British keyboard legend Rick Wakeman has a new album out, titled Gallery of the Imagination.
“When I was 5,” Wakeman says from his Sussex home, where it’s 1 degree over zero outside and snowing, “my music teacher said I was painting pictures with music. And to close my eyes and play the music, and paint the pictures to what I saw. And I’ve always done that, and still do it to this day.
“I thought, how nice would it be to do something like that – and maybe sort of encourage people, when they’re listening, to close their eyes and paint their own pictures to the music.”
It could be very successfully argued that Wakeman’s effect on music fans, through his pioneering 1970s work with Yes in particular, has always been about inspiring galleries of the imagination.
The 73-year-old icon performs solo Saturday (March 25) at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater. Find tickets here.
Classically trained, Wakeman joined Yes in 1971 after a tenure as an in-demand session player for the likes of Elton John, David Bowie and Cat Stevens. Via the albums Fragile, Close to the Edge and Tales From Topographic Oceans (although he’s not so crazy about that last one), Wakeman created a template for the use of piano, organ and synthesizers in progressive rock. He played them all onstage – at the same time, due to the band’s complex music – and took to wearing flashy, dramatic capes during the shows.
His career as a solo artist began with 1973’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which became a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic – unusual for an all-instrumental collection of very long songs.
Next in succession came Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, both of which also charted well, and both of which were followed by massive, Barnum & Bailey-scale theatrical concert tours.
That kind of stuff was derailed by health and financial problems, and Wakeman re-upped for a normal-sized solo career, augmented over the decades by numerous returns to Yes, and in Yes offshoots Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, and Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman.
Guitarist Steve Howe continues to tour a band called Yes, although founding bassist Chris Squire died in 2015, and longtime drummer Alan White passed away in 2022.
The surviving members were reunited at Yes’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. For many, the highlight was Wakeman’s speech, during which he described – for no apparent reason – a recent prostate exam.
The audience was in stiches as he rattled off one non sequitur after another:
My father was an Elvis impersonator. But there wasn’t much call for that in 1947. He taught me a lot. I remember he sat me down once, he said: “Son, don’t go to any of those really cheap, dirty, nasty, sleazy strip clubs because if you do, you’ll see something you shouldn’t.” So, of course I went. And I saw my dad.
St. Pete Catalyst: You’ve actually been doing standup comedy in the U.K. for quite a while. When you come to the States, are people still surprised that you’re so funny?
Rick Wakeman: Ironically, more people expect it now since the Hall of Fame speech. Originally, yeah, people were sort of surprised, but it’s something I’ve been doing, crikey, 30, 40 years over here (in England).
Your music is so serious. You were probably the last person in the world they’d expect to see telling jokes onstage. Have you ever considered confusing everyone and coming out doing standup while wearing a cape?
(laughing) That’s not a bad idea! Might be worth a try.
The thing about comedy – you’re dead right, I do take the music very seriously. And I think what’s nice is the fun comedy stories and things, in between the pieces, is a nice antithesis. So you’ve had something that’s pretty heavy to listen to, then suddenly you can kind of come down, and laugh and relax before the next piece.
It works for me. Because sometimes I need to sort of come down after playing a piece. Ready for the next thing. And people seem to like it. I have good fun doing it.
Tell me about this show.
Well, I’ve got a grand piano. I’ll also have a couple of keyboards, because some pieces work better on the keyboard than piano, and vice versa. I play the music that, in the nicest sense, people have told me that they would like to hear. And so I do some Bowie stuff that I was involved with, like “Life on Mars,” I do Cat Stevens stuff – “Morning Has Broken” – I do some Yes stuff, I do some of my own stuff, and I throw in a few surprises which people wouldn’t expect.
I think I was maybe 14 when The Six Wives of Henry VIII came out. I was not a huge Yes fan, but that record just knocked me out. Especially in America, Six Wives was a huge success.
It was great fun to do. And I have to be honest, it’s a record I’m really proud of – because keyboards hadn’t come into their own then. There was not the synthesizers and stuff that’s around now. It was very limited, so every sound you had to make work for you, for what you wanted to do.
When I look back on that album, I am unashamedly immensely proud of it because it achieved everything I wanted to achieve and more.
After that came the really ambitious projects, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and King Arthur. And those massive tours that you did on them, with choirs and orchestras and ice skaters, those took a serious toll on your health, as I recall.
The trouble is, I’m not very good at sleeping, I’m still not. I considered sleep to be a waste of time – well, wasting time, not a waste of time! So when I was doing the very big projects like King Arthur, like Journey, they took every waking hour that I had.
Yeah, they do take their toll. I’ve had three heart attacks, I’ve had pleurisy, I’ve had chronic pneumonia twice, I’ve been given 48 hours to live twice over, I had alcohol cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis … you get to a stage where you go “Hold on a minute. I really quite like living.” So you change your lifestyle a bit.
I mean, I stopped smoking in 1979, and I stopped drinking in 1985. And I think if I hadn’t have done that, for sure I wouldn’t be talking to you now.
With Alan White’s recent passing, it feels like a big chapter in Yes history has closed.
To lose Alan and Chris, who were the engine of Yes, the driving force, all I can say is I feel very honored that I was in a band with them. Which was tremendous. They both should have lived longer.
Steve still has a band called Yes on the road …
Steve’s the only member who was in what people call the classic Yes lineup. None of the others were. But that’s absolutely fine. I don’t have an issue with that. I do think that after Chris died, it might have been time to retire the name. But I don’t have an issue with that, as long as people want to hear the music. They have absolutely every right to exist and play it.
You do Yes material in your solo show.
I do cover versions of a couple of Yes pieces, which I really enjoy playing. With my own band, I just did an hour and a quarter of Yes pieces that I was involved with. Which I so enjoyed doing.
You’re talking about the Palladium shows in London? Tell me about those.
They were great. It was an idea my manager had, of doing three albums from the ‘70s, plus a Yes set. So we did Journey, Six Wives and King Arthur. And the Yes set was the one that really, shall we say, concerned me. I was very aware of how important Yes and Yes music is to so many people. And that includes me as well, because sometimes you forget that I was a fan of Yes as well. Yeah, I might have been in the band but I was also a fan. Which is why when we did ARW, we worked hard to make it very, very special.
So I worked very hard with my band on how we did the five Yes pieces. And I was thrilled how they did it. We opened, believe it or not, with “Roundabout.” And the band did play it well. And I thought “When it finishes, it’ll be interesting to see what the audience reaction is.” And they went nuts. Loved it. And that gave me the confidence to know “I’ve got this right.”
So when we come to America next year with those four shows, I’ll certainly keep the Yes set in. And look forward to doing it.
What was really pleasing was the reviews were tremendous. I know people say “Oh, we don’t read reviews, we don’t care,” but you do. When you get a nice review, it does put a smile on your face.
As the ‘70s generation of musicians gets older, do you ever fret that one day you’ll wake up and the muse has just gone?
Oh crikey, yeah. You know what? I wake up in the morning and I throw the duvet back, check to see if nothing’s dropped off, and if it hasn’t I go “This is another great day.”
I love living, and I love music, I love everything around me. I’ve got a wonderful wife, I’ve got six children – I say children, the oldest is 51 now – I’ve got 13 grandchildren, three rescue dogs, three rescue cats … I mean, what more could a man want?