Remembering Keith Emerson (1944-2016)

Last week was an emotional one for me. Sir George Martin passed away at 90 on Monday. My cousin Debbie died on Wednesday at the age of 62. Thursday, a college friend, bandmate and founder of SXSW, Louis Meyers had a fatal heart attack at 60. Friday, I heard the news about Keith Emerson taking his own life at 71. At this point, it was too much for me to take. I was in a real funk most of the weekend. Keith was the reason I took up playing keyboards, why I owned stacks of synthesizers, and he was my teenage fashion inspiration, from the knee boots to the haircut. It has taken me a few days to collect my thoughts and memories, and I think I have a surprising tale of how my hero-worship for Keith landed me in a lifelong career in radio.

Keith Emerson at the mighty Moog monolith, April 1974.

Keith Emerson at the mighty Moog monolith, April 1974.

I had seen Emerson, Lake and Palmer before in April of 1974, but this time was going to be much different. By 1977 I was working in the college darkroom, developing and printing yearbook photos when I heard the announcement from the radio. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were coming to town, and I could win front row tickets, a limo ride to the show, backstage passes and actually meet the band! You would think a superfan like myself would be excited at the possibility of meeting my favorite rock star, but instead I was discouraged at the news. I knew that even if I entered, some undeserving pie-faced 16 year old was going to win. I wished they weren't even offering the contest because if I couldn't go, no one else should be able to!

After selfishly dwelling on my situation a while, I had an idea. Now, this was at a point in my photography career where I had more ambition than I had talent. I called the radio station (KMOD in Tulsa Oklahoma) and asked for the manager, and then pitched him my plan. I offered to document the event in pictures for the winner, and my company, Mike Keller Photography, would present the images in an album to the lucky, undeserving winner. The manager loved the idea, and even offered my company free advertising. One problem- Mike Keller was my supervisor in college, and had no idea I was posing as an employee of his side business. "No, no, no! That's not necessary!" I bluffed, "This is all about the winner, not us!" He invited me up to the station to iron out the details, and I brought my portfolio complete with ELP photos to prove I was the real deal.

A few weeks later, there I was in the front seat of a black Cadillac limousine, with a few radio personalities and a pie-faced 16 year old winner.

After a stop for a nice Italian dinner, we pulled in through the back gate of the Tulsa Assembly Center. 

L-R, our driver, KMOD's Charlie West, Pie Face, Atlantic Records A&R guy, Clark Ryan and Pie Face's plus one.

L-R, our driver, KMOD's Charlie West, Pie Face, Atlantic Records A&R guy, Clark Ryan and Pie Face's plus one.

We were led in the back entrance to the hall and waited for our chance to meet the band. The A&R guy went off to talk to the ELP's manager, and sometime later came back with the disappointing news, the group was unavailable. They meditate and focus on the gig ahead of them, do Tai Chi or something to get into the zone. In other words, beat it. We were escorted to our seats on the front row. Did I mention I totally scammed my way into this?

Keith Emerson behind the massive Yamaha GX-1. 400mm Tri-X 125@5.6.

Keith Emerson behind the massive Yamaha GX-1. 400mm Tri-X 125@5.6.

Carl Palmer.

Carl Palmer.

After the concert was over, we regrouped backstage and waited to meet the band. ELP's manager now says the guys are having a band meeting and are unavailable, and we should go on to the hotel and they'll meet us there. I am beginning to suspect the A&R guy doesn't have a clue to what he's doing.

As our limo pulled out of the convention center, we headed down Riverside drive. Carloads of stoner fans were blowing their horns, and pulling along side of us to get a better look at the limo's contents. Wow! This parade of cars behind us think we're Emerson, Lake OR Palmer!
As we turned into the Hilton parking lot, fans were surrounding our car. It was then the decision was made to form a circle around me once we exited the limo, and run to the hotel door all the while speaking with fake British accents! We piled into the room and collapsed on the bed and floor laughing. A peek out of the window revealed a small crowd of people staked outside our door. I couldn't resist it, I walked out the door to find a Coke machine. People asked me, "Is he in there? Is Keith in your room?".  I smiled and said with my best Brit accent, "'oo's Keith Emerson? Sorry mate, you got the wrong room!".  I was enjoying this thoroughly.

The Atlantic rep had disappeared to go talk to ELP's management, and he returned with the bad news, the band is too tired for a meet and greet. However, they did have the energy to autograph a copy of their latest, Works Volume One for the winner.

The alleged "authentic" signatures on the album cover.

The alleged "authentic" signatures on the album cover.

So, we never met Emerson, Lake or Palmer that night. But we still had a blast doing the rock star lifestyle- limos, backstage, front row, trashing hotel rooms...
KMOD radio began to use me to photograph events at the station, paying me in stacks of new albums and attaboys, until one day they offered me a weekend position on air. That led to a 38 year career in radio (and photography) and ultimately several encounters with Mr Emerson. Keith was always nice, funny and very approachable. I loved him dearly and will miss him tremendously.

Keith and I backstage in October of 1986.

Keith and I backstage in October of 1986.