Fifty Year Friday: January 2023
Rick Wakeman: The Six Wives of Henry VIII
In 1970, BBC aired a suite of six teleplay episodes, each written by author, each focusing on a different wife of King Henry VIII. The series hit the U.S. airwaves in 1971 on PBS’s Masterpiece theater. Less than two years later, Rick Wakeman’s first widely distributed solo album was released on January 23, 1973. The album was based on a biography of King Henry VIII that Wakeman read while on his first U.S. tour with Yes and showed up in record stores. My next door neighbor who had introduced me to Yes’s 1972 album, Fragile, brought the album over to share with me and I recorded it on reel to reel for future use as we listened to it intently on my dad’s stereo system. Still having a fairly good recollection of the wives from the BBC/PBS episodes, it was easy to enter this musical representation, each piece as distinct and distinguishable as each of the six wives.
This is a masterpiece of keyboard virtuosity, with Wakeman on acoustic piano, pipe organ, Hammond organ, mellotron, and moog synthesizer, all of which Wakeman masterfully incorporates into six stunningly impressive compositions. Though the keyboard work is the main focus, the album is remarkably enriched by the wealth of supporting talent that includes some amazing drumming by Alan White, and other memorable supporting contributions including participation by Yes and Strawbs personnel, including Steve Howe, Bill Bruford, Chris Squire on the opening track, “Catherine Howard”, and Dave Cousins on electric banjo on the “Catherine Howard” composition. The album works well as a complete concept album, but was not received well by most critics when it first came out. Fortunately it sold relatively well, and because of its excellence has stood the test of time. Though the audio production quality could have been better, it still sounds wonderful on good audio equipment today, with all eight tracks, and in particular “Catherine Howard” providing great auditory and musical pleasure.