Alan White, who died at the age of 72 after a short illness, was one of rock’s most versatile and respected drummers. He will be remembered mainly for his career with the British progressive rock band Yes, whom he joined in 1972 after the departure of original percussionist Bill Bruford. Had Wyatt’s health not been deteriorating, the band’s upcoming tour next month would have marked 50 years with her.
White joined Yes just as they were about to begin a tour with their fifth album, Near the Edge (1972), which consisted of three extended tracks and is considered by many to be the pinnacle of semi-classic, elaborate prog-rock.
White only had three days to learn the band’s repertoire before their first concert in Dallas, Texas, but he accomplished the feat without a hitch. His muscular style contrasted with Bruford’s jazz-influenced style, and was perfect for the bite-sized venues where Yes Now plays. His work on tour was preserved on the triple live album Yessongs (1973). The first album Yes he played was Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973).
But what he called “the biggest break I’ve ever had” was the phone call that came suddenly in 1969 from John Lennon, who saw him playing in a London club. “I was sure someone was playing a joke, so I hung up,” White recalls. “A minute later the phone rang again, and it sure was really John Lennon.”
Lennon wanted White to join the band he was putting together at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival that year. White was taken to Heathrow Airport in a limousine, and in the VIP lounge he met John, Yoko, Eric Clapton and bassist Klaus Fuhrmann.
They rehearsed their material on board and called themselves the Ono Band. Their performance was maintained on the 1969 album Live Peace in Toronto, which reached number 10 on the US album chart. “John hasn’t been performing live for a few years, and I know he really enjoyed Toronto,” White said. “I think he decided after the show that he was really going to leave the Beatles.”
White then played drums and piano on Lennon’s single, Instant Karma! , which reached the top five in the US and UK in 1970, and on most songs on Lennon’s Imagine album, which topped the UK and US charts the following year. From the totem-titled song Imagine, White recalled how “I came up with what I thought was a proper approach to the song, nothing really complicated, but that’s what he advocated.”
Lennon’s connection led to White being invited to join the star-studded cast that recorded George Harrison’s triple album after The Beatles All Things Must Pass (1970). This was another historical release, topping the US and UK charts.
Alan was born in Belton, County Durham, the only child of Raymond and May (née Thrower). His father held a variety of jobs, including as a bus driver and shopkeeper, and was an amateur musician playing the piano in bars. At the age of six, Alan began taking piano lessons, and after his uncle (a drummer with dance troupes) noticed the “rhythmic” way in which he attacked the keyboard, he was given a drum for Christmas when he was twelve.
He was 13 years old and still touring when he joined his first band, Downbeats, who played copycat versions of pop songs in clubs and ballrooms around Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1964, The Downbeats became the Blue Chips and won an amateur tag team competition at the London Palladium, where the judges were Ringo Starr and Beatles manager Brian Epstein. This brought them a record contract under which they recorded several singles, but sales were poor, and the group soon broke up.
White studied art drawing at Bishop College Auckland and planned to become an architect, but was drawn into music again. Recruited by punters group Billy Fury, he toured with them in West Germany, before joining Alan Price’s group and finding additional work as a session musician. He then did an assignment with the Ginger Bakerer Air Force, and was playing on a European Tour with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen Tour when he got the call from Yes.
He has been behind the yes drums as they have gone through variety and stylistic lineup changes, with other core members being singer John Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire; In 2015, White became the longest-serving member of Yes when Squire passed away.
He played on their best-selling album 90125 (1983), which contained the band’s only single in the US, Owner of a Lonely Heart, and on their 1977 album Going for the One, which was #1 in the UK and contained a great hit. The Ballads (1977), which reached No. 7 as the best British song ranked Yes.
In 1976 he released his solo solo album Ramshackled, in which he noted “I tried to get a lot of different genres of music on the album because I like to play a lot of different kinds of music.”
In 1981, he joined Jimmy Page at Squire and Led Zeppelin to form a group tentatively called XYZ – but the project was nothing more than a few unreleased demo tracks.
In 1994 he moved to the United States – to another Newcastle, in Washington state – with his wife, Gigi (née Wahlberg), whom he married in 1982. There he formed a local band called White, who released an album in 2006, and also performed using the band Yes Separate, Circa.
In 2017, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Yes, and played on their latest album, The Quest (2021).
Gigi and their children Jesse and Cassie are survived.