Master of the keys: An interview with Rick Wakeman

Posted: July 10, 2017

Master of the keys

Keyboard player, songwriter and broadcaster, Rick Wakeman, recently made chart history when his ‘Piano Portraits’ album became the first solo piano album to enter the UK’s Top 10. We caught up with Wakeman when he performed at the Bury Festival at the end of May.

Would you say you have been a workaholic?

The entertainment industry almost dictates that as it consumes every waking hour. I am lucky to have had such diversity in my life and career with solo music, playing with bands like Yes, my session days, television and radio and even books. I guess I have little choice but to be a workaholic !”

What inspired you to take up the piano?

My father was a fine piano player in the style of Charlie Kunz. He and my mother ran a concert party before and just after the war with my Uncle Stan playing banjo, Uncle Laurie was the comedian and Aunt Esther and Aunt Olive joined my mum Mildred as singers. In the early 1950’s they used to cram into my parent’s small front room and relive the days when they were performing. I used to creep downstairs and listen, totally captivated. At the age of five my parents sent me to a wonderful piano teacher called Mrs Symes who I stayed with throughout my grades before getting a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.

How do you look back at your work with Yes? Great musicianship, riffs, etc but slightly batty lyrics?

Ha, ha! Jon’s lyrics are an acquired taste, and thankfully a lot of people have that taste. He always said the lyrics have meaning for him, for example Going For The One is about a horse race and Your Move about a game of chess. But Jon always says that people should find their own meaning. His lyrics really do fit the complicated music though.

The producer Trevor Horn has said Chris Squire was one of the greatest bass players he had worked with – was that the main appeal of Yes? – being able to play alongside such talented people?

The appeal was the music, and the musicianship of course. There have been some excellent players in Yes and perhaps, on occasions, some not so good ones. But the music will always prevail and that’s why Jon Anderson, myself and Trevor Rabin formed ARW so that we could play the music as we felt it should be interpreted. We toured successfully in the USA last year and this year will tour the UK, Israel, Europe and Japan before returning to the States.

Getting the chance to work with the likes of Elton John, Lou Reed, Cilla Black, Black Sabbath, John Williams, etc must have been interesting too – any nice or otherwise memories of those collaborations?

They were all great times – a sort of never ending apprenticeship course. I played on over 2,000 tracks during my session days. Some of the music was tremendous, some debatable, to say the least, but I learned from every session whether this was a good or bad thing.

At one point in your career your capes seemed to become your trademark – perhaps even a fashion statement. Any reason why you decided to wear them? A long story but I’ll try and shorten it. I bought a short cape from a DJ in Hartford Connecticut and it covered all my gangly legs and arms movements stretching from keyboard to keyboard and pedal to pedal. Then a dressmaker in America made me the capes that became pretty famous and of which I still have four of the famous five!

As a great keyboard player who do you most admire among your peers?

There’s no shortage of them, but I tend to like those who have an individual style and can also work well with other musicians. All the following are, or were, close friends; Keith Emerson and Jon Lord contributed so much to music and to the keyboard. Rod Argent is a great player and so is Don Airey.

You are teetotal now. was it easy to leave behind the binge drinking and was there a turning point when you said I have to change?

No, not really . . . I stopped drinking in August 1985. I never had any withdrawal symptoms and have never fancied a drink since. When I make my mind up about something it rarely changes. The same with smoking …stopped one day in October 1979 as I didn’t fancy doing it anymore.

You’ve had an interesting private life – with hindsight would you have lived life a different way or has it all been a great journey?

I wouldn’t change one thing, because the slightest change would have set me on a different path and if one thing had been different I wouldn’t be doing this interview with you now. So simple answer, in spite of mistakes, I wouldn’t change a thing. If you learn from mistakes then I think that’s okay.

Are you pleased with the success of your current album Piano Portraits? Absolutely delighted. Apparently it’s the first totally solo piano album ever to go in the top ten.

I think you live on the Suffolk/Norfolk border . . . do you visit Bury St Edmunds, or this part of the county, much?

My wife and I come to Bury a lot. We visit both the Apex and the Theatre Royal to see shows and plays and also do some shopping, especially on market days. It’s a lovely town.

Article extracted from David Burrs Rooftops Summer 2017 Edition