Famed English Keyboardist Rick Wakeman on heart attacks, divorce, David Bowie and weight loss


Rick Wakeman walks us through his incredible life

I’m very excited to be bringing you my interview with famed English musician, Rick Wakeman, who’s best known for both his solo albums of which there are now more than 90 as well as being the keyboardist in the progressive rock band Yes. I asked him if I could take him back through his incredible life.

At age 25 You had a heart attack?  And at age 30 you were one of the biggest rock stars on the planet? And then sometime after that you were homeless and on park benches. What happened?

Yeah, I mean, I’ve been married four times. Very happy now though. We’ve been together 19 years now. So we that’s quite a quite an achievement for me. But actually, it’s more of an achievement for her really than me. But divorce is somewhat crippling. And each one of them you sort of go, I haven’t got anything anymore. You start again. You’ve been incredible that you have been able to start again each time and build it up. And with such a big dreams. The whole King Arthur thing was really a dream that kept you going wasn’t it?

Heart attacks and King Arthur

The whole King Arthur thing was just, well, when I get a sort of a bee in my bonnet and I got to do something, then you know, then then I just have to have to do it, which is sometimes a real pain for my management because you can’t do this. And that that is like a red rag to a bull at me. It always works. But sometimes it doesn’t work quite according to plan. But that’s half the fun. King Arthur was very special to be in so many respects. I loved all the music that I wrote. A lot of it I wrote in hospital. So in a strange way, King Arthur is as much an autobiography as it is about King Arthur if the truth be known. I was in hospital for nine weeks. They basically said we think you’ll have to retire no more touring and things. And I remember, I just decided to, which was probably in one respect, stupid just to defy the doctors in every way, manner, fashion and form. I went on tour. One of the funniest things was I played for a football team and I went back playing with them again. And it was pretty well known that I’d had these heart attacks. And it was fantastic. Because I played up front. And all of the defenders were terrified to tackle me. In case I dropped down dead. So it was absolutely brilliant. If they if they came in really hard, I’d fall over and just lie still for about 20 seconds, and they’d panic. It was great. I scored more goals that season than all the others put together.

Never take 'no' for an answer

Says Rick: I wanted to do King Arthur in the Round and I remember them all saying no, no, no, no, you can’t. I said we’re doing it at the Albert Hall. And I said, give me one good reason why I can’t do it. I was really pissed off. I walked down to Notting Hill Gates railway station, and got on the train. And I ended up at Fleet Street. And I got off there, obviously no mobile phones and things and I went to a phone booth. I called Chris Welch at the rock magazine Melody Maker. And I said, Chris, you fancy a drink? He said, Oh, yes, yes. I might have a story for you. Oh, great. Yes. Lovely. So I met him and told him we had booked live shows of King Arthur on ice. I told him I’m going to build a castle in the middle of the ice rink. I’m going to have skaters skating all round depicting the various scenes. The following week an article appeared in the Melody Maker announcing the King Arthur concert to be staged at Wembley in the Round on ice. That probably counts as one of Wakeman’s greatest achievements.

Rick, your 122nd solo album, the Red Planet?  I did it just before the major first major lockdown started. I managed to get it and recorded and done and ready and then we put it out. The red planet was completed with his backing band The English rock ensemble. It’s keyboard heavy, in a similar vein to his 1973 debut, The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth.

Stumbling on the Mellotron and making himself indispensable

What happened was I was doing a session for a band and I had been booked to go and do some organ with them. So I went down to the studio, I put a lot of hammond organ onto these tracks. And in the corner there was a Mellotron, they had just got it in. And when I pointed to it they said oh, we got it in a while ago but it won’t stay in tune so we don’t use it. So, I had a bit of a break while they were doing other stuff  and asked if I could have a go? And they said, Yeah, of course you can. So I’ve switched it on. And I’ve never played one before. And basically, in simplistic terms, it’s a series of tapes of recorded notes. And when you press a note, it presses the tape against a playback head. But obviously, because of the motor, the more notes you press down, the more strain is on the motor, so it starts to go slower. So, the tuning goes all over the place. So, I played around for a little bit. And I found a way of doing certain fingering, that if you did it carefully, you could avoid it going out of tune. They were amazed.

The next thing I knew I had a call that David Bowie wants help to manage the mellotron. So I drove up to London and David was there and it was Space Oddity he was recording.

Bowie invited me back a few days later. I went to his house and played on his acoustic guitar. The songs that were going to be on Hunky Dory. I found him so good to work with because he was so generous to musicians unbelievably generous. He was a real craftsman and a great songwriter. The lyrics were always great. They always told stories because they came from the folk world.

Six Wives of Henry V111

In 2009 I got invited to the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne. And I was asked if I’d like to perform the Six Wives of Henry the Eighth at Hampton Court? No-one has even been allowed before that to perform there and you had to get the Queen’s permission. I managed to – with a symphony orchestra. There was a lot of fun in doing it.

No off switch, energy to spare

It seems to me that you simply don’t have an off switch. Are you on all the time? Yeah. I’ll get up at five or six in the morning. I have certain routines to set me up during the day I feed the cat we’ve got three rescue cats I feed those then I go and we’ve got rescue dogs from Bosnia so I sort them out. They get very excited in the morning. Then I normally go into my office by seven. And I’ll try and get as much done by nine o’clock before the phone starts ringing. I find that’s the best time to get stuff done. And then I’ll be in the studio or whatever it is I’m doing for the day. I love my home life. Are you taking better care of yourself these days? No. Well, I suppose I am really actually. Yeah. Because I’ve, I have a high level of diabetes too. And I was read the riot act by my doctor and he said, lose some weight. He said there’s only one outcome I said was that you said you’d die. I went well, I’m not ready for that yet. He said well to lose some weight. So actually, this year I’ve lost a lot. In kilos, I’ve probably lost about 15 or plus kilos.

So do you feel you feel better for it? I hate to admit it, but I do. I actually do. You know, I no longer bend down to do my shoelaces up and wonder what else I can do while I’m down there? I do feel better. And my, my wife, right? She’s really encouraged me to make sure I lose another 10 by Christmas. So, what’s the trick? Eating more healthily and doing more exercise? For me, it’s to make sure no snacking, you know, no chocolates, no snacking, no, that kind of thing.

Yes and beyond

Where do you get all your energy from? Mainly from ..I don’t know, from life in general. Really. I’ve got some good friends and people around me who we work together who mostly are considerably younger than me. So they’re very energetic also my kids and I got six kids 12 grandchildren. So that that that keeps you young.  And the grandchildren are hilarious. So, I think if you surround yourself by people who are alive, then you’ve got no choice. You feel more alive too Yeah, you’ve got no choice. Yeah, I mean, I’ve got friends who are my age and older and musician friends are my age and older. But you know, I don’t spend that much time with them. Because, you know, all they do is talk about aches and pains. Yeah, when the last visit to the doctors was,  what bit fell off last week and that kind of thing. You’re not surrounding yourself anymore these days with a fleet of Rolls Royces? No, I’ve, funnily enough, I’ve just had a bit clean out. I haven’t used stuff for ages. So what’s the point in in hanging onto it?.So I’ve sold about 40 keyboards and other bits and pieces. Some have gone to private people, some have gone to museums, which is nice. And as regards the cars, I do have one Rolls Royce, which I love. But you know, it’s interesting what the pandemic does for you. I went down to the garage one day and the guy said to me, it’s 7 months since we had this car in and I said, Yeah, why? He said, you’ve done 11 miles since then. Good job. I drive around in a 15 year old Lexus SUV, which I love, which is great. Throw everything in the dogs and all. So you’re right. I’m a hoarder, but I’m having a clear out. It’s very cathartic.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Jeff Hawkett

    The best keyboard player i’ve ever seen, also the interview into his life is a real eye-opener thank you.

  2. Max Robertson

    Hi Sandy What a great interview with Rick he was so open and he painted a true picture of his life, thanks Sandy it felt like we the fan’s were talking to him regards Max.

  3. Warren simms

    Nice. The Man. Well done and shared

  4. Stephen Duncan

    Sandy, wrong intro song. RW did not play on that tune/LP, Tony Kaye did.

  5. Gabrielle Sherwin

    Very interesting. Have followed Rick for years, with Yes and phi’s solo albums. I bought Six Wives and King Arthur and more when they first came out. I’ve seen three Yes live concerts with him playing. I admire his brilliant playing. Love hearing about the wonderful Mellotron. Such a strange instrument .. I know he has talked about the Minimoog. I wonder if he still has one? I am probably a similar age to Rick and totally agree with what he says about people of our own age. I hardly know anyone of my age either and mix with people much younger. It keeps you from thinking you’re past it. I admire Rick in every way.

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