How Rick Wakeman Saved David Bowie's "Space Oddity" With The Mellotron

Rick Wakeman is best known in America and the virtuoso keyboardist on Yes's most groundbreaking albums of the '70s. In his home country of the U.K., Wakeman is best known as a comedian, actor and concert pianist.

What fewer people know about the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is that he's also the keyboardist/pianist on many classic hits songs, including several of David Bowie's most iconic songs.

Before joining Yes, Wakeman earned himself a reputation as a session pianist and arranger. He tells Q104.3 New York's Out of the Box with Jonathan Clarke that in those days he was always on the lookout for a new angle that could get him his next gig. So when he saw a Mellotron in the studio during a session with producer Tony Visconti, Wakeman was keen on figuring out the instrument.

"I said, 'Oh, when did that come in?'" Wakeman recalls asking of the Mellotron. "They said, 'We got it in a while ago, but it won't stay in tune, so we don't use it.' ... I had a bit of a break while they were doing other stuff, so I said, 'Can I have a go?'"

Though Wakeman had never played a Mellotron before, after tinkering on the instrument for some time, he determined that there was a "cheat" to keeping it in tune when playing multiple notes at once. Visconti took note of Wakeman's new skill and in early-1969, when Bowie wanted a Mellotron on one of his songs, Wakeman was the only man they knew to call.

"I drove up to London to Trident Studios, went in and David was there, and [the song] was 'Space Oddity,'" Wakeman says. "We went down and we went through it once and I did it."

Bassist Herbie Flowers took an interest in Wakeman's new skill, asking what trickery he was using to get the Mellotron to behave. But Wakeman wasn't giving up the knowledge easily.

"I suddenly realized ... I've got an advantage here over other people doing the sessions. I said, 'Can't really tell you.' Herbie said, "Ah, you want more work.' I said, 'You got it!'"

After "Space Oddity," Bowie hired Wakeman as a pianist for several more sessions, including "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud" and "Life On Mars."

The two became good friends, and despite Bowie's superstardom, he was always "generous to musicians," Wakeman recalls, and he tended to trust the instincts of those with whom he worked.

Watch the full interview with Wakeman in the video player above or here.

Get all of Rick Wakeman's tour dates here.

Here's the trailer for Wakeman's 'Grumpy Old Rock Star' North American tour: