Greg Lake, a singer and multi-instrumentalist who helped propel prog rock into the mainstream as a member of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and King Crimson, died Tuesday. His manager told the BBC he had recently had “a long and stubborn battle with cancer”; the news comes nine months after the death of his bandmate, Keith Emerson. He was 69.
“It is with great sadness that I must now say goodbye to my friend and fellow bandmate, Greg Lake,” Carl Palmer wrote in a statement. “Greg’s soaring voice and skill as a musician will be remembered by all who knew his music and recordings he made with ELP and King Crimson. I have fond memories of those great years we had in the 1970s and many memorable shows we performed together. Having lost Keith this year as well has made this particularly hard for all of us. As Greg sang at the end of Pictures at an Exhibition, ‘death is life.’ His music can now live forever in the hearts of all who loved him.”
As a lyricist and vocalist, Lake helped define prog rock’s flair for introspection with a dash of fantasy. He sang with clarity and confidence, making his voice a singular force among his and his fellow musicians’ experimentation. Whether playing bass or guitar, as he often did with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, he wrote in a way that allowed for his bandmates to build vast, intricate soundscapes. He was a skillful player whose guitar playing, in particular, added depth to some of ELP’s grand classical experiments, such as their rock interpretation of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
Greg Lake was born in Bournemouth, England on November 10th, 1947. He befriended eventual King Crimson leader Robert Fripp, who played guitar and lived nearby, and sought out opportunities to play music. In 1967, he joined the Gods, a group that had previously featured Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, but Lake left before they recorded their debut LP. The seeds of King Crimson were also formed in 1967 and Lake joined in 1968. The group played its first concert the following April and Lake sang lead vocals and played bass on their debut, 1969’s groundbreaking In the Court of the Crimson King – which Pete Townshend called “an uncanny masterpiece,” according to The Guardian – and its follow-up, 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon.
While on tour with King Crimson, Lake befriended Emerson, then a keyboardist of their tourmates the Nice. The two musicians had similar musical aesthetics and formed a new group, recruiting Palmer, who had played with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster, to join them. The trio considered bringing a full-time guitarist into the fold – Lake was pulling double duty on bass and guitar – but, according to the book Legends of Rock Guitar, the only musician they all agreed could keep up with them was Jimi Hendrix and their acrynomic name would then become “HELP.”
Emerson, Lake and Palmer made their live debut in 1970, releasing their self-titled debut that same year. They were an near-instant hit. Each of the albums they put out in the Seventies – including their landmark Brain Salad Surgery – went gold in the U.S., and several charted in the Top 10 of Billboard’s album chart. The ambitious Tarkus, their second album – a deft and grandiose fusion of classical and rock – was a Number One album in the U.K. in 1971. Lake served as sole producer for most of the group’s works, which sold more than 48 million albums, according to the BBC.
Lake believed that making a connection with listeners was more important than material success. “It’s more important to make some spiritual human contact, or visit someone lonely,” The Guardian quoted him as saying. “We never had any commercial or financial intentions, but of course, now everyone wants to know how it feels to receive all the lovely royalties, which are apparently delivered by wheelbarrow by Santa himself, after a long day climbing down everybody’s chimneys.”
Their live performances featured light shows and theatrics, including the parading of their “Tarkus” mascot, and their highest-charting album in the U.S. was the live outing, Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends – Ladies and Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The group recorded the album in Anaheim, California in 1974; its title referencing lyrics in the Brain Salad Surgery track “Karn Evil 9.”
“I think there is truth in the fact that the group was pretentious,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “You don’t make an omelet without cracking eggs. We wanted to try and move things forward and do something new and break boundaries. It was important for us to be original. Certainly the early albums … I’m talking now especially about Tarkus, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery. Those records were really great and innovative. There were members of the press that didn’t love us, but the public loved us.”
At the peak of ELP’s success in 1975, Lake put out a solo single, “I Believe in Father Christmas,” which was a Number Two hit in the U.K. behind “Bohemian Rhapsody.” After the trio disbanded in 1979, Lake launched a solo career and, in 1981, issued a star-studded self-titled LP, which featured performances by guitarists Gary Moore and Steve Lukather, drummer Jeff Porcaro and saxophonist Clarence Clemons. It made it up to Number 63 on the U.S. chart and its follow-up, 1983’s Manoeuvers, which also featured Moore, did not make the Top 200.
Subsequently, Emerson and Lake regrouped in the mid-Eighties, but with drummer Cozy Powell instead of Palmer, who was playing with Asia. Their sole LP, Emerson, Lake and Powell, was a hit, making it up to Number 23 in the U.S. Palmer came back, and the original trio continued through much of the Nineties, with a reunion in 2010. He released a final solo album, Ride the Tiger, in 2015.