Monday, December 20, 2021

Rick Wakeman, Session Man

Rick Wakeman is one of rock's foremost keyboardists. Obviously any Yesfan looks upon Wakeman as one of the core musicians in the band's storied half-century, but fewer realize that, aside from his initial band, Strawbs, Wakeman was a key incidental session player, most famously for David Bowie's "Life on Mars"; the song would lose its luster without that iconic piano. For Bowie, Wakeman also contributed to Space Oddity, playing the mellotron and electric harpsicord, Elton John's Madman Across the Water, Cat Steven's Teaser and the Firecat, the piano for T-Rex's "Bang a Gong" and Lou Reed's debut LP.

Classically trained at the Royal College of Music, Wakeman found himself in such high demand as a session player that he dropped out of the College in 1969 to concentrate on his career. Wakeman recalls the mellotron session for "Space Oddity:" It was early 1969; I was 19 coming up on 20. I'd worked with the producer Tony Visconti that year on the Junior's Eyes album. I was playing a Mellotron, which was a relatively new instrument and difficult to keep in tune, but I'd found a crafty way. Tony asked: 'How'd you do that?' and I said: 'It's just a fingering technique' and that was that.

"Soon after, Tony called me up and said, 'Rick, I need you to come up to London to play some Mellotron on David Bowie's new single, "Space Oddity." I drove up to London and parked on Wardour Street and went over to Trident Studios to meet David. 'Tony says you can keep this bloody thing in tune,' he said. 'Well yeah, hopefully,' I replied. It was before David was famous, so I wasn't nervous about meeting him – it was just another bit of session work.

"We knocked it out in about 20 minutes. I think it got to number five first time around in '69 and then in '75 when it was rereleased it went to number one. A year later David called and asked me if I'd play some piano on some new songs. So I went round to his house in Beckenham, Kent. I nicknamed it Beckenham Palace because at the time I was living in a tiny little terraced house in West Harrow and his kitchen was bigger than my entire place.

"I sat at the piano while he played songs on his battered old guitar. Things had really changed for him. He was a successful artist and he had a young family. I sat at the piano while he played a load of songs to me on his battered old 12-string guitar. "Life on Mars" stuck out as being something very special. He wanted a piano solo, he wanted the album to be very piano-orientated. I was given complete freedom by him."

In 1971, having just joined the band, Yes was on tour for Fragile, interestingly as the opening band for Black Sabbath. "Yes supported Black Sabbath in America in the early days, and me and Ozzy always got on great. Because of my various alcoholic diseases, I haven't been able to drink for 20-odd years, but back then I was a serious drinker, as were all of Sabbath, so we got on like a house on fire, matching each other drink for drink. When we supported 'em on Yes’s Fragile tour, they had a spare seat on their private plane, so a lot of the time I'd travel with them. You literally couldn't move for booze on that plane. Ozzy was probably putting away as much as me – which was as much as humanly possible."

In the book, Caped Crusader, Rick Wakeman in the 1970s, Elton John writes in the book's foreward, "Rick's mastery of electronic instruments only adds to his abilities, and I think it is fair to say he was one of the reasons I stuck to the piano. I also admire his attitude to stage shows - always willing to take a gamble, but never sacrificing his musical ideals. Just as important, never losing his sense of humour and his sense of the ridiculous. Anyone who can put on an ice show at Wembley must be all right. I must add that Rick loves cars and is a fanatic when it comes to soccer. Therefore, he and I have an unbreakable bond.

"It has become fashionable to knock musicians who have been around a while, and who are still determined to persevere in what they believe in. It is very easy to be misunderstood along the way, but it is vital to ignore trends and get on with what you want to do. Rick will always do this because, quite simply, he's that much better than everyone else."

The photo above is from the gatefold of The Six Wives of Henry VIII and shows the variety of keyboards that Wakeman has used. Starting on the upper left is Wakeman's confessed favorite, the Mini Moog. Clockwise you'll note a custom mixer and a frequency counter sitting on a Steinway Grand Piano. Rick's left hand is playing the RMI electric piano, which sits atop a custom Hammond C3. With his right hand he plays another Mini Moog that sits upon a Mellotron 400D. 

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