Alan White, who drummed with Yes and ex-Beatles, dies at 72
By Peter Keepnews
Alan White, a seasoned rock drummer who had worked with two former Beatles by the time he turned 21, but who was best known for his long tenure with the pioneering British progressive-rock band Yes, died Thursday at his home in the Seattle area. He was 72.
His death was announced by his family. The announcement did not specify a cause, saying only that he died “after a brief illness.”
News of White’s death came just days after Yes announced that he would not be taking part in the band’s upcoming tour of Britain, which begins on June 13. He had been a member of Yes since 1972, but, the band noted in a statement, “a number of health setbacks” had restricted his time onstage since 2016, with Jay Schellen doing most of the drumming and White joining the band late in each set.
Alan White was born in Pelton, County Durham, England, on June 14, 1949, to Raymond and May (Thrower) White. He began playing the drums when he was 12. He first played professionally the next year, and went on to work with a number of British groups throughout the 1960s.
In September 1969, John Lennon, who had heard him with one of those groups, called White and asked him to join the band he was putting together for a concert in Toronto.
As White told interviewers over the years, he assumed the call was a prank and hung up. Lennon called back, White was convinced he was who he said he was and he was soon on his way to Canada as a member of the Plastic Ono Band, which also included Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann.
The Toronto concert, one of only two that the band would play (the second was a charity concert in London that December), was a memorable one, marking Lennon’s return to the stage after a long absence and yielding the hit album “Live Peace in Toronto.” White subsequently recorded with Lennon on the single “Instant Karma” and on several tracks of the album “Imagine,” including the title cut, which, like “Instant Karma,” was a Top 10 hit.
White also recorded with another former Beatle, George Harrison, on sessions for Harrison’s first solo album, “All Things Must Pass.”
Following those recordings, as well as work backing Joe Cocker and others and a brief stint as one of several percussionists with his fellow drummer Ginger Baker’s band, he was invited in 1972 to join Yes after the band’s original drummer, Bill Bruford, left to join another leading progressive-rock band, King Crimson.
Yes’s music, like that of other bands in the so-called prog-rock movement, was more complex and challenging than standard rock ’n’ roll. But White had only three days to learn the band’s repertoire before a concert in Dallas — and, he later recalled, when he met with the band’s singer, Jon Anderson, and its bassist, Chris Squire, they told him that if he didn’t agree to join the band “they were going to throw me out the third-story window.” He agreed, he learned the music and his long association with Yes began.
Yes underwent numerous changes in both personnel and style over the years, notably adopting a more straightforward pop sound for the album “90125” and the single “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which became a No. 1 hit in 1983. White and Squire were the band’s only constant presences until Squire’s death in 2015.
White, who also helped write a number of the band’s songs, was first heard with Yes on a few tracks of the live album “Yessongs” (1973) and, a year later, on the studio album “Tales From Topographic Oceans.” He was on every subsequent album through “The Quest,” released last year.
Yes was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
White is survived by his wife of 40 years, Rogena (Walberg) White; a son, Jesse; a daughter, Cassi; and two grandchildren.