Rick Wakeman recorded hits with bands such as David Bowie and Yes

He launched his solo career dramatically in 1973 with “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, an instrumental concept album whose individual pieces were based on his interpretations of the main characters.

Two years later, a third solo album explored “The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table”, with an opening track titled “Arthur” which the BBC used as the cover theme for the night. election for more than a year. decade.

In 2017, he took his rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Yes.

And yet, when Rick Wakeman learned that Queen Elizabeth II was planning to recognize him as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) at last year’s honors anniversary, quintessentially British keyboard legend thought they must be joking.

“When I got the phone call, I thought it was a friend of mine,” he recalls laughing.

“It wasn’t until they called back that I realized it was for real. I was really surprised and very honored. It’s pretty amazing. I didn’t think they were giving things like that to people like me.”

Rick Wakeman has made a name for himself as a session musician

Long before ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ sold an estimated 15 million copies worldwide, Wakeman took a crucial step to one day be honored by the Queen when he left his studies at the Royal College of Music to devote himself to full-time session work.

Details of those sessions, from Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken” to classic tunes by David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elton John and more, are among the anecdotes he’ll likely share on The Even Grumpier Old Tour. Rockstar! hits Phoenix on Wednesday, March 2.

“I tell stories between each of the pieces that I play,” he says. “Some of the stories are related to the plays. Others are unrelated except that they all start with a bit of truth.”

One of his previous sessions was to add the Mellotron part to David Bowie’s breakthrough hit, “Space Oddity”.

He got the call while rehearsing with a 17-piece band at a ballroom 40 miles from London.

It was Tony Visconti who asked him to come to Trident Studios in London, where Gus Dudgeon was producing Bowie’s record.

As Wakeman recalls, “He said, ‘They want to put Mellotron on it and they’re having a hard time keeping it in tune. I know because of what we did together on Junior’s Eyes album, ‘Battersea Power Station’ that you’re one of the only people who can keep a Mellotron in tune.”

Wakeman explained to Visconti that it was a two and a half hour drive.

“He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We’ll wait,” Wakeman said. “So I drove to London.”

After nailing the Mellotron part, he was asked by Bowie to play the piano in another session.

“So a few weeks later I came in and did ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’ and ‘Memory of a Free Festival’,” Wakeman said. “It led to a very long and happy relationship.”

Wakeman on his collaboration with David Bowie

Writing parts that worked on Bowie’s songs came naturally to Wakeman.

“When David played me a song on acoustic guitar, I already knew what he wanted on the piano,” he says. “So there was very little talk about the piece because I tuned into his music very easily.”

He asked Bowie what he wanted him to play on “Life on Mars?”, a highlight of the “Hunky Dory” album.

“He said, ‘You know how I want you to play it,'” Wakeman said. “I said, ‘I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.’ He said, ‘Well, you know how you want to play it, so play it.'”

Wakeman played it the way he thought it should be played.

“And David said, ‘There, that’s how it plays out,'” he laughs.

“Hunky Dory” was the culmination of the keyboardist’s session years.

“I remember sitting at his house at the piano while he played me all the songs he was going to put on ‘Hunky Dory,’ everyone a winner,” Wakeman said.

“And instinctively I knew what he was looking for. Same with Mick Ronson. Mick knew exactly what he wanted when it came to guitar. Woody and Trevor also on bass and drums knew what he wanted. He didn’t didn’t have to tell them.”

The ups and downs of working in the studio

Wakeman estimates he did about 2,000 sessions over a five-year period. And they certainly weren’t all up to “Hunky Dory” standards.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Wakeman said.

“Many sessions, I sat there and thought, ‘Who on Earth put the money in to save this garbage? Are they mad? But even those, I tried to do the best I could.”

After doing a few sessions for Strawbs in 1969, he joined the folk-rock group in April 1970.

“I loved playing with them,” says Wakeman. “It was great fun to do.”

After maybe a year and a half as a “full member”, he quit.

“John Ford and Richard Hudson, two lovely guys in the band, wanted to introduce pop songs into the Strawbs format,” Wakeman said.

“I just felt ‘This is going in the wrong direction.’ And I thought, ‘I’m leaving.'”

Shortly after leaving Strawbs, he received another phone call, this one asking if he might be interested in joining Yes.

How Wakeman got involved with Yes

They had seen each other play at a gig in the north of England, where Strawbs were opening for Yes.

“After playing, I stayed and listened to this set, which I really enjoyed,” he says. “Because it was so different from what any other rock band was doing. In every way.”

Years later, he was told that Yes showed up to that gig early to see Wakeman perform with Strawbs.

“I had said in some interviews what I wanted to do, which was to go further down the path of orchestral progressive rock, that’s exactly what they wanted to do,” he says.

It suited perfectly. Until that is no longer the case.

“Yes is a strange group,” says Wakeman.

“Is everyone always comfortable with the music? No, Yes is never a band where everyone is comfortable with what’s going on. It never was and never will.”

Typically, it was only a matter of time during a rehearsal, gig, or recording session before a “massive argument” erupted.

“But I learned very quickly that these arguments produce results,” he says.

“I’ve never worked with people like them. On paper it shouldn’t work. But it did. You know how the old expression goes. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “

Why he decided to walk away from Yes

Wakeman has been in and out of Yes several times.

“There were always valid reasons why I left,” Wakeman says.

“Always musical reasons. I didn’t like the direction. Music is give and take. You have to be able to get as much out of the music as you give out. And if the balance is bad, then you shouldn’t work with the group.”

When it came time to begin work on the sequel to 1974’s “Tales From Topographic Oceans,” “Relayer,” Wakeman says, “I felt I had absolutely nothing to offer this album. Therefore, it was better to go and see if they can find someone who can bring something to this album.”

Shortly after leaving the group, Wakeman topped the UK charts with “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, his second solo effort in two years.

“I would often write music and say, ‘This is something I could give Yes that we could have fun with and break up and do different,'” he says.

“And sometimes you write songs and you’re like, ‘You know what? I don’t want it to go wrong. great benefit of having a solo contract for the music I didn’t want to mess with.”

Wakeman made his first return to Yes after being recruited as a session player for “Going for the One” in 1977.

“Someone once wrote, which I thought was great, in a magazine,” he says.

“‘Rick Wakeman and Yes are like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They can’t live together, but they can’t live without each other.'” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. .”

If you add up all the times he’s been on Yes, He’s Handsome, that would be 14 years.

“It’s all been, shall we say, interesting,” he says. “Some are a lot happier than others. But on the other hand, there was always something good that came out of it musically. That’s what matters, I guess.”

Rick Wakeman

When: 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, March 2.

Or: Celebrity Theater, 440 N. 32nd St., Phoenix.

Admission: $35 to $95.

Details: 602-267-1600, celebritytheatre.com.

Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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Corina C. Butler