, and my mind returned to the very last time I spoke with Keith. It was 2000, and the setting was the food court at the sprawling Santa Monica Mall. I was there, visiting with a then-friend,who noticed a man staring intently at me from across the food court. It was none other than Keith Emerson. Eventually, Keith came over to where we sat. Before Keith could utter a single word, Emitt stared at him and announced, “Hi. I’m Emitt Rhodes. I used to be famous!” Without missing a beat, Keith replied, “Hi! I’m Keith Emerson…and I used to be famous too!” At that moment, Keith beamed that very same disarming smile that caught my heart back in 1993, when we first met. It was a smile that you felt from your head to your toes when he directed it your way. A smile you’ll never forget, ever.

A high flying, fearless showman. Keith Emerson takes to the sky aboard his legendary ‘flying’ piano, early 1970s. Photo courtesy of Karen McCarthy. All rights reserved.

Keith was then and is today famous. His sheer brilliance as a musician, composer and fearless showman will doubtless ensure that he will remain famous for generations to come. However, what I hope will be equally remembered about Keith Emerson is that he wasn’t merely a man who was appreciated for his unique, stunning musical talents. He was a man who was truly loved by his countless fans world-wide, as well as by his many friends.  Genuine friends, close friends. Friends who remained an active part of Keith Emerson’s life right up til his final moments. Ask any of Keith’s many friends.  Ask his family. They will assure you that Keith Emerson was not living a “lonely existence” despite certain allegations made after Keith’s demise.

When I think of Keith, I’m reminded of what my grandfather Martin Peña told me at his 80th birthday party in 1968: “Mi hija, all of us have to die eventually! Don’t ever be afraid of dying, ever. The only thing you should be afraid of is to die unloved; without a single person in your life who loved or gave a shit about you. When you leave this earth, remember that’s the best way you can leave it: knowing you are loved. Nothing else matters!”

Keith Emerson’s headstone in 2017, adorned with flowers and a tiny figurine of a piano. Keith died in Santa Monica, California and is buried in his hometown of Lancashire, England. Photo courtesy of Aaron Emerson. Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

“Lead me from tortured dreams
Childhood themes of nights alone
Wipe away endless years
Childhood tears as dry as stone

From seeds of confusion, illusion
Dark blossoms have grown
Even now in furrows of sorrow
The dance still is sung

My life’s course is guided
Decided by limits drawn
On charts of my past days
And pathways, since I was born

There’s no end to my life
No beginning to my death
Death is life!”

Lyrics to ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ courtesy of Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Featured image photo of Keith Emerson courtesy of Will Ireland/Classic Rock Magazine. Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Peña began her career as a music journalist almost twenty years ago, writing for her websites "Stars In My Eyes: the Girlhowdy Website" and "La Raza Rock!" and progressed to creating various fan sites on Yahoo, including the first for New Zealand singer/songwriter Tim Finn. From there, she became a free agent, arranging online interviews for Yahoo fan clubs with various music artists (Andy White, John Crawford, Debora Iyall, John Easdale, etc.). She also lent her support in creating and moderating a number of Yahoo fan clubs for various music artists from the 1990s-today. As a music journalist, Shirley Peña has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them: Goldmine, American Songwriter, Classic Drummer Magazine and UK-based Keyboard Player (where she was a principal journalist). A self-confessed "fanatic" of 1960s "British Invasion" bands, Classic Rock and nostalgic "Old Hollywood ", she also keeps her finger on the pulse of current trends in music, with a keen eye for up and coming artists of special merit. Shirley Peña loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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5 Responses to In Remembrance of Keith Emerson: 1944-2016

  1. Aurora says:

    thanks for sharing! I live for stories like this, bless you for writing it here! I also miss Keith a lot even if I never met him, I sense he was a kind person, may he have a good eternity.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    We all know Keith was a brilliant musician, but you have given us a different perspective on him – as a human being, as a guy with quite a sense of humor. It is always nice to hear stories that add dimension to a famous person!! I wish I had been so fortunate to have known him. Thanks for the great story, Shirley!

  3. That’s a beautiful quote from your grandfather!

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