By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – December 28, 2016) — Growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s the progressive rock band, Yes, was everywhere: from rock radio stations playing the classic song, Roundabout (released in 1971 on the album Fragile), to the highly praised album 90125, released in 1983. You couldn’t turn on the radio without some reference to the band. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t a huge Yes fan. Yeah, my brother owned Fragile* and I owned 90125, but beyond that my interest lay in the post-punk scene I was immersed.
But it was a different story for Yes’ keyboard player, Rick Wakeman. I was an admirer of the man and his amazing music.
How I became a fan of Rick’s music is really by a fluke. I wanted to play synthesizer in the early 1980’s, following the bands I was interested in (New Order and the like). But what I found is that many of the players in the bands I liked weren’t competent on the keyboards, programming most of the music on a sequencer in the studio. And I wanted to actually play the instrument, not just program it.
So I began to look around.
It was here that I discovered two rock keyboardists that remain my favorite to this day: Rick Wakeman (b. 1949) and Ray Manzarek (1939-2013) of The Doors. I remember sitting at my grandmother’s Hammond organ trying to replicate their riffs and tones, to little effect. And when I did get my first synthesizer — a Roland Juno 106 — I often tried to dial in Wakemen-like pitches and effects.
It was 1971’s Fragile that Wakeman made his debut with the Yes, bringing to the band a unique keyboard-laden sound and virtuoso skillset. But Wakeman wasn’t just some new talent. By the time he connected with Yes he was already a seasoned studio musician, playing with David Bowie, Cat Stevens, and T Rex . And in my post-punk world, David Bowie was highly respected. From the Bowie connection alone, Rick was ok to regard.
After delving more into Yes, I found that, indeed, I did appreciate Wakeman’s extraordinary keyboard work. But on a personal level, I gravitated towards Rick’s solo music — The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I found the virtuosity mixed with classical sensibility appealing (around the same time I was getting into classical/art music). What I discovered is that Rick is truly a fine melodist and the records showcased his exceptional playing along with his splendid physical appearance (hence the nickname, Caped Crusader).
But my appreciation of Wakeman was only from a distance. As with most rock musicians you appreciate, one never expected to meet him or her. But like finding Rick’s music a fluke, a meeting with Mr. Wakeman was in my future.
The story began in 1992, the year I formed the band Canterbury. I moved to Modesto, California from San Jose, California in the fall of 1990 — leaving a record contract with a post-punk band I was in and enrolling at California State University, Stanislaus. Along the way, I met my wife, Melanie, and started the band. Canterbury played the Modesto scene for a couple of years with members from the university. It just so happened that Canterbury found a fan in the local record storeowner Nic Caciappo. Nic owned Beat Music, the only great record store in Modesto at the time. I think it was my future brother-in-law, Jeremiah Boek, who dropped off the cassette tape of Canterbury at Beat Music and Nic liked what he heard. So much so that he was willing to shop the music.
And here’s the catch: Nic was a huge Yes fan, being involved on many levels with the band. The first person Nic played the tape for was Rick Wakeman. And according to Nic, Rick was intrigued by the sound. Canterbury incorporated folk music sensibilities in an upbeat, pop format. Nic sent the music — along with a bio and photograph — off to Rick. Rick responded, saying that he’d like to talk some more.
In the meantime, Nic ended up giving me a copy of Rick’s autobiography, Say Yes. I read the book with much interest. Nic also told me the definitive biography of Rick was by a British writer named Dan Wooding. The book was called the Rick Wakeman: The Caped Crusader (foreword by Elton John). At the time the hardcover book was out of print and too expensive to find, so I settled with Say Yes. Through the experience, my admiration of Rick grew. Incidentally, Dan Wooding and I would become great friends later on , and Dan has since re-released his book, under the title, Caped Crusader – Rick Wakeman in the 1970s (available from www.amazon.com).
But as with most things, change was in store. In the midst of all this, Canterbury broke up. And shortly after, I formed a new band, Widow’s Mite (two member of Canterbury joined me: Jeremiah Boek, and later, Elijah Arrigotti). Unlike Canterbury, Widow’s Mite wasn’t a folk band, but a rock band with a Christian worldview. But the change in bands didn’t seem to influence Rick’s decision for a simple reason: the label Rick was signing bands to was a Christian label, Hope Records .
A date was set to meet Rick. Members of Widow’s Mite (Jeremiah Boek, J.J Hernandez, David Kee, and Jarrett Petero) met Rick Wakeman in Newport Beach, at some posh hotel by the sea. Rick happened to be in California for a tour. The short end of the story is that Rick signed us. Later, Jarrett Petero flew out to England to finalize the publishing contract. Sadly, Hope Records folded, and we only put out one album under his watch — A Garden Rises Up. But meeting Rick was the highlight of the whole experience. His interested demeanor and encouraging words were greatly appreciated for young guys trying to create great music.
Because I met Rick, I began to collect his solo albums. And to this day, one album — though not as popular as the others — stands as my favorite: Heritage Suite. Not only does it showcase Rick’s fantastic piano work, but as I said above, his marvelous melodies.
Much more could be said about Mr. Wakeman, and with the newly announced Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognition for Yes, I’m sure there will be much more written about him. I do hope so.
But from a then young teenager learning to play keyboards to a budding rock musician trying to find a record deal: I say thank you to Rick Wakeman. Thank you for inspiring people with your playing, your music, and your person. You deserve the accolades coming your way. May your life continue to shine!
Note: You can see Rick Wakeman explaining the touring kit he recently used for his recent (ARW – Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman) tour of America, just go to: http://www.rwcc.com/equipment.asp.
* When Fragile was released, all the Yes band members were given a place on the album cover to thank their friends, and for some reason, Dan Wooding received two mentions, while David Bowie only received one. To this day, Dan says he doesn’t know why.
1. For more on this information on this period in Rick’s life, I encourage you to read Rick’s friend and biographer, Dan Wooding’s, article here: https://www.assistnews.net/index.php/component/k2/item/2480-morning-has-broken-for-the-caped-crusader
Photo captions: 1) Widow’s Mite (L to R: Brian Nixon, Jeremiah Boek, J.J Hernandez, Jarrett Petero, David Kee). 2) A Garden Rises Up CD Cover. 3) Rick Wakeman with his famous flying fingers. 4) Norma and Dan Wooding with Rick Wakeman, with Dan holding a copy of the book he wrote about Rick. (Photo: Lowell Reed). 5) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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