"At the end, Jimmy says to me: 'I want you in my band'. I say: 'But I've got a maths exam in the morning!'": Rick Wakeman, and the blues records that changed his life

Rick Wakeman studio portrait
(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Beneath the rock-star locks and the cape of prog rock, keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman has a heart beating for R&B and blues. Growing up in northwest London as trad jazz, skiffle and blues were setting minds on fire, young Rick found himself in a number of aspirational bands. He’s known best for his time in The Strawbs and Yes, but it was R&B that got him a foot on the music industry ladder.

“When I was a teenager, everyone was in an R&B band," says Wakeman. "Twelve-bar blues was the easiest thing to learn, and once you had three chords you had a band. Moving on a couple of years, I was skiving off school to work in a music shop in South Ealing. One day Chas Cronk [future Strawb] came in and was talking to the owner, Dave Simms, saying he was in a spot, trying to find players for a session with Ike Turner’s singer Jimmy Thomas. His own band had been ‘detained’ at Customs. Dave looked at me and said: ‘Rick will sort that for you.’ Chas went: ‘Brilliant. I’ve got a demo on quarter-inch. I’ll bring it in. If I find and score the brass section, you do the organ bit, my problems will be solved.’ 

“My brain was saying: ‘Excuse me, I’m still at school.’ But my mouth said: ‘Yeah, no problem.’ I got the tape and played it. It was a fun track called Running Time. But I needed the players. Because I was already working at Watford Top Rank, I got some numbers from them for session guys. I called one of the trumpet players, who said: ‘We’ll do trumpet, trombone and tenor sax doubling on alto.’ All I had to do was score the brass parts – which I’d never done. Brass instruments are in a different key to concert pitch – I didn’t know that yet. It was the night before the session and I’ve got school during the day, so I’m up at midnight copying out these parts, getting to bed at four a.m., up at six, dog-tired. 

“That evening I get to Olympic Studios for eight p.m., with my parts under my arm, and meet the engineer, Vic Smith, who takes me in. Apart from me, Chas and Vic, the rest of the band are Afro-American, and I’m so nervous I can’t understand a word they’re saying. I’m trying to be cool – I’m still a teenager and I’m trying to act older. 

“We start playing, and they’re funking away and I end up doing almost a classical organ thing. I’m thinking: ‘This ain’t good. They want Booker T.’ But what was really daft is producer Denny Cordell says: ‘Love the organ sound!’ He tells me they’re looking for new organ players, so I should go into his office and see him. 

“Then the brass players arrive. The track is running, and they start to play my score. It’s a cacophony of complete and utter rubbish. I’m going: ‘Oh shit.’ The trumpet player walks away from the mic and calls me over with the parts, saying: ‘You’ve copied them all down in concert pitch.’ I panic. He says: ‘Alright son, don’t worry,’ sits down with the other two, says: ‘Concert’, and they nod and transpose all the parts while playing. Now it sounds great. Then Denny Cordell says: ‘What was that all about?’ And I say: ‘I just wanted to try something different out, but it didn’t work.’ So I bullshitted through that! 

“At the end, Jimmy says to me: ‘I want you in my band. I want you everywhere I go.’ And Denny Cordell calls down to me: ‘I want you to come up and see me tomorrow – Regal Zonophone, Oxford Street, about eleven, twelve o’clock.’ 

“This is the ridiculous bit. I say: ‘I’ve got a maths exam in the morning.’ And he goes: ‘What?!’ I knew I’d blown it. ‘Are you at school?’ he says. ‘Erm, yeah.’ And he said: ‘Well skive off tomorrow and come and see me.’ “So I met him, Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti. They played the track back, and asked me why I did the organ in this style. I said: ‘That’s the only way I know how to play. But I suppose you want Booker T-type stuff.’ 

"Denny Cordell said: ‘That was what we were expecting, and it’s always interesting when you don’t get what you expect. Don’t change. Don’t try and copy what everyone else does. You do what you’re doing now, almost like bringing classical stuff into rock. Give it a few years and everybody will be copying you.’”


Kenny Ball - I Still Love You All (Pye, 1961)

This inspired me to form a trad jazz band when I was thirteen – Brother Wakeman And The Clergymen. I didn’t get to meet Kenny Ball until Lonnie Donegan’s memorial concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004. He introduced himself: “Hello, I’m Kenny.” I said: “I know exactly who you are!” He just looked stunned. I said to him: “You originally had a clarinet player called Dave Jones.” 

He said: “Yeah, I did. How the hell did you know that?” I said: “Dave Jones worked for my dad – he was a rep in a building firm.” I remember my dad coming home one day saying Kenny Ball and his jazz band were turning pro from being amateurs – his friend Dave had told him. They remained great friends up until my dad died.

Lonnie Donegan - Seven Daffodils (B-side to Have A Drink On Me) (Decca, 1961)

As a kid, pop music was nice, but there’s a bit more to skiffle. On Rock Island Line, what comes across is his great sense of humour, the excitement of a live recording and how very well put together it is. But what’s even better, but rarely played because it’s a B-side, is Seven Daffodils, one of the great blues tracks of the time. I love it. I was asked to play at Lonnie’s memorial service, and I chose Seven Daffodils with Chrissie Hammond, who didn’t know the song but loved it when she heard it.

Inez & Charlie Foxx - Mockingbird (Symbol, 1963)

That really was an influence, taking a classic song, ripping it apart and putting it back together. I thought that was sensational. Ashley Holt [from The Atlantic Blues, then Warhorse, and still Rick’s vocalist today] played me that first, at the Top Rank club. Anyone can copy something note for note, but if you can do what Inez & Charlie Foxx did you’re special. Mockingbird is the blues stuff that’s very danceable too. The problem is I can’t dance. Except in the time signature of 13/8.

Various - Pye Golden Guinea Rhythm & Blues Volume 2 (Pye, 1965)

I remember going to the little record shop down by my house in Perivale, and LPs weren’t really an ‘in’ thing yet, but there was the Pye Golden Guinea series of long-playing compilations costing one guinea, or twenty-one shillings. I bought a blues one because it had Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez, a blues organ player, on it, and his track Rinky Dink, which was just a three-chord trick. It was a great sampler, and on the first volume [from 1964] there were old original black blues singers from the past included. Sadly I don’t have it any more. With so many divorces gone by it’s probably been melted down and turned into a bendy toy.

Tom Jones - Chills And Fever (Decca, 1965)

I can’t get this record again for love nor money. Tom Jones was a blues singer originally, and his band were called The Squires. This was his first single, and I heard it just once on the radio. I went straight to the record shop. Very soon The Squires were kicked into touch and Tom became a pop star. But that wasn’t the Tom Jones I liked. The interesting thing is, he’s very much gone back to those days. If he was in concert now and he did Chills And Fever, that would do it for me.

Otis Redding - Shake (from the album Otis Blue) (Volt/Atco, 1965)

Back in the old days, you got your record and you read who was on it, why and what, where and when. Shake is when I noticed Steve Cropper. I loved his great, chunky guitar playing, so accurate and such a good sound. English productions at the time were shrouded in echo, while everything was crystal clear on all that Stax and Atlantic stuff. I never understood the ‘this is black music, this is white music’ idea – if you don’t see who the person is, you don’t know. However, I was taken aback when I met Steve Cropper for the first time, because it never occurred to me that he’d be white.

Etta James - You Got It/Fire (Cadet, 1968)

I heard You Got It on a jukebox, bought it, loved it to bits. What a great voice! Many years later I was living in Montreux and she came to play the jazz festival. [Festival organiser] Claude Nobs said to me: “I’ve got a problem.” Like a repeat of the Jimmy Thomas story, Etta’s band had been detained at Geneva airport and Claude needed help. “There’s a great band called Stuff,” he said. “They’re gonna fill in. They’re just short of a clavinet player. Can you do that?” 

I said: “Yeah!” Etta came down to rehearsal, walked over to me and said: “So what do you know about my stuff?” I mentioned a few tracks, then she said: “Name me an obscure one.” I said: “Fire.” She went: “Okay, let’s see if you can play.” We went through a few things and she then said: “Well, you’ll do for me.” It was lovely, and a big thrill for me. Afterwards Claude asked how much money I wanted for the job, and I said: “Nothing. It was a joy.”

This feature was originally published in issue 16 of The Blues, published in September 2014.

Jo Kendall

Jo is a journalist, podcaster, event host and music industry lecturer with 23 years in music magazines since joining Kerrang! as office manager in 1999. But before that Jo had 10 years as a London-based gig promoter and DJ, also working in various vintage record shops and for the UK arm of the Sub Pop label as a warehouse and press assistant. Jo's had tea with Robert Fripp, touched Ian Anderson's favourite flute (!), asked Suzi Quatro what one wears under a leather catsuit, and invented several ridiculous editorial ideas such as the regular celebrity cooking column for Prog, Supper's Ready. After being Deputy Editor for Prog for five years and Managing Editor of Classic Rock for three, Jo is now Associate Editor of Prog, where she's been since its inception in 2009, and a regular contributor to Classic Rock. She continues to spread the experimental and psychedelic music-based word amid unsuspecting students at BIMM Institute London, hoping to inspire the next gen of rock, metal, prog and indie creators and appreciators.