Rick Wakeman made a name for himself in the late-1960s as a masterful 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.
Wakeman was something of a socialite and would frequent the musician hangouts of London, where he might rub shoulders with the musical elite. While working with Bowie, he became close with the Starman’s legendary bassist and producer, Tony Visconti. Through his connection with Visconti and Gus Dudgeon, Wakeman managed to secure session work with the likes of Cat Stevens, Elton John and Lou Reed, who was in London recording his eponymous debut solo album.
Reflecting on his time working with Bowie on Space Oddity in the late 1960s, Wakeman once recalled: “When you were doing session work at that time, most artists would make you do 50 takes, and you knew damn well they were going to use the first one. David was the complete opposite when I worked on Space Oddity. I arrived at Trident Studios, sat down at the Mellotron, and after the first take, he said: ‘That’s it.’ I told him I’d only been there 25 minutes. But Bowie doesn’t waste time in the studio. He won’t have anyone learning parts in there, he thinks that’s taking the piss.”
Following their early work together, Wakeman and Bowie became close. “We became good friends, and shortly after that, he asked me over to his house,” Wakeman remembered fondly. “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.”
Following the success of Hunky Dory, Bowie was already hard at work on his next idea. His next album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was to be a concept album of sorts as he gave birth to the most successful of his stage personas. During this period, Bowie had approached Wakeman. “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.
He continued: “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.”
Watch Rick Wakeman perform an astonishing keyboard solo with the prog-rock group, Yes, in 1972 below.