Rick Wakeman: A Session with the Session Man
Mention the name Rick Wakeman to a fan of ’70s rock and they’ll immediately think of Yes, the band he has joined and quit more than five times. Dig further and you’ll learn that he’s an impossibly prolific recording artist who has release more than 90 albums. Perhaps less known is his work as a session keyboardist; that’s him on David Bowie’s “Changes.” It’s Wakeman on Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken,” and he’s all over Black Sabbath’s “Sabbra Cadabra.” On the eve of his first solo tour of the U.S. in more than a decade – a one-man comedy-and-music show called “The Grumpy Old Rock Star Tour” – Rick Wakeman discusses his work as session man to the stars.
After leaving college, you did a whole lot of session work. What are some of the lessons you learned that helped you or informed the direction that you would follow after that?
“If you include the film sessions and what they call jingle sessions, other bits and pieces, yeah, I did close on 2,000 different sessions. Two or three a day at a time. And I got some great advice from the late Gus Dudgeon and also from Tony Visconti, who said to me in the early days, ‘You’ll learn something from every session.’ But, they said, ‘We don’t mean you’re gonna learn something good. You’re gonna learn real bad things.’ They told me, ‘It’s just as important to know what people get wrong so that you can make sure that you don’t make the same mistakes.’ And they were dead right.
“I mean, I did some sessions where the producers didn’t have a clue, where the artist didn’t have a clue, where there was no preparation done, where you just think, ‘Who on earth is paying for this? This is just a waste of money!’ So, you learn that preparation is crucial for everything.
“David Bowie had it up to a fine art. He was about 75% prepared when he went into the studio, and he told me that it was always about that [much]. Because things would change in the studio a little bit and he would do that last 25% in the studio. But the songs, the format, everything … he knew what was going on when he went in there.
“And that wasn’t the case with every session. Some sessions, of course, were total ‘reading sessions’ where they threw the music in front of you, you did three songs in three hours, and then left. That was very common in the late ’60s.”
It’s interesting that you said that Bowie really kind of had his stuff together relatively early in his career.
“He was a bright man. He was, undoubtedly, the biggest influence on how I work. He never wasted studio time. He said to me once, ‘Don’t waste studio time. A lot of people do, and then one day when they can’t afford to go in the studio, will regret the time they wasted.’ He said, ‘It’s really, really important that you treat [studio time] with respect.’
“And that’s something else that’s remained with me as well. I mean, I’ve been on a few sessions back in those days where quite literally the artists concerned hadn’t got anything together at all. And it was just a bit of a mishmash and, ‘Oh, let’s try this, let’s try that.’ And you know you’re just wasting time.”
Of all the session dates that you’ve played on, who has been your favorite artist to work with?
“Well, I’ve already mentioned David. Bowie was fantastic to work with. I did a lot with David over the years. Cat Stevens was great fun to work with. Also, Marc Bolan, T. Rex. They were great fun to work with. There were lots of sessions that stand out. Working with Elton John was great fun. I mean, I did organ work for Elton on Madman Across the Water. I have huge respect for Elton John and everything he did.
“I’ve always felt that every record that I’ve played on, it was a bit of an honor that I’d been invited and trusted to play on somebody else’s music. For a lot of people, it was tremendous.
“There was some hilarity with some sessions. I got called at midnight to do a session for Harry Nilsson. He had flown into London and couldn’t sleep. He went into Trident Studios and booked four of us to go in there and work with them. And basically, he came down, sort of sat at the piano, went through a rough idea of a song. Myself and [bassist] Herbie Flowers and the other guys, we just sort of went, ‘Okay.’ And then, he went up to the control room, which was up the stairs.
“We sort of ran through what he said a little bit and then didn’t hear anything [from him]. Eventually after about half an hour, I said, ‘I’ll go upstairs and find out what he thinks.’ I went upstairs and he was lying across the control desk, fast asleep and snoring. So, I came down, I said, ‘I think he’s got jet lag.’”
Of all the sessions you’ve played on, is there one that really stands out as particularly disastrous or unpleasant?
“No. I’ve never had any unpleasant sessions, because you’re there to make the music and play the music. Every one had sort of attributes. Going back to very enjoyable ones. I absolutely loved working with Ozzy [Osbourne] on his Ozzmosis album; that was tremendous. We did that over in New York. Ozzy invited me over to do the album and that was fantastic. Ozzy is much cleverer than a lot of people give him credit for, and his production ideas on Ozzmosis album were tremendous. With Ozzmosis, he produced what quite literally was a prog metal album. I mean, there’s tracks on there like ‘Perry Mason’ that could easily be on a prog metal album. He’s a bright boy, Ozzy. He’s one of my dearest friends, and that was a pleasure to work on.
“Lou Reed was interesting to work on in England; he had an interesting way of working. But everybody had their own little quirks. To be honest, a lot of sessions were a quick in and out. You arrive at 10:00, they throw the music in front of you, you play it, you leave at 1:00 and go over to the next lot from 2:00 until 5:00.”
Nowadays – and it seems to happen a lot in prog because of file sharing – an artist sort of phones their part in. And you’ve done at least some of those.
“Yeah, I’ve had stuff sent to me and I work on it in my studio with my engineer. Then we send it back. It works, but you can’t beat all being in the same room. That’s when things change; that’s when ideas float around. It works, because that’s when someone can say, ‘Hey, you’re doing that. I might change what I’m doing to this.’ And then, that might spread around [to inspire the other musicians].
“Sometimes young bands say to me, ‘What do you think is the best way of recording?’ All be in the same room. All be in the same room to rehearse the music before you go into the studio, so you’re well on your way to being sort of 75% prepared, and then all be in the studio so you’ll all know what each other’s doing. But you’re quite right. It’s very rare these days that that happens.”
Keith Emerson once told me his story of his only recorded vocal session. Have you ever done vocals on a recording?
“Yeah, I have. In fact, my only vocal was a hit single; it was top 30 in the UK. It was called ‘I’m So Straight I’m a Weirdo.’ It was on an album; Rock and Roll Prophet, it was called. There was a video made; you’ll see it in YouTube.
“I was living in Switzerland at the time – 1979, 1980 – and the singer wasn’t around. The engineer Dave Richards said, “Well, look just put a demo vocal down.” So, I put the vocals down and then we got a Swiss guy to come in and sing it eventually. But then Dave said to me one day, he said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but I prefer what you do as your vocals to what the Swiss guy has done.’ So, I went, ‘Okay. I don’t mind.’ So, we left them on, and to my amazement, ‘I’m So Straight I’m a Weirdo’ was a big radio hit in the UK and got to number 27 or something in the chart. It was only ever released in the UK, but it was great fun.
“But I don’t like singing. I’ll be brutally honest: I don’t even sing in the shower! I have sung in the shower and got straight out; I dislike it that much. It’s really funny; even when there’s a whole group of people singing, I sort of mutter. I’m sort of strange. In the same way that I like to hear instruments played properly by good musicians, I like to hear vocals sung by people who really do have an individual vocal talent.”
You were doing session work at age 20. And that’s been 50 years now…
“Well, actually, my first sessions were in 1966. I did my first session when I was 17; that’s when I started. And so, I was doing them while I was at the college. My grant to go to college was so poor. I needed the money, but I needed the money to support both buying my books and getting me through college … and also my rather large appetite for beer at the local pub.”
Back in those days, to the extent that you thought about it, what did you think you’d be doing at age 70?
“That’s a really good question. Because I can remember sitting with Chris [Squire] and Alan [White] in the late ’70s: ‘Crikey, we’re coming up on our 30s! What are we gonna be doing when we’re 40?’ And then, when we got in the 40s, ‘What are we gonna do when we’re 50?’ Because there was no one to look at.
“This is what happened. There was no sort of lot of aging rock stars going, ‘Oh, that’s what happens.’ I mean, we’ve made it easier for a lot of the young bands, because they know that you can survive when you’re 60 and 70.
“Am I amazed I’m still doing it at 70? I’m amazed I’m still alive. And I’m very grateful that I’m still alive because I love what I do, I love the music, I love playing, I love people. And so, I’m making as much effort as I can to stay alive for as long as possible.”