In Defense of Innovators — A Fond Farewell to Keith Emerson

Keith Emerson Shjmyra/Adobe Stock

Keith Emerson, the keyboard player for the trio ELP (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) died earlier this month, unfortunately at his own hand. As the consummate perfectionist, he didn’t want to disappoint fans as nerve damage had been affecting his right arm at the age of 71. What a tragedy — and waste of genius’ life. I’ve been playing a lot of ELP recently, and although it’s been a real hit on my productivity, I can’t help myself. I’m having to type with my left hand because of all the “air keyboard” riffs I can’t stop myself from doing (Karn Evil #9, Lucky Man, Trilogy, and of course Hoedown) with my right hand! Carl Palmer fans do the same with air drums — you all know who you are.

When I was a young teenager, I was turned on to ELP by my three older brothers (we even had a cat named Tarkus!) and even though I didn’t love every song, I was blown away not just by the virtuosity of this power trio (which sits in the pantheon of others lil Rush, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix Experience) anchored by Keith. Music critics scoff at the “prog rock” genre, especially when there is a distinct crossover to other genres such as classical (e.g., Yes) or jazz (e.g., Steely Dan). And the critics really enjoyed skewering Keith with his showmanship (just as classical music critics have done with Jacques Loussier’s music), but I loved it. It pushed the boundary. It didn’t fit in a box. It appealed to intellect as well as musicianship and emotion. And it was thick, dense and powerful stuff. It was “epic” before epic became epic.

And Keith was also a pioneer in his use of electronics for his keyboards. Moog should have been his middle name! Don’t believe me? Check out the Emerson Moog Modular system (and scroll down to see the original). He basically ripped apart the synthesizer rebuilt into its core components and then built them up and mashed them up into an overall system that met his demanding needs. Do you think this applies in modern businesses? Oh yeah. Talk about digital disruption!

Very little innovation in art or business is truly original, and the ability to mash up different genres, problem solving approaches, fields of study, techniques, tools and so on is a real skill that I appreciate and try to continually learn. Even in the most ‘“simple” of business processes such as purchasing, there are many boundaries to push if you’re not afraid. If you view “supply management” as the ability to help safely architect and orchestrate physical or virtual networks of supply, you’re framing your “art of supply” with a much broader palette where you can mash up machine learning, behavioral economics, combinatorial optimization, portfolio management, sustainability, creative thinking and all sorts of other areas. Doesn’t that seem a bit cooler than just going to a Chester Karrass (no offense to the good doctor) class? And doesn’t represent something that could entice young minds to enter this area and forge new ground?

Keith Emerson was no dinosaur as the critics said — he was an innovator. I find that dinosaurs are the ones that close their minds to new thinking and new combinations of old things. Do you ever wonder why some old school CPOs churn through so many jobs and transformations?  Many of them are inherently nomadic and like to rove around with their teams to fix broken companies. But others only have a limited bag of techniques and tools, and when those are expended, it seems so are they! I tip my hat to all the current and future Keith Emerson types out there who work hard at their craft to pursue mastery, but also not get boxed in by traditional dogma, create new “solution” mashups, and have a little fun in the process. If they do so, they’ll leave their mark on the world — just like Keith did.

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