Drummer Alan White has died, just as he was about to celebrate his 50th year drumming for the band Yes. “I joined in ‘72,” he told Culture Sonar in 2021. “Chris and Jon asked me to join the band because Chris came to see me play with Joe Cocker, and mostly liked what I had done on record. The group was moving in that direction, so they invited me to play with them. After inviting me they said, ‘We have a show on Monday: can you learn all the songs in three days?’ It was a bit of a struggle, but I made it. Next year will be my fiftieth year with Yes, so I must have been doing something right!”
He sure did, providing a percussive backbeat that was both playful and passionate, but never at the expense of the rhythms in question. His predecessor Bill Bruford claimed that the band needed to listen to everyone, and it wasn’t merely a dialogue between bassist and drummer.
White’s bouncy drumming bore a great deal in common with Ringo Starr’s, which might explain why John Lennon invited White to play on anthems ‘Instant Karma (We All Shine On)’ and ‘Imagine’, but White also worked closely with George Harrison, particularly on the All Things Must Pass album.
Upon joining Yes in 1972, he became one of their core members, working closely with bandmates Steve Howe and Chris Squire. Squire died in 2015, making White and Howe the only holdouts from the early 1970s. White released a statement, stating that he was going to miss out on some of the dates on the forthcoming tour, although it was suggested that he would rejoin them when he could.
White died in May 2022, and the band have yet to announce a replacement for the percussionist. Yes have said they will dedicate the ’50th Anniversary Close to the Edge UK Tour’ in June to White.
Whoever takes over from White will find it difficult to emulate the tenderness and thoughtful nature of the songs in question. White’s influences were vast, as he mentioned to CultureSonar in 2021: “Many people. As a teenager, I was playing a lot of Beatles and a lot of original music. Through my teenage years, I got into listening to Frank Zappa, and then I started listening to fusion drummers, like Alphonse Mouzon and Lenny White. Lenny White had the knowledge of fusion drumming, but he also had the ‘lay it down’ style, so I based my drumming on incorporating both things, which is what Yes was looking for.”
It sounds like White felt the drums were meant to cement the backdrop, rather than play in the forefront in a style that was explosive and charged with energy and a desire to impress as many audience members in the audience. If he had a contemporary in the world of progressive rock, it was Phil Collins, who could play with Genesis during their more far-reaching work (‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’), or their more playful and bouncy (‘Get ‘Em Out By Friday’).
Ill health inhibited White’s performances in recent years, but he was still able to perform on The Quest, which is to this writer’s ears, the best Yes album in 15 years. He seemed to channel the coy nature of Alphonse Mouzon’s work with Lenny White’s more hybrid approach to the instrument. The mark of a good drummer isn’t how they make their presence known on a song, but how they can guide the song in a way that is shrewd, sharp and deeply reverent of the song in question. And as curtain calls go, The Quest is a very good one.
Alan White’s two favourite drummers:
- Alphonse Mouzon
- Lenny White