It wasn’t simply Greg Lake’s booming voice that enshrined him among the greatest rock singers of all time. It was his authority, his ability to play a supporting role in the bands he was a part of, while still maintaining an undeniable presence that placed him front and center no matter what. Although he first came to prominence on that first groundbreaking album by prog rock pioneers King Crimson, his name became forever entwined with those of the supergroup he shared with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer—Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Lake passed away at the beginning of this month, but his a formidable presence remains in his music. That powerful voice will certainly be missed and we’ve compiled 10 of his best songs to honor that spirit.
While Manoeuvres marked another significant step forward in his solo career (and away from simply being known as the “L” in ELP), Lake wisely chose to stick to the same musical template as far as some of its songs were concerned. Consequently “Someone” became an effective touchstone in an album that spotlighted his creative diversity. It didn’t boost sales, but it did show a consistency that went over favorably with his fans.
An unreleased bonus track tacked on to the re-release of his eponymous solo debut, this reboot of a Smokey Robinson classic finds Lake in unfamiliar terrain and well away from the stylish approach taken with every other song in the set. It may have been too out of character to consider it for release the first time around, but in retrospect, it further affirms Lake’s desire for diversity and need to establish himself as an artist capable of altering his personal palette.
Lake’s raging delivery helped make “21st Century Schizoid Man” a striking introduction to King Crimson’s remarkable debut, an album that established the template for progressive rock in the U.K. and abroad. The song proved pivotal to Crimson’s immediate success, given that it was the most amplified offering of the set and the one song that could be construed as a true rocker. It’s something of a stretch for Lake, who was generally more melodic in tone and temperament, but it served as good training for the bombast that was to follow with ELP.
Lake had left Crimson prior to the recording of the band’s sophomore album, but bandleader Robert Fripp convinced him to stick around long enough to contribute vocals on the majority of the album’s tracks. (The record’s most endearing song, “Cadence and Cascade,” was given to new vocalist Gordon Haskell, but Lake laid down the guide vocal.) Sung scat style, Lake’s skittish singing complemented the jazz-like arrangement and further exemplified his versatility as both a singer and musician who could come to the fore.
While no single song on ELP’s eponymous debut could foretell the success that the band would achieve once they became stadium-ready superstars, “Take a Pebble” did demonstrate the band’s ability to cross stylistic parameters all within the space of a single song. Here again, Lake leans into the song with a muscular authority that’s anything but the timid toss-off the title otherwise suggests. Going from the jazzy flourish of Emerson’s keyboards to Lake’s folk-like flourish, it demonstrated the trio’s ability to effectively blend their individual instincts.
If anyone ever had any doubts at all about Lake’s ability to share softer sentiments, they would have to be persuaded by his evocative performance on this surprisingly serene respite from the harsh tones of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the song that precedes it on In the Court of the Crimson King. Effortless, almost elegiac, it suggested that Lake would have had a promising career ahead of him as a balladeer if fate hadn’t intervened along the way.
While ELP’s over the top antics were the draw for those fans who packed the arenas to witness their super-charged spectacle, Lake managed to temper that intensity with his unabashed balladry and singular finesse. Released as a single, the song entered the American Top 40, giving the group its best shot at breeching AM radio. Indeed, with its breezy strum of acoustic guitar, it wholly eschewed the pyrotechnics so essential to ELP’s musical mantra. On songs like this, Emerson and Palmer simply served as sidemen.
Despite becoming something of a holiday standard, “I Believe in Father Christmas” found Lake and lyricist Pete Sinfield insisting the song was really about to the commercialization of Christmas and the loss of innocence and wonder. It also gave Lake a chance to express his disdain for offering Christmas greeting in the more generic sense by wishing people “happy holidays” instead. Regardless, the song serves it purpose, thanks to a stately melody and the reverence that becomes apparent in Lake’s stirring vocal. It also ranks as Lake’s biggest solo hit; although it was written during his tenure with ELP, it was released as an individual effort and actually reached number two in the British charts, kept from the top spot only by Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The title track of King Crimson’s debut disc foretold the arrival of a remarkable new musical entity in ways as bold and dramatic as any introduction before or since. With Sinfield’s lyrics and Fripp’s unconventional arrangements and production, Lake helped usher in Crimson’s new musical order, doing so in ways that reflected its grandeur and verbosity. It’s doubtful that any other singer could have pulled off a similar feat.
No single song serves as a better requiem than this beautiful ballad that still remains the standout selection on ELP’s formidable run. Sung with striking eloquence and sincerity, the song was written by Lake at the tender age of 12, demonstrating that his talents as singer and songwriter emerged fully formed. Emerson’s burst of synthesized staccato notwithstanding, it remains one of the most stirring rock ballads of all time, a concert staple that sadly serves as an epitaph to a musician who was more than lucky, but fortunate enough to be well positioned when opportunity came calling.