The name instantly evokes the image of a long-haired wizard in a sequined cape, flanked by a formidable array of mellotrons and minimoogs, pianos and Prophets. The history of Rick Wakeman begins with The Strawbs, but the majesty of Wakeman begins with Yes. After taking on the role of keyboardist in the band, Wakeman and his broader palette of sounds helped Yes reach new musical heights on the albums Fragile (1971) and Close To The Edge (1972), two of the greatest progressive rock albums ever made. While his musical contributions meshed wonderfully with the group, his personality apparently did not, and Wakeman left the band after the convoluted Tales From Topographic Oceans (1974).
At around the same time that Wakeman joined Yes, he also signed a five-album contract with A&M Records. His first album for the label, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1972), was a brilliant collection of keyboard-led instrumentals based on the popular historical book of the same name. (Excerpts of the album were included in Yes’ live performances and can be heard on the live three-album set, Yessongs.) Wakeman returned to literature for his most commercially successful album to date, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974). Based on the Jules Verne classic, Journey featured a full orchestra, narration and an early incarnation of what would become Wakeman’s backing band through the decade, The English Rock Ensemble. The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table (1975), produced in the same vein as Journey, was nearly as successful.
Journey and Myths were by all accounts physically and financially exhausting, so Wakeman ditched the orchestra and recorded a “normal” progressive rock album, No Earthly Connection (1976) before re-joining Yes for two albums: Going For The One (handily the best thing they’d done since Close To The Edge) and Tormato (handily the worst). He also managed to record another new album in between, Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record (1977). After Tormato, of course, the history of Yes gets complicated, so better to shift attention to the assload of albums that Wakeman has authored since then.
Wakeman’s discography (as you’ll see below) can be a bit daunting to the neophyte. There are the proper new releases (often featuring the English Rock Ensemble in one form or another), the live albums (many of them recorded during Wakeman’s heyday in the 70s), soothing instrumental albums, soundtracks and so on. Some are of dubious merit, others are surprisingly good. Over time, Rick’s sons Adam and Oliver have gotten into the act as well, and it’s fair to say that musical talent runs in the family. (I had the pleasure of seeing Rick and Adam perform together in the 90s. Just working myself into the conversation there for no good reason.)
Rick Wakeman remains one of the most recognizable musical icons of the Seventies. When he finally leaves this world for the kingdom of Jesus Christ, he’ll leave behind a remarkable body of work, but it’s good to remember that music is ultimately a gift from God. (Just working God into the conversation for a very good reason.)