Rick Wakeman, the virtuoso pianist for the prog-rock group Yes, began his musical aspirations as an underpaid session musician in the late 1960s. Finding himself in the London scene, it wasn’t long before he was commissioned to play for the emerging star David Bowie on his 1969 album Space Oddity. Over the years that bled into the ’70s, Wakeman continued to hang around with Bowie and became close with the Starman’s legendary bassist and producer, Tony Visconti. Through his connection with Visconti, Wakeman managed to secure session work with Marc Bolan, Cat Stevens, Elton John and Lou Reed.
Despite brushing shoulders with such big names in the industry, Wakeman was still destitute in 1971 when he was helping Bowie with some of the piano sections for Hunky Dory and later Ziggy Stardust. Fortunately, Wakeman’s amiable demeanour and doubtless virtuosity wouldn’t allow him to remain in the doldrums of session work for long.
In fact, two exciting opportunities cropped up for the young pianist on the same day. “I went to see Bowie play a show, and he told me he wanted to form this band called Spiders From Mars, and he wanted me and Mick Ronson to run it,” Wakeman said to Classic Rock. “But it was the exact same day that I’d had a call from Yes. It was like being asked to join Manchester United or Chelsea. I took Yes, because, within the Spiders, David was always going to be the leader.”
In his final assessment, Wakeman was entirely correct; while it would have been great to play with the Spiders from Mars for a year or two, the carer path with Yes ultimately allowed him more creative freedom, exposure and longevity.
In 2021, Wakeman reflected on his time as a session musician in London before joining Yes and described his brief working relationships with some of the era’s biggest stars. One of the interesting character references was that of Elton John.
Despite Elton John being an accomplished piano player, he commissioned Wakeman to play the Hammond organ on his 1971 album, Madman Across the Water. “You might be surprised that Elton didn’t lose his rag once during the recording of Madman Across The Water,” Wakeman remembered. “I think the world of Elton, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s got a very short fuse on that front, and I probably have too. Because when you’re trying to achieve something musically and somebody hasn’t done their job, it can really screw things up.”
He continued, explaining that he had played with Elton John prior to their session together. “I actually knew Elton before the Madman… session. When ‘Your Song’ came out in 1971, he did a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, and I was in the band playing Hammond organ. He was a bloody good piano player, but he never did like playing the organ.”
“I think his celebrity status is brilliant these days,” he added. “I’d hang out with the Beckhams too if I could. The thing is, he doesn’t have to hang around with them to get in the papers. I genuinely have the utmost respect for everything he’s done. And if tantrums are part of his make-up, then so be it.”
Listen to Elton John’s ‘Razor Face’ below. This was one of three songs on Madman Across The Water that features Rick Wakeman.