"Keith had so much criticism after that 3 album. He was susceptible to that kind of thing." Robert Berry on his work and relationship with Keith Emerson

Robert Berry
(Image credit: Robert Berry)

 In 2021 Robert Bery returned to his work with Keith Emerson for one final 3.2 album. He told Prog about the challenges he faced in recreating the work of one of the finest keyboard players of modern times for 3.2’s Third Impression.

In the mid to late 80s, Robert Berry was viewed as progressive rock’s great successor. Guided under the tutelage of renowned A&R man John Kalodner, circumstances led to him being lined up to replace John Wetton in Asia and Steve Hackett in GTR before effectively supplanting Greg Lake in Emerson Lake & Palmer. Astoundingly, these opportunities arose within a few short weeks of each other. 

“John Kalodner was really on my side,” says Berry. “Carl Palmer was in his office one day and they were having trouble in Asia. Carl called me and said they were either going to replace John Wetton or start a new band. We talked some more but it got to a point where a team wasn’t coming together. Then Steve Hackett left GTR. My manager then was Brian Lane, and he told me Steve Howe wanted to meet me. I spent some time with GTR but Max Bacon [vocalist] didn’t want me to sing a note. My agreement with Brian Lane was that at least I got to sing on one song if I gave up everything else. I loved playing with Steve Howe so much that basically, I was willing to give up my career. I like Max but there was something wrong, so I quit.

“I was going to go home with my tail between my legs,” he continues. “But Brian said, ‘Keith Emerson would like to meet you before you leave.’ I was nervous because I thought that Keith was this crazy, mad genius who would be talking in equations but he was the funniest and easiest guy to talk to. He said, ‘Well, I think we’ve done it here, but I have one question to ask you. If we toured would you mind if we played a couple of ELP songs?’ I thought that was fantastic. Carl Palmer knew that we were having lunch and it went from there.”

Robert Berry

(Image credit: Frontiers Records)

The resultant album, To The Power Of Three, was released under the moniker of 3, but to most fans the unofficial nickname of Emerson Berry & Palmer better reflected the spirit of the project. A commercial album, it was more in keeping with the pop-tinged music that Yes, Rush and Asia were recording at the time rather than the likes of Tarkus. This led to criticism in some quarters but surprisingly, given Berry’s position as “the new boy”, he recalls receiving little denunciation for his part in the project or for essentially replacing Greg Lake. 

“There were a few criticisms but not as much towards me as they were to Keith,” he says. “I was a huge Greg Lake fan, so I could deflect that easily by saying, ‘I’m a Greg Lake fan myself. I can see why you’d miss him.’ It was the Emerson fans who were so hard not only on 3 but on Keith personally. Even the idea that we had female backing singers on tour, they were very critical of Keith saying, ‘You’re ruining your name by having scantily clad girls in the band.’ Keith had so much criticism after that album that he just couldn’t continue as he was susceptible to that kind of thing.”

Berry and Emerson would remain in contact and, after a meeting in early 2015, Berry persuaded the keyboard player to reunite under the 3 banner. Aside from the musical challenges and anticipation, Berry recalls that there were other more pressing issues to consider.   

“We hung out a bit and we did some demos. I told him that a label really wanted us to do another 3 album and that the money was good. People think that Keith Emerson was financially set for the rest of his life. Well, he wasn’t. He was like me and he had to work. At that time, Carl had his ELP Legacy shows and didn’t want to do it. Keith said we should use Simon Phillips and that was when we started talking again. We exchanged lot of music and that was how we worked. It was so much fun.” 

Tragically, that musical reunion wasn’t to last. Beset with health problems that reduced his ability to play at the high standard he had set himself, and distressed by harsh online criticisms, Emerson took his own life in 2016. 

“This studio was his happy place at the time but I didn’t know that until afterwards,” sighs Berry. “There were things that happened to him with his arm and he wasn’t playing as well. I saw him play on a video about a week before he died, and his playing was really good. It might have hurt but he could still play.”

Despite having a stack of material co-written with Emerson, Berry left the music alone for months, unable to face hearing the tracks again. When he did finally work on the recordings and considering releasing them, he was contacted by Emerson’s estate, who refused to allow Emerson’s playing to appear on the album. Consequently, Berry had the unenviable task of trying to recreate the rough parts played by a keyboard player of genius standing.  

“I didn’t think that I had the right to do it because I lost the partner,” he explains. “It was a year of mourning for the loss of my most famous friend. The funniest person I ever met and the best keyboard player in the world. Then I began to think that maybe I had the responsibility to show that he was still on top-notch form and wasn’t washed up. I had to painfully regurgitate and recreate every tone and sound. He didn’t have to do it like that, it just flew out of his fingers.”

Robert Berry

(Image credit: Robert Berry)

Released under the band name 3.2, The Rules Have Changed surfaced in 2018 and there was an assumption that this would mark the end of 3. Although most of the co-written material between Berry and Emerson found a home on that album, a solitary, expansive track – Never – remained unused. Aside from the obvious musical justification for ensuring that the song was released, Berry also felt that same responsibility to ensure that one of the last pieces of music Emerson worked on was finally released. Given the restrictions imposed by Emerson’s estate, Berry again had to recreate the keyboard player’s parts on the latest 3.2 release, Third Impression

“There’s some genius Keith Emerson writing in the middle of that song,” says Berry. “It’s such a big piece of music that I still feel like it’s worthy of half the album’s content. As for the rest of the material, half of the album is in the 3.2 style that Keith and I had talked about developing. The other half is moving more towards what I might do in the future. I had to do that as I didn’t want to fabricate a bunch of 3 songs. There were a few other bits of stuff that Keith had sent me but I didn’t feel that an honest production could come out of those.”

Those tracks Berry mentions may all be sole creations, but there’s a certain familiarly to the keyboard sounds that are reminiscent of Emerson at his finest. Indeed, if you didn’t know Berry had performed them, you would be forgiven for thinking Emerson performed on all of the songs. 

“I can’t help but have that in my DNA,” says Berry. “Working with him, I absorbed so much. With Carl, I learned that he plays drums to the melody and doesn’t play a straight beat. In figuring out his style, I’ve morphed that into my 3.2 style. If I was to do another 3 album, I’d have to do it all myself, write everything and have no inspiration from anyone else. I don’t feel right about that. That’s not what that band was about. We went from three players, to two, to one and a half. So this is the last possible thing that could ever be in the 3 family.”