What? An article about Rick Wakeman without a mention of Yes, capes or giant ice rinks? Yes, it can be done, for the gifted keyboard player contributed his talents to a good number of great artists and songs before joining the ranks of Yes. It is somewhat a neglected part of his rich career,and this article is an attempt to shed some light into the formative years of the grumpy old rock star who in his heyday as a studio session musician was known to all as One Take Wakeman.
One of Wakeman’s early recording dates was with the band Junior’s Eyes on their debut single. Producer for the session was Toni Visconti, with whom Wakeman worked on various sessions while still a student at the Royal College of Music. The song that was selected for the A-side was Mr. Golden Trumpet Player, but it is the B-side Black Snake that features Wakeman’s piano prominently.
That recording job eventually landed Wakeman his first major exposure to rock royalty, fittingly via his newly acquired knowledge of analog keyboards: “I’d been doing a session for Tony Visconti with this band Junior’s Eyes in Willesden in 1969. I walked into the studio and there was a Mellotron there. They were really new at the time and no one actually knew how to play them, so I asked if I could mess around with it. And I managed to get it working. Because of that I got a call while I was at Reading Top Rank club – I used to play in the house band on a Thursday, playing 60s soul tunes – and it was Tony asking me if I could play on the Space Oddity session at Trident Studios in Soho, because David was recording a single and wanted strings and Mellotron featured on there.” Space Oddity was Bowie’s first major hit after a number of singles in the mid-1960s that flopped one after the other. The song reached number 5 on the charts in 1969, but it sounds nothing like any of the other songs on the album of the same name, which may be a reason for the mediocre album sales. However for Rick Wakeman this was a big leap into major league session work. Famously Visconti thought the track a novelty record and passed the producer role to Gus Dudgeon, both of them will continue to work with Wakeman. Recalling his meeting with Bowie and that Mellotron, Wakeman continues the story: “I drove up to London 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.” The eerie string pads that Wakeman plays on this track along with Bowie’s use of the Stylophone are the secret sauce that make this such a classic song.
Even though by 1969 Wakeman was already doing quite a bit of session work, as a young man starting to earn his income in the music industry he was on the lookout for any recording job he could grab, each session providing him with the precious 9 pound that was the standard fee for a session in those days. He has no shortage of tales from his rich recording career and one of the funniest is his appearance on the single Walk On Gilded Splinters by singer/actress Marsha Hunt, recorded after the success she had in London in her role as Dionne in the hippie musical Hair. There are many cover versions of this psychedelic gumbo masterpiece by Dr. John, but this one does not rank with the best of them. When asked to reminisce about memorable recording sessions, Wakeman recalled: “I suppose the least musically rewarding was, but I enjoyed the session, was Marsha Hunt’s Walk On Gilded Splinters where I played one note at the end! Yeah, I played one note at the end, one bass note. It was a session given to me by Tony Visconti because I needed my nine pound rent so he wrote one note for me! Three hundred and twelve bars rest and one note at the end! Good old Tony!” The singing is questionable, but move and sway to the music was her forte, as can be seen in the music video shot in 1969.
The session musicians who participated in the recording of Space Oddity will meet Wakeman again in future sessions, including bassist Herbie Flowers and drummer Terry Cox, who at the time was part of the excellent experimental folk group The Pentangle. Certainly the connection with Tony Visconti and producer Gus Dudgeon will prove very fruitful for Wakeman. The following year the three of them worked on progressive folk band Magna Carta’s second album. This was an excellent production of melodic tunes featuring the acoustic guitars of Chris Simpson and Lyell Tranter and heavenly vocal harmonies. The arrangement did not call for Rick Wakeman’s services on most of the songs, but he contributes a nice organ accompaniment and short solo to Ring of Stones. Magna Carta remained a favorite of Wakeman. After they released their milestone album Lord of the Ages, he hailed it “arguably one of the greatest albums of its kind ever made.”
In 1970 Wakeman also played on the debut album by an artist who shared the stage on many occasions with Magna Carta. His name was Colin Scot, and the list of musician credits on his album reads like the who’s who of progressive rock of the day: Jon Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Peter Hammill, Phil Collins, Guy Evans, David Jackson, Robert Fripp and others. Wakeman enjoyed working with Scot, and when asked about him after Scot passed away in 1999, he remembered: “I played with loads of them in the late 1960s and early 1970s and Colin was a delight to work with. He was a great songwriter and allowed musicians to add color to his songs, something that everyone who worked with him appreciated a lot.” A beautiful track on that album titled Take Me Away features Wakeman on piano.
1970 marked the first time Rick Wakeman joined a major band, again through a Tony Visconti connection. Enter Dave Cousins: “Rick was introduced to me by American record producer Tony Visconti, who was living and working in London. He wrote the string arrangement for our first single. It would have been in 1969 in London. It was obvious that he was prodigiously talented and I was extremely excited when he agreed to join the band. Mind you I think he was equally excited.” The band is of course The Strawbs, the folk outfit that previously performed with Sandy Denny. In 1968 they were signed to Herb Alpert’s A&M Records and a year later released their debut album Strawbs. When Wakeman came to the studio to play with them, they were working on their second album, Dragonfly: “When I joined Strawbs initially, they were very much a folk band. I loved Dave Cousins’s songs and the very interesting chordal stuff that he did, because he used to tune his guitar in a very weird way. And there was also plenty of space to play around in, and I enjoyed that.”
A story of his first recording with the Strawbs on the epic The Vision of the Lady in the Lake, is told in the liner notes to the re-release of Dragonfly: “He was to experience difficulties on his first session with the Strawbs due to the fact that the piano at Trident studios was out of tune with the tracks previously recorded in Denmark. As the tape machines in the studio had no varispeed facility (whereby the tape could be slowed down or sped up to meet the pitch of the piano in the studio), Tony Visconti suggested the piano could be played through a rotating Leslie Speaker, commonly used to give Hammond organs their distinctive sounds. The resulting effect was to give the track a psychedelic edge. The finished track was perhaps the most rock influenced Strawbs recording to date.” Indeed that effect, used for the first time by Geoff Emerick to record John Lennon’s vocals on Tomorrow Never Knows tree years earlier at Abbey Road, is quite noticeable even though somewhat low in the final mix.
The band was obviously happy with the gifted keyboardist’s work, for they promptly invited him to join the band proper. Wakeman joined the Strawbs in April 1970 and soon after appeared with them on a Granada folk program performing the song Till The Sun Comes Shining Through, the great visual that survived from his early days with the band.
In July of 1970 the new lineup, now also including Richard Hudson on drums and John Ford on bass, both recruited from the Velvet Opera, performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. That combination of musicians took the band to new progressive sounding territories. Rick Wakeman shines in this concert, later released as the album Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios, their first to be released in the US. He gets a solo piano showcase piece called Temperament of a Mind, sounding somewhat out of context in a Strawbs concert, but the audience loved it and Wakeman got a fine coverage on the front page of Melody Maker who hailed him as Tomorrow’s Superstar.
Perhaps Wakeman’s finest moment from that period is his performance on the epic Where is This Dream of Your Youth? from that concert. His virtuosic Hammond accompaniment and solo put a whole new spin on folk rock. Over 6 minutes out of the 9 minute tune are dedicated to an extended solo on which Wakeman squeezes notes and sounds from the Hammond that must have baffled some of the band’s followers, but within a year would be expected from the wiz kid when he started performing with Yes.
My personal favorite from the album is Song of the Sad Little Girl, revealing Wakeman’s lyrical side on the piano. His introduction to the song and embellishments behind Dave Cousins’ vocals add a new dimension to the overall sound of the band. The album was produced and mixed by Tony Visconti, who put Wakeman nicely at the front of mix with superb sound quality compared to live recordings from that period.
As a full member Wakeman played with the Strawbs on one studio album only, From the Witchwood, recoded early in 1971 and released in July that year. While the album has lovely acoustic interludes in the best tradition of the Strawbs, it is markedly more rock oriented than anything the band attempted beforehand, and Rick Wakeman’s contributions give it that symphonic layer that made the album a favorite within progressive rock fans. A good example is The Shepherd’s Song, a great combination of acoustic guitars with virtuosic piano runs and Mellotron textures. Cousins: “The instrumental sections over Mellotron strings were inspired by the mariachi trumpets on Love’s Alone Again Or, and were played by Rick on a prototype Moog synthesizer that was kept in the studio. It was one of the first times that a Moog was used for this purpose on a record, and it encouraged Rick towards his multi-keyboard setup.” As progressive as the album was compared to the band’s previous records, Wakeman was already in a much more ambitious musical mind set than the rest of the band. Cousins: “He was great fun on stage and not at all difficult to control. He was more difficult in the studio when he didn’t like particular songs. It was also difficult to incorporate his own material into our own as it had so many chords – especially for me!”
The crown achievement of the album is The Hangman and the Papist. Dave Cousins on the song and a curious use of a handy man tool at Top of the Pops: “The most important song on the album is The Hangman and the Papist. It’s written about two brothers who grew up on opposite sides of the religious fence, and it related to the outbreak of the troubles in Northern Ireland. One of the brothers grows up as a Catholic and the other as a Protestant, which is an exact parallel of my own life: I’m a Catholic and my brother’s a Protestant, due to the fact that my mother married again after my dad died when I was eight months old. We were booked to play the song on the first album spot on Top of the Pops, and it undoubtedly exposed the band to a much bigger audience. The only negative was that Rick was spotted playing the organ with a paint roller, but that’s our Rick!” turn to the 2:57 mark on that clip for a shot of that original use of a paint roller.
1971 was in many aspects the most important year in Rick Wakeman’s career. While still with The Strawbs he continued to be called on sessions, increasingly with bigger names as his exposure and acclaim with the band grew. That year, after his success with the album Tea for the Tillerman and the mega hit Wild World, Cat Stevens was in the studio recording material for what would become his gold record Teaser and the Firecat. In the liner notes to the 2018 deluxe release of the album, producer of the album Paul Samwell-Smith remembers: “Rick Wakeman was working in another studio down the road, and Steve [Steven Demetre Georgiou, known by his stage name Cat Stevens] asked him to come and play piano for him on this song. They worked at the piano, just the two of them, for an hour or two in the afternoon, and then we were ready to do the take. Just acoustic guitar and piano as the basic track, everything else recorded later. The track was mixed and finished by the evening. When it came to the album credits, the record company felt it might cause contractual problems with Rick’s company, so his name was left off the credits. I have regretted this omission ever since, as I think the least we can do is credit a great musician where it is due, and if ever credit was due…”
Rick Wakeman also remembers that session: “I went to the studio for the session. It was just him with an acoustic guitar and me at the piano. We played it through for his producer Paul Samwell-Smith who said, ‘It’s a bit short, guys.’ It was all over and done within about 40 seconds. Cat said, ‘We really need a piano introduction on this’ so I played around and gave him some ideas and he threw some ideas back at me and we eventually came up with the little piano interlude between each of the verses, which has become synonymous with the piece now.” That song is of course Morning Has Broken, and indeed all those little piano interludes between the verses are now as familiar as the tune itself.
That piano thing that Wakeman played around with on that session would become a central piece on his album The Six Wives of Henry VIII, recorded one year later. Listen to the opening of Catherine Howard and you will hear the similarities. When Cat Stevens heard Wakeman playing these ideas he wanted them on his song. Wakeman was reluctant as he imagined this music going into a future solo album, but he relented by making some changes to fit into Morning Has Broken.
A few quick sessions in 1971 found Wakeman recording minor parts for big names. The first was for the hit Get It On (Bang a Gong) by T-Rex from their album Electric Warrior. Wakeman’s contribution there was minimal, probably in the brief piano glissandos you hear in the chorus. When he heard the song Mark Bolan was working on in the studio, Wakeman suggested that no piano was really needed, but Visconti who produced the album insisted on that piano part, putting another £9 in Wakeman’s pocket.
Another session was for Elton John’s Madman Across the Water album, on which he plays organ. Elton John, a gifted piano player, had played the organ pretty well on his previous albums, but decided that he needed a star musician on the instrument for this album. Wakeman plays on two of the songs, including Razor Face, which was recorded on the same day as Tiny Dancer.
And we come to one of Rick Wakeman’s last jobs as a session musician before joining Yes, and certainly the most prestigious. By the summer of 1971 David Bowie had assembled all the members of a backing band that will soon call themselves The Spiders from Mars. Following his recent promotional trip to the US, he came back with many songs and ideas and was looking to add piano on a number of tracks. Who better to call than Rick Wakeman, who recalls a visit to Bowie’s home to listen to the songs: “He said he wanted to come at the album from a different angle, that he wanted them to be based around the piano. So he told me to play them as I would a piano piece, and that he’d then adapt everything else around that.” A good example is the album opener, Changes, with the first notes played by Rick Wakeman on piano together with the strings, arranged by Mick Ronson.
Wakeman said that he had total freedom in the studio to do whatever he liked. Not only that, but that piano at Trident studios was one of the best he could hope for, a 100-year old Beckstein: “For whatever reason, they just got the most fantastic sound. And everyone who wanted a piano-based track wanted to use it. David Bowie used it an awful lot. I did tracks with Marc Bolan there, I did Al Stewart tracks there. There were two to three years where the Trident piano was at its absolute best and people paid premium money to go in there and use it. It was a joy to play on.” Producer Ken Scott adds: “It was the same piano used on Hey Jude, the early Elton John albums, Nilsson, Genesis and Supertramp, among many others. That was one of Trident’s claims to fame – the piano sound. It was an amazing instrument.” And what better song to showcase that piano than Life on Mars, Wakeman’s favorite on the album. He recalls: “Things had really changed for him. He was a successful artist and he had a young family. When I was in his house, he played for me, on an old, battered 12-string guitar, all the tracks that he was going to put on Honky Dory. I remember him playing Life on Mars to me. I sat at the piano at his house, a beautiful grand piano, and he said, ‘Look, think of this as a piano piece, and we’ll work around what you do’ and that’s basically what I did.” The result is one of Bowie’s most enduring songs.
In the excellent David Bowie BBC documentary Five Years there is a segment where Rick Wakeman explains the chord progression Bowie developed for Life on Mars, a great tribute to the songwriting abilities of Bowie.
Working with Bowie left a huge impression on Wakeman, one that he revels in to this day: “David was incredibly influential to me. I learned more about how to work in a studio from David than anybody. He was tremendous in that respect. He was a very generous musician as a songwriter and singer.” Hunky Dory still remains a highlight in his career, and one of his proudest projects to be part of: “I’ve been asked many times if I thought it was going to be a great album, and the answer is yes. I know it’s very easy to say that in retrospect, but I’d been doing two or three sessions a day for the last three years – at that point, you can tell when you walk out of a session whether it’s going to do well or disappear without a trace. I remember telling people I’d just played on what was going to be a very iconic album – which Hunky Dory of course was. I still rate it as the finest collection of songs on one album.”
Wakeman’s tenure as a member of The Strawbs was nearing an end while he was recording with David Bowie: “They were an early folk-rock band when they brought in John Ford and Richard Hudson, and that was very interesting, but it was clear that after From the Witchwood that the band wanted to head in a more, what I call, poppy direction, which was not a direction that really appealed to me. I wanted a bit more out of the music.” After the recording of Hunky Dory completed he got an offer no one is his right mind could say no to: Join the Spiders from Mars as a full time member. That same day he also got a call from Chris Squire, bass player for Yes. The rest is history.
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