An eyewitness to rock ’n’ roll history

October 7, 2008

By Jim Feehan

World-renowned drummer Alan White calls Newcastle home

Imagine a legendary drummer living in Newcastle. It’s easy if you try.For the past 15 years, Alan White, best known for his 37 years as drummer with the band Yes, has called Newcastle home. The long and winding road to Newcastle actually began 59 years ago, when White was born outside Newcastle, England. 

Along the way, he has appeared on more than 50 albums, with artists from John Lennon and George Harrison to Joe Cocker and The Ventures. He also jammed with Jimi Hendrix.

When he’s not touring with Yes, White can be found walking his two Jack Russell terriers, Bandit and Bonnie, through Lake Boren Park, or sitting in with local bands at Newcastle’s Concerts in the Park or Issaquah’s Concerts on the Green. 

“It’s a lot of fun going up there and hanging out with friends,” White said. “There are a lot of warm and gracious people here in Newcastle.”

White began learning to play the piano at age 6 and after switching to drums, played publicly with a local band at 13. As a youngster, he listened to recordings of legendary drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. Music was a big part of his formative years; father Raymond was a pianist and his uncle Ken was a drummer. 

While in college, White performed with a band that entered a contest in London. Among the judges of the competition were Ringo Starr and Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles. White’s band won the competition and when he returned to college, the school administrator called him into his office.

“He said, ‘I’ve been reading about you in the newspaper, and if I was you I’d do that,’” White said. “Within a few years after that, I was playing with John Lennon.” 

In 1969, White received a call from Lennon asking him to join the Plastic Ono Band for a show that became the hit album, “Live Peace in Toronto.” He also performed with Lennon on the legendary “Imagine” album and the singles, “Imagine” and  “Instant Karma.”

“John became like a father figure to me, even though he wasn’t that much older than me,” White said of The Beatles guitarist, who was nine years older. “He used to say, ‘Alan, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.’”

Lennon introduced White to fellow Beatle alumnus, George Harrison, and White was asked to perform on the “All Things Must Pass” album, including the single, “My Sweet Lord.”

Starr was also among the artists performing on “All Things Must Pass.” White thought Starr would play drums for “My Sweet Lord.”

“George said, ‘No, no, no. I want you to play drums. Ringo, you play tambourine,’” White recalled. 

In 1972, White was touring with Joe Cocker when he received an invitation to join Yes. White and the band gave each other three months to see if he fit in and, 37 years later, he has appeared on every Yes album since.

In the early 1980s, White was introduced to a model working in London. The model, Gigi, who was from Kirkland, would later become his wife. 

“We’ve had a wonderful life traveling all over the world,” she said.

The Whites have two children, Jesse, 25, an audio technician in Los Angeles, and Cassandra, 24, a graduate student studying psychology at Washington State University.

White has played before seven consecutive sold-out performances at Madison Square Garden and in front of 350,000 fans in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Yes made history as the first band to play in Argentina after the Falklands War, fought in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the disputed Falklands Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. 

The band stayed in neighboring Uruguay and would take a private jet into Buenos Aires, do the show at a soccer stadium and fly out afterward, White said.

“The chief of police would meet us at the airport,” he said. “We’d drive through Buenos Aires and it was bizarre. I’ve never seen guitarists moving all the time (onstage) in case somebody was going to shoot them.”

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