By his late teens, he was an established session man, playing on records by such diverse acts as Black Sabbath, Brotherhood of Man, and Edison Lighthouse. At the end of the ’60s, his name also began appearing on the credits of albums by such artists as Al Stewart and David Bowie, and one set of sessions with a folk-rock band called the Strawbs led to his joining the group in 1970. After two albums with the Strawbs, Wakeman joined Yes, a post-psychedelic hard rock band that had attracted considerable attention with their first three albums. Wakeman played a key role in the final shape of the group’s fourth record, Fragile, creating a fierce, swirling sound on an array of electric and acoustic pianos, synthesizers, and Mellotrons. Fragile was a hit, driven by the chart success of the single “Roundabout,” and Wakeman was suddenly elevated to star status.
Yes’ next album, Close to the Edge, expanded his audience and his appeal, for his instruments were heard almost continually on the record. During the making of the album in 1972, Wakeman also recorded his first solo album, an instrumental work titled The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which consisted of his musical interpretations of the lives and personalities of the said six royal spouses. Released early in 1973 on A&M, it performed respectably on the charts. Public reception of Yes’ 1974 album, Tales from Topographic Oceans, was mixed, and the critics were merciless in their attacks upon the record. Wakeman exited the group before the album’s supporting tour.
His new solo album, Journey to the Center of the Earth, adapted from the writings of Jules Verne and featuring a rock band, narrator (David Hemmings), and full orchestral and choral accompaniment, was released to tremendous public response in both America and England, where it topped the charts. In 1975, his next album, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, was given a grand-scale premiere at Wembley’s Empire Pool, although it also cost Wakeman a fortune to stage the event on ice. During this same period, Wakeman began working on film scores with the music for Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, which was a modest hit.
In 1977, Wakeman returned to Yes, with whom he would continue recording and touring for various stretches over the next three decades. His solo career continued on A&M until the end of the ’70s with Criminal Record and Rhapsodies, which were modestly successful. Wakeman’s biggest media splash during this period, however, came through his alleged role in getting the Sex Pistols dropped by A&M soon after being signed. None of this bothered his fan base, which rapidly expanded to encompass those he picked up through his work with lyricist Tim Rice on a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, and his burgeoning film work, which included the music to movies about the 1976 Winter Olympics and the 1982 soccer World Cup competition. Additionally, he became a regular on Britain’s Channel 4.
Wakeman’s audience and reputation survived the ’80s better than many progressive rock stars of his era as he continued releasing albums on his own label. In 1988, he and three of his Yes bandmates formed Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe and released their lone album in 1989. This lineup would eventually merge with Yes’ other working half to release the 1991 comeback album Union.
Throughout the ’90s, Wakeman remained prolific, recording a handful of solo piano albums like Heritage Suite (1993) and The Piano Album (1995), as well as composing scores for films like Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg. He also briefly rejoined Yes to record their Keys to Ascension album, though he again left the band before touring began. Following a 1999 sequel to Journey to the Centre of the Earth called Return to the Centre of the Earth, Wakeman began his fifth stint as Yes’ keyboardist, joining them for several massive tours including a 35th anniversary tour in 2004.
Meanwhile, his solo output remained consistent throughout the decade. By 2008, when Yes again resumed touring, Wakeman bowed out, and his son Oliver Wakeman replaced him on keyboards. Developing his own live retrospective, he toured that year with Rick Wakeman’s Grumpy Old Picture Show, then, in 2009, he celebrated the 500th anniversary of Henry the VIII’s ascension to the throne with a two-night live run of The Six Wives of Henry VIII at Hampton Palace Court. A 40th anniversary tour of Journey to the Centre of the Earth followed in 2014. In 2016, Wakeman rejoined his former Yes bandmates Trevor Rabin and Jon Anderson under the banner ARW for a tour entitled An Evening of Yes Music and More. The following year he delivered the solo piano album Piano Portraits, which featured instrumental covers of many of his favorite pop songs. ~ Bruce Eder & Timothy Monger