Painting a picture with music
I t was the unprecedented reaction to his performance of David Bowie’s Life on Mars on BBC Radio Two that prompted Rick Wakeman’s album, Piano Portraits. Now, fans in East Anglia have the chance to hear tracks from the album played live, as Rick performs at The Apex on May 25, as part of the Bury Festival.
Rick, who is known as a member of progressive rock band Yes and as a successful solo artist, recalls how he has been doing piano shows for more years than he cares to remember. Mostly, he says, they have been one-offs where he has played pieces of his or that he has been involved with, and told “lots of ludicrous anecdotal stories” in between.
“I’ve really enjoyed them. I’ve played The Apex a few times which has been great,” he says. “I wasn’t going to do any dates this year because I’m very busy with the Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman shows (entitled An Evening of Yes Music and More). We’re all over the world and it’s ludicrously busy there. So, I thought: ‘Well, I’ll give that a rest this year because I’ve got so many other things to do.”
He adds: “Then, I have to go back to January last year when my dear friend David Bowie passed away. I did quite a few interviews at that time, having worked with him for such an important period of his life.”
One of those interviews was on Simon Mayo’s Radio Two show. After speaking about David, Rick played Life On Mars, a song which he recorded the original piano parts for. The resulting webcam had more than two million hits. Interest was so high that Rick went on to record the piece, with David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and another track entitled Always Together, at The Old Granary Studio in south Norfolk. Royalties from the single were given to Macmillan Cancer Support.
That led to demand for a dedicated piano album. Recorded at The Old Granary, Piano Portraits features a varied selection of music, including classic songs that Rick originally performed on. Its 15 tracks range from Life on Mars, and Space Oddity to which Rick contributed mellotron; through The Beatles, Yes and Led Zeppelin, to classical pieces composed by Debussy and Tchaikovsky.
Rick says: “I was really happy with how everything came out. Every piece ended up as a performance. Sometimes we got two done in a day that were performances we could listen to; some days we got nothing. It was like that, which was fine, until I got everything that I wanted.”
Rick recalls how record label Universal really liked it and explains how the title for the album was chosen.
He says: “They went back over an old interview I had done years ago when I’d said at my very first piano lesson my music teacher Mrs Symes, I was only five, said: ‘I’m going to teach you to be a painter’. I remember thinking, aged five, ‘I don’t want to be a painter - I want to play the piano.’ She said: ‘What you’re going to do, every time you learn a piece, you’re going to close your eyes and paint pictures to it’.
“That’s still what I do to this day. Anybody who comes to The Apex will see I spend most of my time with my eyes closed because I’m painting pictures. I go into my own little world and away I go.”
So the suggestion was made to call the album Piano Portraits. Rick recalls: “I said: ‘That’s a lovely title’, but I can’t claim that I came up with it because I didn’t.”
From Yes to Grumpy Old Man, Rick Wakeman has a huge range of fans.
Rick Wakeman has a wealth of anecdotes to share from his long career in the music business. Picture: Lee Wilkinson.