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Robert Berry honors Keith Emerson’s legacy with 3.2’s ‘The Rules Have Changed’

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Robert Berry honors Keith Emerson’s legacy with 3.2’s ‘The Rules Have Changed’ (photo courtesy of the artist)

As a musician, composer and producer, Robert Berry has been part of an elite musical sector for decades. Perhaps best known for his work with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer as songwriter, vocalist and bassist for 3 (an offshoot of prog-rock legends Emerson, Lake & Palmer), the trio released one album for Geffen Records – 1988’s “To the Power of Three.”

A planned follow-up record was never finished, and the trio disbanded as friends after one successful tour. Emerson subsequently reunited with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer while Berry busied himself with a dizzying succession of musical projects including GTR (with Steve Howe of Yes), Alliance, and the Greg Kihn Band.

Fast forward to 2015 and the release of an archival live recording titled “Live Boston ’88.”

Berry and Emerson were thrilled not only because the album was so well received but that 3’s brief existence had been given new life.

The musicians began calling each other, and soon plans were hatched for 3.2, with a new label (Frontiers Records) and a deal for a full-length album. New songs were being written and recordings were underway when the unthinkable happened.

Just days before Emerson was due to arrive in Japan to fulfill a promise for a concert promoter, “The Jimi Hendrix of the keyboard” (in Berry’s words) took his own life at home in Santa Monica.

Emerson had been grappling with a series of escalating health issues, including a pending heart problem, impacting his ability to play at the level he felt his fans expected.

“That, combined with Keith’s love/hate relationship with live performance made him feel powerless,” Berry told me during an interview.

“It took a year of being shrouded in the gray haze of loss before I began to think that perhaps I should proceed as a tribute to my friend,” Berry writes in the liner notes to 3.2’s “The Rules Have Changed” – the moving realization of his and Emerson’s planned album.

One of the most remarkable things about “The Rules Have Changed” is that you can hear the genius of Keith Emerson all over this record – even though Berry is actually playing his parts.

Instead of sounding musically moribund, the album is an affirming testament of life, friendship and alliance. In an exclusive interview with The Maine Edge, Berry explains how his planned collaboration with Emerson instead turned into a powerful tribute to the music legend.

The Maine Edge: How did you process the news of Keith’s death and what motivated you to move forward with this project?

Berry: My dream was to do this album with Keith. When he died, there was no reason to move forward. I couldn’t think about doing it without him because we had this great partnership. My plan wasn’t to release the album and sell a million copies. It was to do another album of 3 music with Keith, so I set out to finish it and it took me about a year.

After he died, I wrote the song “Our Bond.” It has a lot of little hints of different songs from ELP’s history and my history with Keith and Carl (Palmer). The song references the fan reaction to Keith dying.

The Maine Edge: From the opening track “One by One,” I can hear Keith Emerson. I could spot his playing anywhere. But it’s actually you. It’s an incredible piece.

Berry: That is me, but it was Keith’s idea. I had 20% of his keyboard parts done when he died. It’s one thing to copy something. I had to make up the other 80%. I had Keith to guide me through those genius Emerson parts. I just had to recreate what he had already started. I didn’t want to recreate it but his estate said they wanted him to be remembered as a composer and not as a player. He was the Jimi Hendrix of the keyboard. In my opinion, Keith Emerson was the greatest keyboard player of all time.

The Maine Edge: What was the biggest challenge in recreating Keith’s parts for “The Rules Have Changed?”

Berry: Not only did I want them to sound exactly like his parts, they also had to feel like his parts, so if I played them side by side, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. That was a challenge, but I had Keith to guide me.

The Maine Edge: What was Keith Emerson like as a person?

Berry: I’ll tell you about the first time I met him. My manager (Brian Lane – also a manager for Yes, Asia, Carl Palmer, A-ha, and others) called me and said that Keith Emerson wanted to have lunch with me. I was taken aback by that and envisioned having lunch with some guy like Einstein that operates on a different level like a mad genius.

I couldn’t have been more off the mark with Keith Emerson. He was a fun guy and very easy to talk to. He loved life and everything about it. He loved to go waterskiing and motorcycling. We had a few glasses of wine and joked and it was so comfortable.

He said ‘I really like your music and your voice. If we do start a band, I have one question. If we do a tour, would you mind playing a couple of ELP songs?’ That sort of embodies Keith. He was a humble guy but he was a perfectionist. I told him “I would never want you to leave your legacy behind. I would be honored.” Of course, I thought I’d be playing something easy like “Lucky Man” but no (laughs). That wasn’t what he had in mind.

The Maine Edge: Why do you think Keith was dreading those looming shows in Japan?

Berry: In the ‘90s, he had an operation on his forearm for a nerve thing called Dystonia. As time went on, the middle two fingers on his right hand were feeling numb and his arm ached. It made it difficult for him to play at the super high level he was used to playing at.

He had four nights in a row booked in Japan. Suddenly the promoter had doubled it because of ticket demand. They had him playing two shows each night. You have to remember, that music is very difficult to play. He couldn’t cancel because the Japanese fans were his biggest fans and the promoter warned him that if he didn’t do these shows, he would never play there again.

I told him “You’re Keith Emerson. I think you can control your own destiny.” He felt that he was stuck. I asked him about the details of the contract but there wasn’t one. He had agreed to do the shows on a handshake.

Here’s the one thing that really bothered me as a guy who wants to remain viable and is always working on new music. They had a backup keyboard player planned for Keith – a guy to play the hard parts. If it were me, I wouldn’t want someone propping me up. Personally, I would retire and try to enjoy the rest of my life. He was feeling powerless. He also had pending heart problems. All of that stuff was piling up on top of these shows that were looming.

The Maine Edge: Now that “The Rules Have Changed” is out and is being so warmly reviewed, it must be gratifying.

Berry: What I’m proudest of is that the day the album came out, it sold out on Amazon in five countries by noon. Almost unanimously, reviewers wrote of how they could feel Keith Emerson in the music. That’s what makes me feel the best.

Now I have the 3.2 band put together and we’re going to tour this fall. We’ll be doing a lot of California shows in September and we plan to hit the east coast and Canada in October.

After we lost Keith, my whole thing was to make sure that the last thing he ever worked on was not embarrassing to him in any way and that it keeps him on that pedestal – the king of the keyboards. The way this album is being received brings me a lot of joy.

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