Rock legend Rick Wakeman on his life and career
Rick continues to do what he does best.
Rick Wakeman sounds pretty light-hearted for someone whose life is turning into a one-man episode of Casualty. The lovable rock star has arthritis in his hands and feet, type two diabetes, and macular degeneration in his left eye.
“Now I wake up in the morning, throw the duvet down, see if something has fallen, and if it hasn’t, I get up,” laughs Rick, 73.
Then it gets serious. “I will keep playing until it hurts too much, but there will come a time when I have to stop. I would never want to go on stage and hear someone say, ‘I used to be good.’
“My son Adam summed it up succinctly: You don’t want to be applauded for what you were.”
Even if what Rick was, and is, is pretty cool. The London-born, classically trained keyboardist and songwriter is best known for his years with prog-rock giants Yes, and his elaborate 1970s concept albums, including The Six Wives Of Henry VIII and Journey To The Center Of The Earth. .
He later found more fame as one of TV’s grumpy old men, but now only health concerns have Wakeman in a bad mood.
At 25, he spent nine weeks in a hospital bed after a series of heart attacks caused by rock ‘n’ roll excesses.
Rick in 1978
The consultant came to the conclusion that he would have to find an alternative career. “I told my manager, ‘No way.’ He said, ‘We’re shooting King Arthur when it comes out and I want them to book me on a US tour.’ If I’m going down, I’m going down fighting.’”
The scares made Wakeman quit. He stopped drinking in 1985, after adding liver cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis to his long list of lifestyle diseases.
Perhaps the biggest risk to Rick’s longevity was his “hobby” being arrested in Russia.
“I played a lot in Eastern Europe before the fall of communism,” he explains. “My early influences had been brilliant composers like Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Szymanowski, and when you drove through the countryside you realized what inspired these wonderful pieces of music.”
Yet in stark, food-rationed cities, life behind the Iron Curtain “felt more like an old Cold War movie.”
He was detained several times in Moscow, “once for walking around without someone from the KGB with me, once for illegally buying a KGB uniform, and another time for illegally buying a Russian admiral’s uniform and trying to get it out of Russia.
“They left me alone because I was doing concerts there for nothing.”
Wakeman releases his haunting latest album, A Gallery Of The Imagination, on Friday backed by his band, The English Rock Ensemble, who will also help him bring Arthurian legends back to the London Palladium stage.
They will play excerpts from King Arthur and Six Wives on Wednesday, with classic numbers from Yes and Journey To The Center Of The Earth on Thursday.
Rick was seven years old when he visited Tintagel, Cornwall, and fell in love with the mythos, magic and majesty of Camelot.
“It was amazing. I read books about King Arthur and the stories stayed with me: Merlin, Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad.”
His childhood home in Perivale, West London, was filled with music. Papa Cyril played the piano in the style of big band pianist Charlie Kunz.
Rick wanted to follow in her footsteps and at the age of five began piano lessons with tutor Dorothy Symes in a small garage-sized annex built into the side of her Sudbury Hill semi-trailer, staying with her until she entered Royal College. of Music.
“My father encouraged me to listen to all styles of music,” recalls Rick, whose early tastes ranged from the classics to Kenny Ball to the hot new pop sounds heard on pirate radio.
“At the age of 12, I was playing in small jazz bands. At 14, I was playing in a workers’ club and a year later I started doing session work while the BBC put together session bands to record tracks. A brilliant apprenticeship.”
Rick acting in the 70’s
He progressed to studio session work with artists such as Black Sabbath, Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) and David Bowie. Bowie asked Rick to join Spiders From Mars just hours after he said yes to Yes.
She was in and out as Vanessa-Mae’s elbow, joining and rejoining the band five times.
Rick remembers the band’s first visit to Los Angeles feeling like a trip to the future: “huge cars the size of London buses, space-age gadgets, TVs with remote controls…”
Yes stayed at the Hyatt House (also known as the Riot House) hotel on Sunset Boulevard, but resisted the temptation of hip rock stars to vandalize the rooms as The Who and Led Zeppelin had done.
Rick says he has moral crusader Mary Whitehouse to thank for his 1970s solo success. As he puts it, the 1973 Six Wives album got “a decent review and was from a fishing magazine in Grimsby.” But when Ms Whitehouse banned a raunchy Andy Warhol documentary, he was replaced, she says, by “a show about gardening in Afghanistan” that drew millions to her performance on the BBC2 Old Gray Whistle Test.
The album sold more than 650,000 copies.
However, the eighties were hard. “Prog was as popular as a condom machine in the Vatican,” he says. At one point, his piano performance at a Doncaster ice rink was drowned out by noise from the neighboring nightclub.
An impressive blend of classical and progressive influences, Rick’s new album looks poised to follow his 2017 solo piano instrumental album Rick’s Piano Portraits and 2019’s Piano Odyssey into the Top 10.
The underlying concept is simple: close your eyes, listen and enjoy the images that conjure up your mind.
Wakeman lives in Norfolk with his fourth wife, journalist Rachel, 48, whom he married in 2011. He has six children, including keyboardists Oliver, who played with Yes, and Adam, who plays for Ozzy Osbourne.
Rick and Yes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
His Grumpy Old Rock Star books are filled with exciting stories about everyone from Keith Moon to Tommy Cooper. Underlining the link to show business, Wakeman is led by ventriloquist Roger de Courcey and was the Rat King of the Grand Order of Water Rats.
“I’ve loved comedy all my life,” says Rick, who as a child enjoyed classic BBC radio sitcoms like Beyond Our Ken, The Navy Lark, Round The Horne and The Clitheroe Kid.
He started being fun on stage in 1970 with The Strawbs. “They would retune their guitars for a long time between songs to tell stories to fill the void.”
His baptism of fire came after a power failure at Hammersmith Apollo. “Only the microphone worked. I started telling jokes. They went down so well that I did it 20 minutes before the lights came back on.”
He was awarded a CBE for Services to Music and Broadcasting in 2021
Later, the crew told him that power was back on after 30 seconds, but they didn’t want him to stop.
Consequently, the band exceeded 15 minutes and was fined £1,000 per minute – “the most expensive stand-up rehearsal ever!”
Rick sees parallels between comedy and music.
“When alternative comedy came along, the new generation used to criticize the older ones just as punk bands had criticized progressive rock. But when I hosted Live At Jongleurs, the young comedians would say to me, you know Norman Wisdom, or you know Eric Sykes… what’s he like?
“I’d say, ‘Wait a minute, you hate those guys,’ and they’d say, ‘We love them but we don’t dare say it.’
“Hale and Pace used to go to the golf course in costume in case someone thought they sold out. I told you, one day you will be the establishment. The rebels of today become the old old men of tomorrow.”
Or they stay true to their creative vision. Like Rick Wakeman.
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