Yes drummer Alan White, who joined the progressive rock band in 1972 and stayed with them for the next 50 years, has died at 72 after a brief illness.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is most famous for his work in Yes, but also performed with John Lennon in the Plastic Ono Band — He’s featured on both “Instant Karma” and “Imagine” — and with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass.
“Throughout his life and six-decade career, Alan was many things to many people,” his family wrote in a statement confirming his death. “A certified rock star to fans around the world; band mate to a select few, and gentleman and friend to all who met him.”
White was born in Pelton, County Durham, England on June 14, 1949. He began playing drums at 12 and started gigging in London clubs the following year. His life changed forever in 1969 when he received a phone call from John Lennon. “I thought it was a friend trying to joke with me, so I put the phone down,” White told Rolling Stone in 2019. “Eventually I got a call back and he told me he was doing a gig in Toronto and was I available to play drums and can he send a car to pick me up the next morning.”
Before he knew it, White was on a plane to Toronto alongside Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono, and Klaus Voormann. Lennon was making a rare live appearance at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival and needed a drummer. White played the show with almost no rehearsal. “Suddenly, the sticks were thrown into my hand and John counted, “1, 2, 3,” White recalled. “And we were in the first number. It was all kind of a flash in a pan.”
Lennon was pleased with his on-the-fly work and invited him into the studio to work on Imagine. He was one of three drummers on the record, along with Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon, but he was the one selected to work on the legendary title track. “I remember at one point the song started with the drums at the very beginning of the song and the band playing,” White told Rolling Stone. “John played it so good by himself on the piano I said, ‘Why don’t you do the first verse like that?’ He said, ‘That’s a good idea.’ He said, ‘What do you think, Phil [Spector]?’ The next thing you know, we tried it like that and John kept it.”
The experience on Imagine led to a call to record with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass, which was also produced by Spector. White is on several songs, though the sessions were so chaotic that there are no proper credits. White claimed to have played on “My Sweet Lord,” but this has been disputed. “That was a bigger group,” White recalled. “It was Delaney and Bonnie’s group, George and Eric. There was a lot of people at the studio every day for about three weeks. When we all got there, we’d decide who was playing what. George would say, ‘One of you play drums.’ That’s how we cut a lot of those tracks.”
A couple of years later, Yes parted ways with founding drummer Bill Bruford. White was offered the position because bassist Chris Squire and frontman Jon Anderson had recently seen him play with Joe Cocker and liked his work. The only problem was they had a gig just three days later in Dallas, Texas and virtually no time to rehearse. “I just went the whole weekend and listened to the music and got used to it,” he said, “and then there I was in Dallas going onstage with Yes with pretty much no rehearsals.”
Yes saw a small army of musicians come and go over the next few decades, but White remained fiercely loyal to the band. His work powers innovative prog albums like Tales From Topographic Oceans and Relayer and their poppier work in the Eighties, including the worldwide hit single “Owner Of a Lonely Heart.” White’s most recent studio work with Yes was their 2021 LP The Quest. He logged more years in the band than any other member.
When the band took a short break in the early Eighties, White jammed with Squire and Jimmy Page for a project they called XYZ, which stood for “Ex Yes and Zeppelin.” None of their music was ever officially released, but the tapes eventually leaked.
White maintained a heavy tour schedule with Yes in the 2000s, even after Anderson parted ways with the group in 2008. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
Health problems sidelined him on recent tours, but he would come out for the final few songs of the evening. When he spoke to Rolling Stone three years ago, he was hoping he’d be able to play full shows with the band in the future.
“I had back surgery a couple of years ago,” he said. “I’ve been steadily getting better since then and I’m starting to play more and more. It’s pretty good right now and I feel good every day. I’m moving forward.”
He last played with the band July 28th, 2019 at The Mountain Winery in Saratoga Springs, California. The encore that night took his career full circle: a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”