Rick Wakeman made a name for himself in the late-1960s as a virtuoso pianist and session musician. His early work was highlighted by his collaborations with the up and coming star David Bowie, first working with him on Space Oddity in 1969 and later on Hunky Dory in 1971. Despite having several notable collaborations to his name by the early 1970s, Wakeman struggled to make ends meet with the low going rate for session musicians at the time.
As the right man in the right place at the right time, Wakeman regularly brushed shoulders with the likes of Bowie, Marc Bolan, Tony Visconti and Elton John. Reflecting on his friendship with Bowie, Wakeman said: “We became good friends, and shortly after that, he asked me over to his house,” He remembered. “He lived in Beckenham – everyone called it Beckenham Palace, way before Posh and Becks. I remember sitting in this room while he took out this battered 12-string and played me the songs that ended up on Hunky Dory . I’d been doing sessions for years, but I’d never heard so many songs that were such winners.”
Not long after, Bowie invited Wakeman to the studio to record the seminal album with him. A few months later, Wakeman was invited to Morgan Studios in London, where Lou Reed was working on his eponymous solo debut album. Reed had been introduced to the UK by Bowie after the two met and befriended each other in 1971.
“We met when I did sessions for Lou Reed  at Morgan Studios in London,” Wakeman recalled of his first meeting with Reed. “Studio One was upstairs, and the control room was upstairs again from there. Everyone who was taking part waited down in the bar – not a difficult thing for me at the time. I think there was a different session going on in another studio because Rolf Harris was also there, as was – for some reason – Ronnie Barker.”
He continued: “So you waited until you were called by Lou – a bit like a doctor’s surgery. Eventually, someone came over and told me: ‘Rick – Lou is ready for you now.’ So I went up, and the studio was pitch-black apart from a lamp on the piano. I put the cans on, and I hear Lou’s voice in my ear: “I’m gonna play you this track, and I want you to play piano real quick over it. Just make sure you play real quick.”
After recovering from what must’ve been an intense introduction to Reed, Wakeman proceeded to play. “I played over a few song snippets, then he went: ‘Thank you. That was great.’ I got up, the lights came on, and he came down, thanked me, and I walked out the door. It was an incredibly bizarre session. He was very pleasant to me, but I would imagine he could be a little bad-tempered.”
Not long after working with Lou Reed, Wakeman was asked to join the prog-rock group Yes. He decided to join the group despite an offer to join Bowie’s Spiders from Mars group “because, within the Spiders, David was always going to be the leader.”
Listen to Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’ below. Rick Wakeman played the piano on this version of the song.