The acclaimed Yes drummer who jammed with Beatles was 72
Drummer Alan White, who passed away on May 26th after a brief illness, could credited as being a model of consistency in some decidedly inconsistent situations.
He was most known as the longest surviving member of Yes, replacing original drummer Bill Bruford in 1972. In the process, he and the late Chris Squire, the other longest serving member of the original group, continued to anchor the band consistently, even in the midst of a steady sequence of personal changes that continued to transpire across the arc of that 50 years tenure.
That said, rock archivists also known him as the drummer of the Plastic Ono Band, whose last minute recruitment to perform at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival in September 1969, marked John Lennon’s first post-Beatles live engagement of his still nascent solo career. Later, White would be part of an all-star ensemble took the stage at the Lyceum in London at Lennon’s behest. So, too, it’s his emphatic percussion work that was heard in Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band’s subsequent single, “Instant Karma,” which, in turn, led to other Beatles-related gigs, including Lennon’s Imagine album and George Harrison’s epic All Things Must Pass. Other jobs of note included Denny Laine’s Balls and Ginger Baker’s sprawling big band, Airforce.
VIDEO: John Lennon “Instant Karma (We All Shine On)”
Nevertheless, White’s career began modestly enough, first at age 13 with a band called the Downbeats, and later with Billy Fury’s backing group the Gamblers, and eventually a prog outfit known as Griffin. It was Lennon’s encounter with the latter that led him to call White and recruit him for the Toronto gig.
“When I got the call from John, I thought it was a prank phone call from a friend of mine,” White recalled when speaking with this writer for an article in another publication five years ago. “So I put the phone down and he called me back and said, ‘No really. This is John Lennon!’ At which point I just dropped everything around me. He said, ‘I saw you playing in a club the other night. Would you want to do a show with me? We’ll send a car for you tomorrow.’ And I said, sure! (chuckles) The next thing I know we’re rehearsing on the airplane and then I’m onstage with John Lennon. It was quite an interesting 48 hours.”
Clearly, White had passed the audition. In fact, his job offer from Yes occurred in much the same manner.
“I was on the road with Joe Cocker and finishing up a European tour,” he explained during that same interview. “I was in Rome when I got a call from my manager saying Yes wanted me to join the band. I went, ‘Wow!’ He said to hop on a plane because they’ve set up a meeting with Chris Squire and Jon Anderson. So I flew back to London and I met with Chris and Jon. Bill Bruford had left to join King Crimson and they told me they had seen me play with Joe Cocker and admired my capabilities and that sort of thing. So they offered me a place in the band. I suggested we try it out to see if it all works. And then as they were walking out the door, they said, ‘Oh, by the way, we have a gig in three day’s time in Dallas, Texas, so please go ahead and learn the music.’ I thought, you’ve got to be joking. But I rose to the occasion. I don’t think I even had a full day’s rehearsal. I got my head into the music over the weekend and then Monday morning I jumped on a plane; and the next thing I knew, I was onstage.”
White himself saw the similarities in those two scenarios, and he noted the irony as well. “Maybe if I ever do a book, I’ll call it Jumping in the Deep End,” he joked.
Naturally, White was quite proud of his tenure with Yes. And when they were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, he took great pleasure in finally receiving the honor, despite the fact it was the group’s third nomination.
VIDEO: Yes perform “Owner of a Lonely Heart” at the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony
“The band’s very seasoned and we’ve all been doing it for a long time,” he noted. “Everybody is very proficient on their instrument. You have to be to be in Yes. So all the musicians — me and Steve and the others in the current line-up — put on a great show with great music. As far as longevity, I realized last July I had been in the band for 45 years. Who would have thought that? When I joined the band in ’72, I thought, it ought to be good for the next two years, the next five years at most. It’s been a long road, but it’s been very enjoyable to be with the band all those years. We not only tour America these days, but also South America, Australia… pretty much worldwide.”
Asked to offer his opinion about Yes’ ongoing popularity, he had a ready response.
“I think there’s one good answer for that, and it’s the music,” he said. “I think quite a lot of Yes music is timeless. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Do you think the band will ever get to the point where there’s no (classic) members?’ And I said, ‘Perhaps, because it’s the music that makes it all worthwhile.’”
Still, the lack of consistency was apparent even when White got the gig with Yes. Asked about the transition from Bruford or any time spent with his predecessor, White responded by saying there wasn’t any. “He just took off,” he maintained. “They had just finished Close to the Edge, so I had to go on the road and promote it. But since I hadn’t played on it, it was kind of interesting in that respect.”
In retrospect, White had plenty of great memories to look back on. Some were actually quite humorous. “Oh yes, there are plenty of those,” he insisted. “I remember us getting lost backstage once and trying to find our way to the stage, because the tour manager was missing. We call those our Spinal Tap moments. It was kind of funny, but it really wasn’t funny because the introductory music was playing and we were wandering about under the pipes that were under the stage somewhere.”
Inconsistency has its mishaps, but when it came to Alan White’s prolific career, it obvioulsy didn’t matter.