“David Bowie was an absolute genius. I learned more from him than from anybody I’ve ever worked with.” Rick Wakeman’s epic tales of sessions with Bowie, Bolan, Lou Reed and more

Rick Wakeman seated next to a globe in 1972
(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

We may know him best as the ultimate progressive rock keyboard maestro, celebrated guzzler of curries, fearless wearer of capes and perennially grumpy bon viveur, but even a figure as deservedly legendary as Rick Wakeman had to start somewhere. Five decades on from first finding fame and fortune as a member of Yes, Rick can look back on his glittering career with a real sense of satisfaction – but never let it be said that the great man didn’t earn his stripes and pay his dues prior to scaling the sequinned ladder to stardom. 

For several years, starting when he was still a snotty but precociously talented schoolboy, our hero slaved away over a hot Hammond organ, making a humble crust as a professional session musician, performing on an ear-watering selection of notable – and not so notable – recordings, and enjoying what he describes today as “the best possible apprenticeship”, steadily earning himself a formidable reputation as the premier ivory-tinkler of the late 60s and early 70s. 

It all began when Rick was 17 years old and beginning to frequent the Red Lion pub in Brentford, London, where a gaggle of noted professional musicians – including no lesser a rock icon than The Who’s bassist John Entwistle – would regularly gather to play together.

“John Entwistle lived round the corner in South Ealing at the time,” Rick recalls. “People just used to come and sit in and play. The guys that played did a lot of the BBC sessions. In the early days, when Radio 1 started, there was an agreement they had with the Musicians’ Union of what they call ‘non-needle time’, because they were only allowed to play so many records per day and the rest had to be live music. It was obviously a little bit tricky to work out how the hell they were going to do that, so they came up with this scheme of doing sessions. They did them all down at Maida Vale, which is where all sorts of people like Jimmy Page and Keith Moon worked before they became famous.” 

Having discovered this inspirational hotbed of talent right on his doorstep, Rick soon found himself rubbing shoulders with British rock’s great and good and, as seems only fitting for such a prodigious talent, it didn’t take long before he ended up being presented with his own golden opportunity to enter the session musician world.

“There was a singer called James Royal, and he had a band called The Royal Set who used to do a lot down the Red Lion,” says Rick. “He did quite a lot of these sessions for Radio 1. What happened was that one day, I think in 1966, I’d been down to the Red Lion and James Royal said ‘Do you wanna do a BBC session with us next week?’ and I said ‘Oh, not ‘alf!’ So I found myself at Maida Vale for the first time. John Entwistle played, James Royal was there, and the guitarist was Mickey King, a phenomenal player who’s sadly no longer with us. We did Hey Joe, Morning Dew and one other number that I can’t remember, and we had to do them all in three hours. It was all played live. 

“It was just great, going to Maida Vale and recording for the first time. I always remember that at the studio, sitting in the corner, was an elderly lady doing her knitting with mufflers over her ears. And she was the producer! They still had lots of women left over from the war who used to do producing for the BBC, and they were all on lifetime contracts so they just did things like these sessions. But they hated the rock‘n’roll stuff. They just sat in the corner with earmuffs on, and we got on with it.”

Rick Wakeman playing keyboards onstage in 1970

(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Although still at school, Rick had managed to wedge his foot in the door that stood between him and a career in rock‘n’roll. As a result, it swiftly became necessary for him to bunk off school on a regular basis in order to make use of his extensive classical training and earn a bob or three. Session work was something of a closed shop at this time, with hard-nosed ‘fixers’ overseeing the burgeoning careers of the majority of hired instrumental hands; making inroads into this prestigious scene depended upon a great deal of persistence, dedication and a hefty dose of dumb luck. 

 In Rick’s case, a stroke of good fortune fell into his lap when a singer named Jimmy Thomas – the male vocalist in the then-hugely successful Ike & Tina Turner Revue – came to the UK to record some new material. 

“Jimmy was over doing some sessions with a bass player called Chas Cronk, who later joined the Strawbs,” Rick says. “Some of Jimmy’s band were coming in from America and got held up at customs at Heathrow Airport, because apparently they were carrying a little bit more than Night Nurse, if you know what I mean! So they had these sessions booked but no organ player. I knew Chas because of a wonderful music shop in South Ealing called the Musical Bargain Centre, which everybody used to hang around. 

“I was there one day when Chas came in, and he was panicking. He said ‘We’ve got these sessions coming up and we’ve got no organ player!’ The guy who owned the shop, a chap called Dave Sims, said ‘Oh, Rick’ll do it!’ So, the next thing I know I’m booked to go to Olympic Studios to play with this big soul band. The producer was the great Denny Cordell, who had worked with Joe Cocker. He had Tony Visconti as one of his sidekicks, and the late great Keith Grant was engineering, so I was seriously in at the deep end – and although I love soul music, I didn’t play in that style at all. So when Denny Cordell came up to me halfway through the session and said, ‘Hey Rick, come into the control room, I wanna talk to you!’, I thought ‘Oh shit... Here we go…’”

Rather paranoid that his unique talents were about to be sent packing for not blending seamlessly with the rest of the session band’s sharp soul sound, the young Mr. Wakeman shuffled forlornly into Cordell’s office. Much to his surprise, however, the legendary producer was genuinely impressed with the teenaged Londoner’s performance and had absolutely no intention of showing him the door.

“He said ‘I like the way you play! I’ve never heard anybody play like that before. Where’d you learn to play like that?’ I said ‘Well, I’m classically trained.’ He asked if I did many sessions and I didn’t want to tell him this was my first major one. He said ‘You and I need to talk. Come up to my office at Dumbarton House, 68 Oxford Street, tomorrow morning and we’ll have a little chat…’ That’s when I blew it, because I said ‘Oh, I can’t!’ He said ‘Why? You got another session on?’ and I said ‘No, I’m at school!’ Oh shit, what have I said! Ha ha! So then he asked how often I skived off from school, I said ‘Every now and then!’ and he said ‘Well, skive off tomorrow morning and be at my office at 11 o’clock…’ So I was in his office the next day and met Tony Visconti and Gus Dudgeon and they started giving me sessions with a few people, including Marc Bolan.”

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One of the biggest pop stars of the early 70s,  Bolan was at the height of his chart-conquering powers when he enlisted Rick to perform on his band T. Rex’s 1971 number one smash Get It On. But rather than hiring the young keyboard player for his exemplary chops, Bolan’s motivation was based on far more altruistic and benevolent principles.

“He gave me the gig because he knew I needed eight pound for my rent that week and couldn’t pay it!” Rick laughs. “So I went along to the session and he said ‘you could do this. I could’ve offered you the money and you’d have turned it down, so now you’re earning it!’ He was a good lad. I was a nobody, except for a few sessions and bits and pieces, but Marc was always supportive. I did a lot demos with Marc and yeah, I did Get It On, but it was the easiest thing I’ve ever had to do. It was just piano glissandos. But it meant I could pay the rent!”

After recording Get It On, Rick and Marc would soon work together again, hatching a plot to record a one-off single attempting to mischievously disobey T. Rex’s employers at Fly Records, with whom the glam rock star was decidedly dissatisfied at the time.

“I was called up to Dumbarton House one day and Tony Visconti was in his room with Marc. I went in and sat down and Tony said, ‘Look, Marc’s really unhappy with his record company at the moment, so he’s going to deliberately defy them by making a record under another name. We’ll just press 500 copies of it, I’m gonna play bass, Marc’s gonna play guitar and he wants you to play piano.’ We went in at midnight at Trident Studios and knocked out a single under the name of Dib Cochran And The Earwigs. It’s one of the most collectible singles ever! You can find it in Record Collector and it changes hands for fortunes of money. I was told that an absolute mint copy with the original cover could sell for four figures!”

It comes as no surprise that working with such a mercurial talent as Marc Bolan had a profound effect on the young Rick Wakeman. Groundbreaking pop maverick and sartorial pioneer, Bolan’s brief but prolific heyday had a huge impact on British music in general, not least because he proved that music could be both artistically substantial and unashamedly accessible to a huge mainstream audience.

“What I liked about Marc was that he loved music but he also wanted to entertain,” agrees Rick. “It didn’t matter what it was, whether it was folk music or an orchestral work, it could be great music but it entertained people too. I loved his attitude. He was well respected. I remember I did some sessions with John Williams, the classical guitar player, and we performed a live concert at the Royal Festival Hall and afterwards we ended up at John’s house in Little Venice in Maida Vale. Marc lived just down the road so he came up too. It was a real strange combination but absolutely brilliant. I sat in John’s house with a bunch of other people who’d been at the concert, and Marc had a guitar, John had a guitar and the two of them played together in the corner. Oh, for a tape recorder or a camera…!”

Rick Wakeman in the studio in 1973

(Image credit: George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The only pop artist whose impact on British music in the early 70s was even greater than Bolan’s was, of course, that crazy-eyed visionary David Bowie. Seemingly determined to end up with the most mind-bending curriculum vitae in musical history, Rick Wakeman was blessed to work with Ziggy Stardust himself on several occasions, including playing Mellotron on his breakthrough single Space Oddity in 1969, and on the whole of the magnificent Hunky Dory album in 1971. As with Bolan, Bowie’s penchant for flamboyant presentation must have rubbed off on Rick to some degree, but it is his resolute professionalism and supreme artistic focus that prog’s chief caped crusader is most eager to salute.

“The man was an absolute genius,” states Rick. “There’s no other word for it. I learned more from David Bowie in the studio than from anybody else that I’ve worked with, ever. The thing about David was that he knew his own mind. He liked to have people around him who he felt had something to offer, people who he thought would understand what he wanted and help deliver it, and more. And he had little or no respect for the attempted input of record companies and A&R men. He could not understand why these people, who didn’t know a hatchet from a crotchet, would try and come in and dictate to him what he should do. That is undoubtedly the secret of David’s success, because everything he did was on his terms.

“He also gave me amazing freedom. When we did Hunky Dory, he said ‘You play as you want to play’. In fact, the band had to play around me, which was great. I can vaguely remember coming home from the session and my wife asking me how it went, and I said ‘you know what? I’ll never get to play on another album like that in my life again!’ It was just chock-a-block full of fantastic songs and arrangements. It was light years ahead of its time.”

Over 40 years on from its birth, Bowie’s first major hit Space Oddity is not only one of the most celebrated pop singles of all time, but also one of the most peculiar and groundbreaking. This is due, not least, to its creator’s wildly inventive approach to studio recording. And, as every rock trivia geek knows, the song also included the first use of that strange and slightly clunky instrument known as the Stylophone.

“I seem to recall David arriving at the studio and he’d bought a Stylophone from the shops when he was buying sweets or something,” Rick remembers. “I think it was [legendary bass player] Herbie Flowers who bet him a fiver that he couldn’t get the Stylophone on the record, and of course he did! I played Mellotron on the song, and David had this clever idea that I’ve used ever since. It involves having real strings played by an orchestra and then blending a Mellotron in with it. I’ve done it on the new Journey... album. You get a very unusual sound, and David was the very first person to ever do that. It really is, if you listen to Space Oddity…you’ll think ‘that’s strings! No, it’s a Mellotron! No, it’s strings!’ It’s incredibly clever.”

David Bowie - Space Oddity - YouTube David Bowie - Space Oddity - YouTube
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Other notable successes from the early 70s that were enhanced by those nimble Wakeman fingers include Cat Stevens’ ageless Morning Has Broken, Scottish troubadour Al Stewart’s 1972 album Orange, and Rotten Peaches, a track from Elton John’s Madman Across The Water. He also made a memorable appearance on former Yes touring buddies Black Sabbath’s 1973 masterpiece Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, contributing exuberant piano flourishes to the thunderous Sabbra Cadabra. But the most unusual session that Rick ever booked happened when former Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed embarked on his solo career and came to the UK to record his first album. The eponymous opus came out in the spring of 1972 but was widely panned by critics and failed to achieve any real commercial success, possibly due to the extremely eccentric way in which the record was pieced together. 

“Yeah, that was weird one!” chuckles Rick, at the memory. “I got booked for that. It was at Morgan Studios in Willesden. He also wanted Steve Howe on it and a few others. It was a bizarre day. I remember at Morgan Studios they had a bar there, which I headed for, and I was told to wait until I was called up for the session. Anyway, someone came and said ‘Rick, you’re needed now please’. 

“Normally you’d go up to the control room, meet the artist and have a little chat but no, this time I was sent straight to the piano. It was absolutely pitch-black in there, with just the tiniest of little lights shining on the piano. Lou’s voice comes over the speakers, saying ‘Put your cans on. I’m going to play you a piece, so have a listen. Then I want you to play as fast you possibly can.’ I went ‘Okay, anything in particular?’ but he just said ‘Go!’ and played this track. I started playing as I was going along doing bits and pieces, and he played it again. I was working out a few things and trying to play as fast as he wanted and then there was silence. I was expecting him to say ‘Okay, now this is what I want…’ but he just said ‘That’s absolutely fantastic, thank you very much!’ That was it! So I got up, went down to the bar, had a drink and then left for the next session, and I never actually got to meet him.”

Despite such bizarre encounters with sardonic New Yorkers, Rick Wakeman’s career as a session musician clearly provided him with an invaluable crash course in the art of studio recording and artistic collaboration. Occasional guest appearances aside, his status as a gun-for-hire slowly began to fizzle out when he joined Yes in 1971 and entered the world of bona fide rock stardom, and a relentless cycle of touring and recording. As it turned out, Rick jumped off the session treadmill at precisely the right point: the music business was changing at an exponential rate, and the golden age of session work was spluttering to an ignominious halt. But as he explains, those magical, formative days contributed hugely to making Rick Wakeman the extraordinary musician he is today.

“What happened was, the session scene as I used to know it collapsed. Session fees started soaring through the roof, and nobody could afford to use the musicians anymore, and that meant that the studios started to close down. By the time we reached the mid 70s, it was dead. But it was an exciting time, and I loved every minute of it. The most valuable lesson I learned was that you should never waste any time in the studio. I look at the studio as the assembly line for putting together all the components that I’ve been working on. The studio is a special place. And if you don’t consider it to be a special place, then you shouldn’t be doing it!”

Originally published in Classic Rock Presents: Rick Wakeman’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.