A Conversation with Rick Wakeman

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By: Lori Smerilson Carson

When you need a night of amazing music coupled with side splitting laughter, Keyboardist, songwriter, author, television and radio broadcaster Rick Wakeman is the one to see. In fact, Ohio area fans can see this spectacular show at The Kent Stage in Kent, OH on November 1st. He will bring songs from his over fifty years of writing and playing, starting from when he was a session player, through his years in Yes through the present, along with his memorable anecdotes to create a show that Ohio Music Experience readers won’t want to miss.

Catching up with this extraordinarily talented musician just prior to his US tour, he revealed some details of his The Even Grumpier Old Rock Star Tour, his music, his most recent award from Queen Elizabeth II, and what fans can look forward to.

Ohio Music Experience:  This is exciting, the new tour. How did The Even Grumpier Old Rock Star Tour come about?

Rick Wakeman: Well, it was meant to have taken place two years ago, but of course COVID put a stop to that. And it was gonna be called The Even More Grumpier Old Rock Star Tour and then as more and more tours got canceled because of the lock downs, it became the Even More Grumpier Lockdown Rock Star Tour. If it had gone on much longer it would’ve been The Incredibly Unbelievably Even More Grumpier Rock Star. I could’ve just kept adding things ‘cause it was just, every time we thought great! The tour’s going to go ahead, another lock down appeared which made it difficult, and I think, we’re now at a stage where you can’t get any more grumpier than what’s going on. So, it’s just gonna be really good to walk out onstage. It’s going to be really strange walking out onstage after all this time. I’ve never been this long ever, without doing live performances.

Ohio Music Experience: Wow! That’s amazing and you’ve done a lot in your career. The last time we talked about your solo albums and everybody that you’ve worked with and your commercials and writing (music scores) for movies. I saw the last show. It was amazing and I’m definitely looking forward to this year. Are you going to do some of the same songs? What can fans look forward to?

Wakeman: Well, there will be some of the same because there’s certain pieces that I’ll always do. Some Yes and stuff. I’ll always do certain pieces because if you don’t, I always use the analogy, certainly not trying to make a comparison, but the analogy of if (Frank) Sinatra were alive and you went to see him in concert. If he didn’t sing “My Way” you’d come away feeling pretty disappointed, and everybody has pieces of music that people like to hear. I do listen to what you know, people come to concerts, what they say. Why don’t you play this? Have you thought about playing that? Have you done this? Why didn’t you play that?  So, there will always be sort of half dozen pieces or so of music that will always be in the set somewhere or there in around. I’d say about sixty percent of the show being perhaps what people are hoping they’re gonna hear. Thirty percent maybe being surprised that they’re gonna hear, and ten percent which they never thought they would ever hear. So, you try for a real sort of mixture.

Ohio Music Experience: Are there going to be any stories from your lockdown?

Wakeman: Oh yeah. There’s never any shortage of stories of things that happen, but I do change a lot depending on sort of where I am because, I wouldn’t say every city or town, but most cities and towns I’ve got a story of which the story you could probably say that at least half of those stories, I could actually tell live onstage. Some you can’t, but there’s always something when you arrive somewhere that reminds you, and even though I have sort of a rough plan of what I’m going to say and the stories I’m gonna tell, they invariably change because something happens. Somebody might come along and say, “oh do you remember the last time you were here?” Go on. And they go, “this happened and this happened.” Oh (he whispered) I remember that. And then you got them telling a story onstage. So, things change an awful lot which is great ‘cause it keeps everything fresh. I mean, it’s not scripted and stuff. Obviously, some stories you know, they are what they are.

Ohio Music Experience: Well, that’s something for fans to definitely look forward to. I read where you’re going to have meet and greets prior to the show?  How is that coming about with the new changes?

Wakeman: I honestly don’t know. I mean, the meet and greets are great fun because I talk to people for about, oh crikey, anything from half an hour to an hour. Then do a Q & A. Then we do the photo bits. It’s been quite long and they’re good fun.  How it’s gonna be done this time around, I really don’t know, but we’ll find a way. I would say for obvious reasons we’re, careful for everybody concerned about people’s safety and people’s health. You know, I’ve been jabbed twice because of my age. I get two jabs and I’ve got to have before I leave for America, I’ve got to have another test, and then I have a test when I arrive and then a test in the different states. I’ll have more sort of cotton buds shoved up my nose and down my throat by the time I come home then I’ve ever had before in my life. The safety thing is important. How we will do the Q & A’s and things I don’t know, but we will find a way of doing it ‘cause I’m not, not going to do them because they’re such good fun and its lovely to see people, and also, some of the questions that are asked are absolutely hilarious. I mean, you can tell the stories because it’s in private. It’s quite funny (he laughed).

Ohio Music Experience: The last time we spoke, your advice to up and coming musicians was to know music and their instruments.  What would you recommend to new songwriters nowadays with how the world has changed?

Wakeman: Well, it’s really different. The thing that is desperately important I think these days. People say, oh it’s great! You can put your music online. Yeah, but so have millions and millions of others. How on earth do you stand out? And the only way you can truly stand out is to be heard live, and then word of mouth. Nothing beats that really. So, if you’re a songwriter and a singer/songwriter or you’ve got a band or whatever, I’ll always say, now go out and play live. Build up a following who will tell other people, hey you got to see that guy, got to see that girl. She’s really good or he’s really good, and that’s how it works. It’s almost going back to the old-fashioned way of doing it, and I think that is the only way. I mean, there’s so much stuff now online. It’s just so confusing. I can’t be wading through this. I think it’s back to playing live and getting people going, hey, I really like that. I like that singer or I like that singer/songwriter or I like that girl. I like that guy. I like that band, and then they go and tell other people. Play live. To me, that’s the only answer.

Ohio Music Experience: That’s great advice. You also were just presented with a CBE (the highest ranking) from the Queen (Queen Elizabeth II), Commander of the Order of The British Empire at her annual Birthday Honours. Previously you were given a Fellowship of the RCM (Royal College of Music) from Prince Charles. How did the CBE come about?

Wakeman: The Queen’s Honours, there’s an OBE, MBE and a CBE. The MBE is normally given to people who worked in hospitals and help people. THE OBEs tend to be for charitable purposes. The CBE is for basically what you do. If you’re in music, it’s for your music. They give you that. I had no idea it was coming. It was a total surprise and in fact, when I got the phone call and they said they’re calling from the Cabinet Office of number ten Downing Street. I thought it was one of my band having a joke. So, I sort of politely suggested that they went away in short jerky movements and then they said, “no we really, this is the Cabinet Office of number ten,” and after the call had finished, I thought, no this is a joke. So, I did the ring back number and it said that you couldn’t call back this number. So, I did a bit of checking out and sure enough it was the Cabinet Office of number ten Downing Street, and they just said that you’ve been recommended for your fifty or sixty years of work for music. Recommended to the Queen for Commander of the British Empire, and I nearly fell off my chair, but I got a lovely phone call from Brian May who he received a CBE a few years back, and he said, “great! There’s two of us” (he laughed)! That was really a nice surprise because Brian’s such a dear friend.

Ohio Music Experience: That’s nice. You have a lot of notorious, well established music friends. Do you think that helps keeps you all going strong? Having that network?

Wakeman: Yeah. I mean, I’ve got a small network of musician friends that I speak to quite readily. Brian May being one of them. I mean, certainly a lot of my music friends as we sort of mentioned earlier, are no longer with us like Keith Evans and Jon Lord was very, very close. So was Keith. And you know, it started going back even further to the likes of John Entwistle and Keith Moon, a few others. I’ve got so many friends that I’ve lost. That network of friends is getting fewer and fewer and fewer which is pretty sad really, but inevitable. Most important thing is, I remember talking to Jon Lord when Jon knew that he had terminal cancer and he said it was important that the music that he left behind, was exactly as he meant to leave it, which I thought was a very interesting thing. He said he’d been going through a lot of his music and basically wasn’t quite happy with it and was making sure he put them right on a recording or on music so that people would know that’s what it was meant to be, and he said to me, “I’m sure you’ve got things like that.” I said, I have. I said, there’s a whole chunk of the original Journey of the Centre of the Earth missing because it wouldn’t fit on the album. He said, “do it!” So, it was important.  I actually physically started on redoing it again using all the original writing of the bits, literally two days after Jon’s funeral because I thought, I’ve got to do that. So, it is important and the great thing is with all my friends, is the music that they do, or the music that they’re leaving because it will last forever and that is the most important thing.

Ohio Music Experience: Yes definitely. Your father was a wonderful influence on you with your musical career. You said he encouraged you to listen to a variety of music and play different instruments, and now you’re talking about Jon Lord leaving the music the way he wanted it to be heard.

Wakeman: Yeah.

Ohio Music Experience: What would you say or hope that you’re influencing young musicians about today?

Wakeman: Well, it goes back to what we spoke to the last time we spoke, which is being honest with yourself with what you do musically. If you believe in what you’re doing, at the end of the day, it’s not your choice to whether its successful. All you can do is put it out there and then It’s up to people really to decide, but I do get really quite moved. I get a lot of emails from people who are saying, very kindly saying, you know, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be playing music. You influenced me to play music or do this, that and the other. And you know, I sit back in the chair and I do feel really pleased that there’s been a purpose with some of the things that I’ve done, and if it’s given people the courage to make their own music, to make music their career or make music their hobby, then I think that makes me feel very happy. Very pleased.

Ohio Music Experience: You said when you write, you’re influenced by your surroundings or places you’ve been.

Wakeman: Yeah.

Ohio Music Experience: What would you say makes a great song?

Wakeman: (He chuckled). That’s a great question. What makes a great song? I wish I knew. I’d be a multi-millionaire. What makes a great song? I think something that a wide variety of people can associate to. It happens occasionally, and when it does it’s wonderful, and something that has longevity. I mean, it’s wonderful, I listen to the radio or whatever and you hear songs and you say, hey wait a minute. That was recorded in the sixties or the seventies or thirties or 1990’s or whatever, and you go, and that still sounds as fresh as when it came out. It’s um, gosh, I don’t know. If there is a secret to the writing it, then probably (John) Lennon and (Paul) McCartney have come the closest to, and the great Elton John, the closest to getting songwriting to that of a fine art.

Ohio Music Experience: Well, I think you would be in that category as well.

Wakeman: Oh, you’re very kind.

Ohio Music Experience: You’ve written with David Bowie and Cat Stevens and all kinds of legends (including Elton John, Al Stewart, and Lou Reed).

Wakeman: Yeah. Some great guys. I mean, David was wonderful to work with. Cat Stevens, very interesting enough, we did a charity concert at The 02 in London just before, in fact it was the last concert at The 02 before the lockdown happened for COVID, and it was great! I got a call from Cat Stevens who said, “I’m gonna play “Morning Has Broken”. Do you want to do the piano?” And I said, I’d love to. He said, “well we haven’t played it since 1971” and I said, that’s a very good point. And he said, “my version has changed a bit over the years.” So, I said, OK. I’ll have a little listen to what you’re doing. Let’s see what we can pull together. So, we had literally a ten-minute rehearsal. That’s all. In my dressing room there, and his version was considerably different to as we did it originally which was quite fun, but it was just a wonderful thing to do, and we’ve kept in touch. Good man. I’ve been lucky enough to play with some wonderful people.

Ohio Music Experience: Is there any more of your new music coming out? The last time we spoke you had the Christmas Portraits album coming out (released in 2019).

Wakeman: Oh yeah. There’s been a few since then. I had a prog album out called The Red Planet (released 2020) which did really well, pleased to say The Red Planet, and I’m working on a new album now. she’ll come out next year which is basically, you can almost call it a listen of participation album. It’s a series of eclectic music. Everything from songs, some almost semi acoustic, some prog rock, some instrumental. All different kinds of music, and the album’s called A Gallery Of The Imagination and basically its where the listener can paint their own pictures in their minds or in fact, indeed make their own music if they want to, of how they see the music. My first music teacher Mrs. Symes, in fact my only music teacher really, was a wonderful lady and one of the first things she said to me is, she said, “when you’re playing a piece, close your eyes and paint pictures. Paint pictures to the music,” and I’m still doing that to this day. In concert, I probably spend eighty to ninety percent of the time with my eyes closed. People often ask, why are you playing with your eyes closed? I say because I’m painting pictures. So, this is an opportunity to put that onto an album and its A Gallery Of The Imagination.

Ohio Music Experience: When is that due out?

Wakeman: It’ll be out early next year. We thought of doing some fun things like asking people to actually physically paint the pictures that they could envision from the music, and then we thought we’d have some exhibitions around the country and indeed in different countries.

Ohio Music Experience: Oh, that’s a great idea! Was there anything in particular you were looking forward to when you are touring, like when you’re in Ohio?

Wakeman: In Ohio, I’ll see my daughter. My daughter lives in Ohio with her husband and two of my grandkids. So, I look forward to seeing them. They’re in Cleveland, so she’s not far from Kent, so I get to see them. But you know, the lovely thing is, or one of the nice things about when you’re getting old. I mean, I’ve been coming to America now for fifty years and I’ve made so many friends, and so there’s, I doubt whether there’s one place I’m going to play where some friends from the past don’t show up or have a coffee and a chat, which is lovely. Which is really, really nice. So, that’s something always I enjoy when we come on tour which is meeting old friends.

Ohio Music Experience: That’s nice. Was there anything else fans can look forward to? Any new videos? You’ve written books in the past. Any new books?

Wakeman: Well, I’ve got this thing which is fun. I’ve got a YouTube channel and we do a series called Rick’s Place which is just bizarre. The first series went down really, really well, so we’ve done series two. Its half serious, half stupid. I suppose it’s a mixture of the shall we say, the CBS Evening News meets Monty Python. Plus, lots of musical content. Lots of things that people wouldn’t expect. Lots of silliness. As I say, we’ve just done this second series which is due to go out quite soon. I would think in about two months. Two or three months. So that’s good fun. The YouTube channel is, it’s been really successful. So, we’re pleased with that and we’re getting interest from terrestrial T.V to actually take it one stage further, which would be really nice.

Ohio Music Experience: Do you think that’s a great venue for artists nowadays? The YouTube channel.

Wakeman: Yes and no. It is and again it can tend to get overcrowded, so you’ve got to point people in the right direction. I do think you’re right. It’s an interesting… Are you still there?

Ohio Music Experience: I’m here.

Wakeman: Oh ok. One of my cats just jumped all over the keyboard. Thanks GT.

Ohio Music Experience: They wanted to be interviewed too!

Wakeman: Yeah. It’s a madhouse. We’ve got a house full of rescue animals.

Ohio Music Experience: That’s wonderful! So, you’re an animal lover?

Wakeman: Yeah, that’s another reason for our madhouse. So, we’ve got three rescue dogs and three rescue cats. Two rescue dogs from Bosnia. From Sarajevo who were street dogs from the war zone. We’ve got a little Lab, three years old. Taken us seven months to get her. She’s coming from China where she was bought for the meat trade. Where she was due to be butchered in a restaurant. So, we got her, and we’ve got three rescue cats, and shortly next to come along will be three rescue chickens. So, it’s a veritable rescue zoo here.

Ohio Music Experience: I’m an animal lover, so that’s awesome to me.

Wakeman: Oh great!

Ohio Music Experience: Was there anything else you want fans to know about the show?

Wakeman: The only thing I can say is that the only way that they’ll know what they’ve missed is if they don’t go.

Ohio Music Experience:  They don’t want to miss anything.

Wakeman: No, they’re good fun. I like people to go away with a smile on their face.

 

 

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