By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A virtuoso keyboard player best known for his work with prog-rock giants Yes and as a solo artist, Rick Wakeman brings his first solo U.S. tour in 13 years to the Castro Theater in San Francisco Saturday.
A precocious boy who started taking piano lessons at age seven, Wakeman was remembered by his teacher as a talented student with good humor who excelled despite a lack of dedication to practicing. Before he was in his teens, Wakeman was winning awards and certificates in music competitions he was entered into by his mother. He eventually started exploring traditional jazz, blues and pop playing in a variety bands through his teens prior to entering the Royal College of Music just prior to turning 20.
His formal studies began to take a backseat to his musical career after the keyboardist played his first recording session with members of the Ike and Tina Turner band. He started skipping classes in favor of studio work and by 1969 had dropped out of the Royal College of Music altogether. He quickly built a reputation as a quick study, earning the nickname “One Take Wakeman” even when playing instruments he was unfamiliar with such as his contributions on Mellotron for David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” He would end up playing on several tracks for Bowie’s second eponymous album, a collaboration that would continue over the next few years.
While he would make good money as his session credits grew, Wakeman found himself dissatisfied from a creative standpoint. He would join the British folk-rock group the Strawbs after contributing to their 1970 album Dragonfly, playing as a full member of the band on the mostly live follow-up effort Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios that showcased his adroit organ playing. The one tune Wakeman received writing credit on — “Temperament of Mind” — was an extemporaneous piano improvisation that was singled out for it’s creativity by fans and critics.
Wakeman continued to play organ, electric piano, harpsichord and Moog synthesizer with the Strawbs on their next studio album From the Witchwood in 1971, but took up more studio sessions to help pay his mortgage and bills, including work with Cat Stevens, Elton John, T. Rex and David Bowie on some of those artists’ seminal recordings. His contributions on “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Life on Mars?” for Bowie’s landmark Hunky Dory helped make that record one of the songwriter’s early crowning achievements.
Having already decided to part ways with the Strawbs, Wakeman soon was faced with a difficult decision when he found himself to invited to join Bowie’s backing band the Spiders of Mars — the very group that would propel the singer to global fame — and rising progressive rockers Yes, whose departing keyboard player Tony Kaye was resistant to using synthesizers. After rehearsing songs that Yes had written for their forthcoming album Fragile, the keyboardist decided joining that group was the best move for his career. Not long after, Wakeman was also signed to a solo deal with A&M Records.
Wakeman would be right. Fragile proved to be the band’s breakout hit album powered by the FM radio hits “Roundabout” and “Heart of the Sunrise” that lifted Yes from cult act to international stars. The keyboardist’s classically-influenced style played an enormous part in the band’s sound on that album and the equally successful follow-up, Close to the Edge. Wakeman also released his solo debut, The Six Wives of Henry VII, an ambitious concept album that enlisted assistance from his former Strawbs bandmates and other members of Yes.
As successful as Yes had become, Wakeman began to feel at odds with the group as they started recording the sprawling double album Tales of Topographic Oceans in 1973. Inspired by a footnote in the book Autobiography of a Yogi, Anderson and Howe developed the record’s obtuse concept and wrote most of the music, leaving Wakeman questioning the basic idea and quality of the songs. During the extensive tour to promote the album, the keyboardist told the band he would be departing once it was completed.
Wakeman would shift his focus to his solo career, releasing the album Journey to the Centre of the Earth based on the Jules Verne science fiction novel that featured a full choir and orchestra. A&M label executives were resistant to releasing the record, but it would grow to be an even bigger hit than Wakeman’s first album. The keyboard player would put together his English Rock Ensemble to tour that album and subsequent efforts The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the soundtrack to the film Lisztomania made by Tommy director Ken Russell and his 1976 album No Earthly Connection. The same year, Wakeman met with members of Yes and was convinced to rejoin the band for the recording of their album Going For the One. The reunion would be short lived, ending after the release of Tormato, one of the most critically panned records of the band’s career.
Wakeman would spend most of the ’80s working on solo albums and soundtracks, only returning to collaboration to join the amalgamation of early Yes members Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe late in the decade to record and tour arenas with significant success before that group and bassist Chris Squire’s version of Yes would come together to form an expanded band that recorded the album Union. Wakeman would again depart the group in 1992, but has regularly returned to perform with Yes or members of Yes (most recently as part of Anderson Rabin Wakeman in 2016) when not working on solo career. Two years ago, he appeared at the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, offering up one of the most ribald and entertaining acceptance speeches in the history of the institution. Wakeman’s current “Grumpy Old Rock Star Tour” marks his first solo trip through the U.S. in 13 years. The stop at the Castro Theatre Saturday will feature the musician telling stories about his illustrious career and delivering solo piano renditions of the many classic songs he had a hand in creating as well as tunes that inspired him.
Saturday, Oct. 19, 8 p.m. $55-$70