Why Alan White Hung Up When John Lennon Called
He laughed, according to memory. But then their remark became prophetic.
White -- the longtime Yes drummer who died Thursday at home in Seattle at the age of 72 -- never actually played with the Beatles but did record and perform with two of them, John Lennon and George Harrison. And it was Lennon who vaulted White into an international spotlight.
White had just played a gig with his band Griffin at the Rasputin club in London on Sept. 11, 1969, with Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono in the audience, discreetly sitting towards the back. The next day Lennon was approached by organizers of the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, a festival taking place Sept. 13 at Varsity Stadium, to fly over and perform. He agreed.
And then he realized he had to put together a band.
He called some friends -- Eric Clapton to play guitar, longtime Beatles friend Klaus Voorman, who had designed the cover for band's Revolver album, to play bass. White, meanwhile, had made enough of an impression at the Rasputin gig for Lennon to immediately think of the 20-year-old drummer to round things out.
Unbelievable? Indeed -- and White did not believe it at the time. "I hung up on him," White, who was cooking dinner for some of his bandmates at the house they shared, told UCR some years ago, remembering the phone call. "I thought someone was playing a prank. John Lennon's not going to call me" -- much less propose playing a gig the next day, across the Atlantic, with a group that had never played together before.
Lennon convinced White it was indeed him on a subsequent phone call, and that the proposition was genuine. "What was I going to say? No, to a Beatle? I don't think so," recalled White, who had to bail out of gig Griffin had scheduled for the same night. The next morning a limo picked the drummer up and took him to Heathrow airport where, despite Lennon's last minute reservations, the troupe -- dubbed the Plastic Ono Band -- boarded a Boeing 707 and rehearsed during the flight. White used the airplane seat for a kit as they worked up some communal favorites such as Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" and Larry Williams' "Dizzy, Miss Lizzy," which had all been part of the Beatles repertoire.
Watch John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (feat. Alan White) Performing at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival in 1969
"It was all a bit chaotic, and surreal," White said with a laugh. "I'm sitting there playing with a Beatle, and Eric, these very famous people. I suppose because I was so young and maybe a little headstrong, it didn't occur to me to be nervous. We just kind of hammered out the songs on the plane and got ready for the gig."
Voorman told UCR that he felt for the young drummer. "I mean, there's poor Alan White. He didn't know what instrument he'd be playing, what kind of drum kit they'd have on stage. It was, how can I say, scary in a way...It was fun to play, yes, but we played wrong notes and played the wrong things in songs. But all together it was fun."
As documented on the album Live Peace in Toronto, released three months later, the performance was tentative but competent, driven by a sense of event more than musical acumen. The troupe also played the Beatles' "Yer Blues" and Lennon's solo singles "Give Peace a Chance" and "Cold Turkey," and then less satisfyingly -- at least as far as the Toronto audience was concerned -- Ono's comparatively avant garde "Don't Worry Kyoko" and "John John (Let's Hope For Peace)."
"I felt like we were playing pretty good," White said, "but it became a bit strange when Yoko crawled into a bag with a microphone and started making...noises. I wasn't sure what to do, but Eric and Klaus were like, 'Play! Keep playing!' and we got through it."
The ad hoc performance was White's entree to the Lennon/Ono universe, and for the next couple of years he played on the single "Instant Karma!" (piano as well as drums) and the Imagine album -- including the title track, "Gimme Some Truth" and "Jealous Guy." White also played a "Live Jam" with Lennon at a UNICEF charity concert Dec. 15, 1969 at London's Lyceum Ballroom, which came out on side three of 1972's Some Time in New York City.
Watch John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (feat. Alan White) Performing 'Instant Karma!'
With Harrison, meanwhile, White was part of the corps that played on All Things Must Pass and as well as 1971's The Radha Krsna Temple, an album of Hindu devotional songs produced by Harrison and released on the Beatles' Apple Records label.
"Working with those guys was great," said White, who replaced Bill Bruford in Yes during the summer of 1972. "On one hand, yes, they were the Beatles. On the other hand -- and again, maybe because I was so young and brash -- I felt like I could play with them. They never made me feel like they were above me or anything like that, and I never felt that way myself. And I'm very proud to have been on those records."