Rick Wakeman: Brian May is one of my closest friends, and I know how much Bohemian Rhapsody means to him
Keyboardist Rick Wakeman, known for his decades in the music industry, high-profile collaborations and prog-rock stylings, is back with a new album, Piano Odyssey. He tells Lucy Mapstone how the new record was inspired by his late collaborator David Bowie and why he sought special permission from Brian May to cover Queen's most iconic hit
For a man whose Twitter handle is @GrumpyOldRick, Rick Wakeman is wonderfully cheery, even when talking about death. "I've got no intention of going anywhere," he says with a hearty chuckle. "But I've got it written in my will that if there's ever a tombstone or a plaque for me, wherever my ashes are scattered, it simply has to read, 'It's not fair, I haven't finished yet'."
It's almost inconceivable to imagine what Wakeman, with his enormous back catalogue, has to offer the world musically.
But he insists that he has so much more to give, and he is keen to keep working and living until he's at least 100 years old.
"I don't think I'll ever stop," he insists.
"I'd like a telegram from the Queen, but it's more likely to be a telegram from the King, and if it's from Charles, that'll be interesting - if I get a telegram for being 100 from King Charles, he'll be 101," Wakeman says.
When not thinking ahead to that all-important milestone, the 69-year-old is happy to reminisce about his illustrious career as a prog-rock star, a musical virtuoso and songwriter, all of which has inspired his new album, Piano Odyssey.
A bona fide keyboard wizard, he has had a long and successful solo career, and has released too many albums to count.
He has, at the very least, 90 solo records across a myriad of genres under his belt, which have sold more than 50 million copies.
A multi-talented musician, he's also known for his years leading bands Yes and the Strawbs, and his star collaborations with the likes of David Bowie, Cat Stevens and Black Sabbath.
Perhaps one of the things he is most revered for is his contribution to Bowie's Life On Mars and his Hunky Dory album.
His work with the late music icon was an influence on his new record, a piano-led journey through his career, in which he covers classic tracks while accompanied by a string and choral additions.
"It's a mixture of a musical scrapbook and a journey," explains Wakeman, "but a scrapbook from way back to the early days, like with David Bowie.
"I did a lot of work with David, and there was one piece that has always been my favourite of all the songs he wrote.
"Obviously, I've got a soft spot for Life On Mars and Space Odyssey and all that, but way back in 1969, I recorded piano on a piece called Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud. I loved it - it was a great example of David's storytelling."
Piano Odyssey includes Wakeman's take on that track, as well as his versions of The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Strawberry Fields Forever, And You And I by Yes, and Simon and Garfunkel's The Boxer.
But one song on the album in particular stands out for Wakeman - his version of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, which includes a surprise collaboration from the band's Brian May.
"When I finished recording the album, I was really pleased with everything," Wakeman says.
"And then it suddenly occurred to me - Brian May is one of my closest friends, and I know how much Bohemian Rhapsody means to Brian.
"Freddie (Mercury) wrote it and they were incredibly close. I know I'm probably speaking a bit out of turn, but I know Brian is not always totally enamoured by versions of Bohemian Rhapsody that have been done by others, because the original is so brilliant."
Wakeman recalls how he called May and described his version of the iconic rock-opera track, a piano rendition with "touches of strings and a choir throughout it".
"I told him I wanted to send it for him to have a listen, because if he didn't like it, if he thought it was detrimental to Freddie, then I'd pull it," he says.
Luckily for Wakeman, May got back to him within half an hour, full of praise for his take on Bohemian Rhapsody, but with one suggestion: that he add a "tiny touch of acoustic guitar" at the end.
"He was absolutely right," Wakeman concedes. "I'd never thought of doing that.
"May did this fantastic little cameo spot. You just don't expect it, but it lights up the whole piece.
"That really made it for me. I thought, 'This is something I was meant to do and it was meant to be'."
The album also includes two new additions, Rocky (The Legacy) and Cyril Wolverine, both inspired by his work as a patron of Animals Asia and Moon Bears.
"We save these wonderful bears from the horrendous bear bile farming in China," he says.
Rocky, Wakeman reveals, was a bear who had been so horrendously treated that, even with the best care, she died.
And Cyril Wolverine was a bear owned by Wakeman and his wife who died from kidney and liver cancer after being "appallingly treated from a young age" before he could make it to a sanctuary in Chengdu, China.
"I sat in my music room and I put three pictures of Cyril on the stand, then I wrote the piece of music for him while doing nothing but having those pictures in front of me," he says.
Along with his tales of bears, Bowie and Bohemian Rhapsody, Wakeman is refreshingly honest about himself.
He harks back to his past and how it has shaped the man and musician he is today, while also looking ahead to the future.
"I don't have any regrets. But mistakes? Yeah, I've made loads," he says light-heartedly, although failing to mention any particular moment from throughout his 50-year career.
"But if you get something wrong, then you do your best to turn it right. Of course, I've made mistakes and got lots of things wrong, but if anything had been different, I wouldn't be here doing this interview right now.
"I'm not great at looking back and going, 'Oh, I wish I hadn't done that'. I'm much more interested in what I'm going to do tomorrow, next month, next year, and the year after that."
He adds, determinedly: "I can't retire. I wouldn't dream of it!"
Rick Wakeman's Piano Odyssey is out now