Interview: Rick Wakeman on early sessions, David Bowie, Yes, latest albums, and more
Deborah Anderson Creative

Rock legend Rick Wakeman has worked with a head-spinning number of artists over the course of more than 50 years of making music. Today, nothing stops the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from continuing to compose songs and play live shows.

Through the years, Wakeman has performed with Yes, done hundreds of solo shows, and rejoined Yes members Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin as one-third of ARW for a Yes 50th Anniversary tour.

Currently, the British native musician is just launching his first solo tour of America in over 13 years with his Grumpy Old Rock Star Tour. During its North American run, the tour stops in Los Angeles (Tickets) and Orlando (Tickets).

Looking back at his storied musical history, Wakeman is known widely as the keyboard player who joined Yes in 1971 and helped them shape their sound. Upon leaving the band, the consummate, classically trained musician went on to forge a massive solo career.

To date, he’s produced over 90 solo albums and sold over 50 million albums worldwide. Fans and critics alike consider him to be one of the best keyboardists in rock history.

In his early years as an intuitive and ingenious session musician, Wakeman contributed his talents to recordings from icons like Elton John, Lou Reed, Ozzy Osbourne, Cat Stevens, Al Stewart, and David Bowie.

Back then, Wakeman was in his early ‘20s. Like everyone else, at times, he was a little awestruck upon meeting so many different famous artists. He probably couldn’t have predicted then that he would forge lasting friendships with so many of them —especially the late, great David Bowie.

The talented pair of Brits worked on several tracks together including “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars,” and more. Of all the artists he’s worked with, Wakeman credits Bowie as his biggest musical influence.

His most recent albums, Piano Portraits, and Piano Odyssey both charted in the Top 10 in the UK.

In these works, Wakeman presents new arrangements of iconic songs like “Help!” by The Beatles, “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens, “Life on Mars” by David Bowie, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, just to name a few.

AXS recently caught up with the animated rocker and multi-talented entertainer to chat about his amazing musical journey in an exclusive interview. Check it out below.

AXS: You’ve forged a prolific career. In 50 years of making music, what has been your biggest reward?

Rick Wakeman: My biggest reward is still being here making music. I remember back in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s people would say, ‘You’re only 20. What are you going to be doing when your 30?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know really,’ because there were no sort of aging prog rockers to look at and go, well, this is what happens to you.

When I got to 30 people said, ‘What are you going to be doing when you’re 40?’and I said, ‘I don’t know, really.’ By the time you’re 40 you say, well, there’s a really good chance I’ll be doing this when I’m 50. And then 60 and then 70. So, I think the greatest achievement is still managing to be here and do what I love.

AXS: You’ve worked on thousands of sessions with so many artists. Can you tell us about a time you came away feeling surprised or awestruck by someone you worked with or something you did during a session?

RW: There were quite a few sessions where I met artists for the first time – which was really pretty cool. The wonderful classical guitarist John Williams, I did an album session with him and that was pretty great. He’s a phenomenal player and we became good friends.

Madman Across the Water was the first time that I met Elton John – which was great – and we became friends. You walk into a studio and there are artists there that you know of but have never met. I remember when I did sessions for Lou Reed when he came to England to record. I said, ‘Oh great, I’m going to meet Lou Reed.’ So, I’m no different from anyone else.

AXS: That sounds incredible.

RW: Obviously, David Bowie – we became great friends. I was always in awe of what he could do and his phenomenal way of working, and just the man that he was. There are a lot of people I’ve become friends with.

I did Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath. I played on that – and all the guys became great friends and they still are now to this day. In fact, my second oldest boy has been playing with Ozzy now for around 20 years. So, we keep the relationship going.

There are quite a few that you remember and certain sessions that stick out for different reasons.

Most of the time you could pick out if you’d done a session and know it was going to end up quite successful.

When I did ‘Space Oddity’ with David Bowie, it was so different from anything else that was out there, and the same with the Hunky Dory album. And if you’re doing Cat Stevens, ‘Morning Has Broken,’ you just know that’s a great record.

One of the last things I did was Osmosis with Ozzy Osbourne in New York which was a great album. It was just great fun to do.

Then sometimes you do an album and you come away and think, that’s going to be big and it doesn’t do what you expect. I had that only happen once.

I did an album with Al Stewart called the Orange album. I thought it was a phenomenal album. Then he came straight to America after that and did Year of the Cat, which was a massive success. But it sort of overshadowed some of the great albums he had done before. I always urge people if you like Al Stewart and you like Year of the Cat, then just go back one and get ahold of the Orange album. It’s fantastic.

AXS: Joining Yes launched your career. With your wisdom and experience you have now, is there anything you would have done differently or said to your 20-year-old self?

RW: I always say, I’ve made mistakes in my life. But I wouldn’t change anything. Because if you change something, then, everything after that changes. So, I wouldn’t change anything.

My late father used to say, ‘If you make a mistake, as long as you learn by it, it’s fine. It’s when you don’t learn by them, that’s when you’ve got to start worrying.’

AXS: That’s true.

RW: The whole Yes thing was interesting because I’d seen Yes play because when I was with Strawbs. We supported them on a show. I watched the band and really liked them and what they were aiming to do. They’d already made the Yes album, which was quite a pivotal album at the time.

I said in an article in Melody Maker that I really felt that keyboards were eventually going to become almost the orchestral part of a band and it was important that it was allowed an opportunity. Because up until then, keyboards had basically been just organs and electric pianos and were very much hidden.

The guys read that. They came back from an American tour and called me up and said, ‘We’re really interested in what you said. Would you like to join us because we’d really like to go down that road too?’

So, I went along for a test rehearsal, where I was going to just play a bit and see where it went from there. During that rehearsal, we put together most of ‘Roundabout’ and a chunk of ‘Heart of the Sunrise.’ We set it up on the Fragile album.

It was a great day. Then I drove Steve Howe home. He lived in Hampstead, North London. He said, ‘Can you pick me up in the morning?’ and I said, ‘Okay.’

So, I picked him up in the morning. When the band said, ‘Do you want to join?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds really good.’

Then I got a message that said David Bowie wants you to meet him at the Hampstead Country Club in London tonight at 6:30. David and I were good friends. We’d just done a track on Ziggy after the Hunky Dory album. 

So, I went along to the meeting after leaving the Yes rehearsal. I met David and Mick Ronson and they were doing a duo thing – just playing some songs. I sat in on piano and played along with Mick and David. Then we sat down and David said, ‘I’m forming a band called Spiders from Mars and I’d really like you and Mick to front it.

And he said, ‘With the band, we use Trevor on bass and Woody on drums. I said, ‘Great band!’ and he said, ‘How’d you fancy that?’ And I said, well, I do, but I’m in a bit of a dilemma now. I’ve just been asked to join Yes. And he said, ‘Well, you’ve got a bit of a decision to make.’

AXS: What a big decision!

RW: I went home and that night – I had a little house in West London, and I sat up nearly all night thinking about it.

I thought I’ve got to be practical here. I love David’s music. I love working with David. He’s the most influential person I’ve ever worked with, still to this day. And I love playing his music. But, if I’m with David and his band, I would be playing David’s music all the time and there would be a limit to whatever I could put into the music.

AXS: That makes sense.

RW: If I joined Yes – and David was much bigger than Yes at the time - I thought, at least I’ll be able to grow with it and I’ll be able to put some of my own thoughts and music and I could grow with it. So, I called David up and said, ‘I’m going to join Yes.’

AXS: How did he reply?

RW: He said, ‘I think you made the right decision.’

So, that was it for quite a long while. David and I ended up as neighbors in Switzerland in the mid-to-late ‘70s to ’76. I was in Switzerland for five years and David lived in Switzerland.

We used to meet when we were both at home at this club – it’s still there, called The Museum Club. We met there. He’d formed yet another band, and we started talking about Yes. I was there with Yes. We were recording the Going for the One album.

He said, ‘When you made the decision to join Yes, it was absolutely the right decision. If you’d have asked me too, I’d have said the same thing. Because as the years go by, I change musicians a lot. I use musicians according to what music I’m doing, for the best musicians to do whatever I’m doing at the time. So, the chances are, you’d have been out of a job in two to three years anyway.’

AXS: Wow.

RW: I laughed, and he said, ‘Absolutely the right thing to do.’ So, a question I get asked a few times, especially in England, is did I make the right decision? And I say, yes, I did make the right decision, because even David said it was the right one.

AXS: What a great story! In today’s music landscape, how do you feel prog rock is fitting in? Do you see it in kind of a resurgence?

RW: It’s doing okay. Progressive rock was always a genre of music that would refuse to die. Because the people who played it and the people who loved it were not going to let it disappear. Because they felt so strongly about it. Progressive rock or progressive music has so many different genres. There are so many different kinds of prog rock or prog music. 

Basically, if I’m asked, ‘What does it mean?’ I say it means knowing the rules and breaking them.

Back in the ‘60s when I was doing the sessions, most of the sessions I did were pop records and it was intro, verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus, chorus, and get out of it. It was formatted.

What prog did, prog said, no, it’s not going to be 3 ½ minutes. It’s not going to be verse, chorus, verse, chorus out. If we want to change the tempo or change the mood – we’ll do it. If it’s going to end up seven minutes long or eight minutes long or even 20 minutes long – that’s what it’s going to be. It’ll be what it’s meant to be, and it broke all the rules.

AXS: I’d have to say I agree.

RW: The record companies didn’t really get it at first – there are a few record company bosses that I know that were brutally honest that said, ‘We don’t understand this. But the fact is that they’re selling loads of records and people love it. So, we’ll run with it.’ And that’s basically what happened.

The interesting thing now is, back then if you listen to the radio, especially AM radio but also some FM radio, all the songs that you heard were very formatted. Very few were out of format. Now, if you listen to any station anywhere, you’re hard pushed to even find that old format anymore.

The singer-songwriters of today they’re all writing whatever they want, how they want. So, that says something about what prog rock gave music. It gave musicians the freedom to say, I’ll write what I want to write. I’ll write what’s in my head and my heart. I’m not going to go to any old format and be told what to do.

So, I think that - and a lot of young musicians and bands have actually said to me - that almost every band has got a bit of prog in there somewhere.

AXS: Have you been surprised by anyone who’s reached out and said they’ve been influenced by your music?

RW: Nothing surprises me anymore. I used to get really embarrassed when somebody said, ‘Your music really influenced what my boy did.’

I used to find it quite embarrassing. But one of my sons, Adam, who plays with Ozzy said to me, ‘Dad you shouldn’t be embarrassed. You should be really, really pleased that for whatever reason, things you’ve done and styles you’ve done have encouraged other musicians to play and do what they want to do. So, don’t be embarrassed. It’s a nice thing.’ So, I find it nice now.

I was at the Prog Awards in London just a few nights ago and Jordan Rudess, who I’ve got tons of respect for from Dream Theater, came over and talked to me. We’re just chatting away - I’ve known him for a long time - and he said, ‘You know what? Six Wives really influenced me in my early days, as a young man, so much.’

I said, ‘Well, that’s really kind. I’m sure that what you’re doing now is influencing a new generation as well.’ He said, ‘That’s what we’re here for.’

AXS: Congrats on your recent albums Piano Portraits and Piano Odyssey!  How did you decide what tracks to put on them?

RW: It was interesting. Again, all heavily influenced by David Bowie. Because when David died, I did a BBC Radio show in England on the day he died. They asked if I would play ‘Life on Mars’ live.

So, I played ‘Life on Mars’ and they webcamed it and put it out. It had something like 3 million hits in three days. Loads of people said you need to release this as a charity single or something.

So, I waited quite a long time and I thought long and hard about it. I’m not a great fan of charity singles. There are warehouses and garages full of them.

I wasn’t sure and my wife said, ‘You knew David really, really well. What would he have said? I said, ‘I think for the right cause or the right reason, he would approve.’

When we decided I would do it, we did it for a cancer charity in the UK. We put it out and gave all the money to this national cancer charity. It was No. 1 in the UK for eight weeks. It did extremely well. Then people started asking, why don’t you make an album.

My wife said, ‘Why don’t you? People will like it – you’ve been doing piano shows.’

So, I made a list initially of songs I really loved. The secret was they had to have great melodies. If I had a great melody, then you could do variations and play around with them on the piano. Also, because I don’t sing, if there’s a song that you recognize from the music and you don’t have to hear the words, you know you’ve got a great melody.

So, I made a list of about 40 pieces which I knew would work as variations on the piano. We put the first album out, Piano Portraits, and I was amazed at what it did. It went top 5 in the UK and stayed there for a long time. The tour was also phenomenally good.

After that, I was asked to do another one. So, I did Piano Odyssey.

For this one, I added a few strings here and there and a little bit of choir to make it a little bit different than Piano Portraits. That was another Top 10 album. That did extraordinarily well.

We’ve just done the third and final one. It’s just piano and it’s called Christmas Portraits. It’s piano of great, well-known Christmas pieces with variations. So, that’s the trilogy finished.

AXS: You’re getting ready to go on tour in America for the first time in 13 years. What are you most looking forward to?

RW: I love playing and I’ve got lots of friends here. I’ve got a 30-year-old daughter and her husband, and I’ve got grandchildren here. So, I love coming over. It’s loads and loads of fun.

I’ve been coming here since 1971 and I’ve got so many friends here. I always enjoy coming over and American audiences are great to play to. It’s nice to bring the Grumpy Old Rock Star tour here. I am really looking forward to it.

AXS: What can fans expect from the show?

RW: Stupidity. (He laughs). A mixture of a lot of music that I’ve been involved with over the years. Some of mine, some of Yes, and of course Bowie and a few others. I intermingle it with some completely ludicrous, hilarious anecdotes – which wear well – because I’ve had a complete of successful books, ‘Grumpy Old Rock Star’ and ‘Further Adventures of the Grumpy Old Rock Star.’ So, a lot of the stories in there are quite unbelievable.

AXS: You often credit your parents as musical influences growing up. Where does your sense of humor come from?

RW: I’ve had it all my life. I learned while I was in school, if I hadn’t done my homework, if I somehow made the teacher laugh, I’d get away with it.