It all began in a music store half-a-century ago in West London, and continues today
By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service
EALING, WEST LONDON, UK (ANS – September 24, 2017) – As rock icons, YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman, are delighting audiences across the United States with their amazing performances of YES music which, to their many fans, affirms their incredible music legacy and talent.
Now, I have been asked by some of them how I first met “Uncle Rick” — as I call him — and how and why our friendship has continued for so long.
So here goes:
Join me all those years ago when I had recently got a reporting job in Ealing, West London, with a weekly newspaper called The Middlesex County Times, and it editor, Bert Munday, had asked me to take on the role as South Ealing reporter, which entailed calling on people and businesses in the area to try and dig out stories.
“We haven’t had a story from South Ealing for six months,” said Munday, an interesting man who was once Winston Churchill’s shorthand writer during World War Two. “So, Dan, anything you can dig up will be better than what we’ve had recently.” (I later discovered that the reason for the dearth of stories was that the previous South Ealing reporter used to spend much of his time fishing, and so, naturally, nothing was being reported on).
So I set off from the office going from shop to shop, but no one seemed interested in giving me a story. That was, until I reached the Musical Bargain Centre, my last call of a fruitless morning. It didn’t look promising as I entered the dusty little store run by a man called Dave Simms, and met up with the manager.
“Hi, I’m Uncle Ernie,” said an older man with a Newcastle accent standing behind the counter as I walked in and introduced myself. “Would you like some coffee?” I sat down at the counter in this friendly shop, packed full of mainly second-hand musical instruments, when I suddenly heard some rather incredible sounds coming from another room, where sitting at an electronic organ was a tall, blonde-haired youth, whose long fingers raced across the keyboard. He was making sounds that I had never heard before.
“Who’s he?” I asked Uncle Ernie.
“Oh,” he said as he poured the coffee, “he’s a teenage student from the Royal College of Music in London. His name is Ricky Wakeman. Would you like to meet him?”
I nodded and soon Wakeman, who had long blonde hair, came over and joined us. I told him that I had recently joined the staff of the local paper and was on the lookout for stories.
“I’ll give you a good one,” he said brightly. “I earn some extra money playing as a session musician and I’ve just arranged and played piano on a track for Cat Stevens called Morning Has Broken. It’s quite beautiful. I also played Mellotron on David Bowie’s Space Oddity, which I think is destined to be a number one. I also have been helping David arrange many of his recent tracks including a wonderful song called Life on Mars”.
Wakeman was right about the Bowie space record which in 1975, on its second release, was number-one on the British charts. And Morning has Broken also became a hit classic around the world.
I groped weakly for my notebook and jotted down what this six-foot-three-inch teenager told me. At the time, I didn’t realize that this the first-ever press story on Wakeman, who later went on to play with The Strawbs, YES (including its present incarnation), and carve out an extraordinary career with scores of albums like The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. (In fact, his solo albums have sold over 50 million copies, and keep on selling today).
After that first story was published, Rick (he quickly changed it from Ricky), invited me his home in nearby Northolt, and sat at the upright piano there and he began playing Morning Has Broken and Space Oddity, and I marveled that his talent even at that age.
My friendship with Rick grew over the months and years ahead, and I eventually wrote his authorized biography, Rick Wakeman – The Caped Crusader, which carried a foreword by Elton John, and has since been updated and re-released under the title, Caped Crusader: Rick Wakeman in the 1970s, which is available at https://www.amazon.com/Caped-Crusader-Rick-Wakeman-1970s/dp/1908728302.
I believe the main reason that our friendship had blossomed was that both of us were committed Christians and we had many opportunities to discuss his Christian faith and he told me that he had been a Sunday school teacher at the South Harrow Baptist Church, was a leader in the Boy’s Brigade, and had also been baptized.
So I asked him why he had taken that step, and he replied, “It was before I started full time in the music business. It was like an insurance policy, a protection against the nastiness and trouble I feared could happen once I plunged into the business.”
Eventually, I had moved from the local paper into the British tabloids with a paper called The Sunday People, and I watched in awe as Wakeman moved from being a session musician to a flamboyant millionaire rock star who owned twenty-one cars, including eight Rolls Royce’s. I also saw him burn himself out, the result of three heart attacks at the age of twenty-five. I believe that was probably caused by his period of heavy drinking, which almost took his life. But then, Rick would somehow recover, pick himself up and start again.
While I was on the Sunday People, Rick was also regularly giving me tip-offs about the latest drama in his life and I would write them up for the paper, often much to the great concern of the YES management, who were particularly worried that his early heart-attack would end his career with the band.
While he was still in the period of heavy drinking, Alan Yentob of the BBC was putting together a documentary called “Success Story” on the life of Rick, but due to health problems, I was asked to step in help host the program, with a BBC crew following me around as I researched his biography. But this put me in some rather strange situations, which I later discovered was the rather quirky style of Yentob’s films. It began with me standing outside the Musical Bargain Centre and the camera was set up across the busy road and, as I began speaking, huge vehicles zoomed by and blocked my view for part of the shot.
Then, inside the store, I interviewed “Uncle Ernie,” the genial manager, who explained that Rick had borrowed his “wife’s organ” to do a gig and was actually playing it the first time I had met Rick at the store. Fortunately, the interview with Dave Simms went a little better with no double-entendres this time.
Then it became even more embarrassing for me when the BBC cameraman asked me to stand on the steps of London’s prestigious Royal College of Music, where Rick had been a student, and then set up his camera about 200 yards away. When the scene was broadcast, you can see me in the distance and two men arriving and climbing the steps and giving me a bemused look as if I had lost my senses as I appeared to be talking to myself. They obviously didn’t realize that I was being filmed, and I think that bit of humor was meant to be, as there were several takes, but they only used the one with the two men in it indicating that I had lost my marbles.
I then went inside the college and interrupted a lesson being given by Professor Basil Tchaikov, who had been Rick’s clarinet teacher, who didn’t seem to be too happy with my appearance and expressed his surprise at the rather “exotic image” his former student now had on his record covers.
The following morning, after the broadcast, I was in for a lot of ribbing from my colleagues in the Sunday People news room.
Move to the USA
In August 1982 we, as a family, were preparing to move to Southern California and, on that last night in the UK, who should turn up to say “goodbye” to us was Rick Wakeman. It appeared that we probably wouldn’t see each other again, but fortunately it didn’t turn out that way,
For when Rick heard that Norma and I, some five years into our new life in America, had begun a non-profit to help persecuted Christians called Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times (ASSIST), I received a message from him saying, “Dan, I’ll do anything I can to help you with your new venture.”
This turned out to initially be a short tour of America when, at the suggestion of our friend, Nic Caciappo, an expert on all things Wakeman and YES, suggested that Rick should, on the grand piano, perform many of the hits he had played on and, in his hilarious raconteur style, tell the stories about how they came to be made. It was all to benefit our recently-formed ministry.
On the final night at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, California, which seats around 2,000, some 7,500 people turned up and had to be seated in just about every spare room at the church and those not in the sanctuary, watched the show on closed-circuit TV. My friend, Tim Hathaway, filmed the evening and it was released as a VHS video, and also as an album called Simply Acoustic, all to benefit ASSIST.
A few years later, we did another tour together, and this time it was more ambitious, with a live performance of The New Gospels, an inspiring piece of music on the life of Christ he had composed and he brought with him musicians and team from the UK, which included British actor Garfield Morgan and the narrator, and his highly-talented son, Adam Wakeman. It was performed at a series of Calvary Chapels, and other venues in Southern California, and despite problems along the way, especially when tenor Ramon Remedios, lost his voice on the last night, Rick once again did a wonderful job in helping his old friend and ASSIST.
We are still in regular touch and the last time I was with Rick was last December in Los Angeles when ARW (Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman) were performing, and he gave me a TV interview which, at times, was quite hilarious and threatened to get out of control. (You can see it by going to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=JJDIn1IE3C8. In it, we cover a lot of what you have just read, and you will begin see why our long friendship has continued for so long).
Rick Wakeman is still very much in business, as he pushes back the frontiers of electronic rock and is now considered by many, especially me, to be the world’s greatest rock keyboardist with his work with YES and also with his solo career. But to me, Rick is still the young musician I first met all those years ago. Like all of us, he has aged a little, but at heart he is the kind of friend that you can only dream of having.
Long may the “Caped Crusader” continue!
Photo captions: 1) Rabin, Anderson and Wakeman. 2) Rick Wakeman with his famous flying fingers. 3) Elton John, Dan Wooding and Rick Wakeman pictured for back cover of Dan’s book. 4) Book cover. 5) YES in concert. 5) The two friends together with Rick wearing an ASSIST “To Russia with Love” t-shirt. 7) Norma and Dan Wooding with Rick during a visit to Southern California that he made. 8) Rick joking around with Dan at their last meeting.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist, who was born in Nigeria, West Africa, of British missionary parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding, who then worked with the Sudan Interior Mission, now known as SIM. Dan now lives in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for some 54 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder/president of the ASSIST News Service (ANS), and is also the author of numerous books. He has a radio show and two television programs, all based in Southern California. Dan has received numerous awards for his journalistic work on behalf of Persecuted Christians, the most recent was in Beverly Hills, California, where at an internatioanl film festival, he was presented with a top humanitarian award by his son, Peter Wooding, before some 500 Hollywood luminaries.
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