Friday, January 14, 2022

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken” is an amalgam of this and that. The lyrics from a children’s hymnbook by Eleanor Farjeon, the tune from the Scottish traditional folksong, Bunessan,” the piano theme a variation of Rick Wakeman’s “Catherine Howard.” The recording of the track was a bit of a distraction from Wakeman’s first solo project, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and his session work. The Stevens’ track, recorded in March 1971, was Wakeman’s last session gig before joining Yes for the recording of Fragile in August and Bowie for the recording of Hunky-Dory.

A year earlier, still recording with Strawbs, Wakeman’s manager received a call from Jerry Moss, the M in A&M. “So we went down to the A&M lot, which was Charlie Chaplin’s old film studios. I hadn’t really ever sat in an executive’s office before, so they asked me if I wanted some coffee and I said 'I’d rather have a Scotch' – this was back in my drinking days and it was only nine in the morning. 

“Anyway, Moss showed us ‘round the lot and it was fantastic. And then he said that they had an option on me because of the Strawbs thing. He said, ‘Word in the business is that Yes is going to be a very big band. If that’s so then we should probably put out a solo album”. I’d never really thought about it before, but it sounded like Christmas, so I said 'Yes please.'” 

While maligned by critics (not all of them, but), The Six Wives of Henry VIII sold more than half a million copies in the U.S. upon its release (14 million copies to date). Inspired by a biography of Henry VIII that Wakeman bought at the airport, the concept provided a convenient framing device for a series of melodies he’d been toying with. Gathering together a formidable ensemble of bandmates from Yes (all but Anderson) and Strawbs, Wakeman fashioned his compositions into distinct themes and timbres not unlike those created by John Williams for Star Wars. 

The Six Wives’ gatefold sleeve displayed the impressive array of instruments that Wakeman had at his disposal, and while “Jane Seymour” represents the album’s most faithful Tudor interlude, utilizing the church organ from St. Giles Cripplegate, “Anne Boleyn” is heaven on earth for aficionados of early monophonic Minimoog and ARP synths. The two standout tracks, though, are “Catherine Of Aragon” and “Catherine Parr,” the latter including a memorable Hammond C3 section of immaculately controlled arpeggios punctuated by Bill Bruford’s formidably inspired drumming.

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