Alan White, Drummer for Yes and John Lennon, Dies at 72
White's family announced the news on Facebook, noting the drummer died at his Seattle-area home on May 26. "Throughout his life and six-decade career, Alan was many things to many people: a certified rock star to fans around the world; bandmate to a select few, and gentleman and friend to all who met him," they wrote.
On Twitter, Yes expressed their "deep sadness."
White, who also performed with John Lennon, George Harrison, Ginger Baker’s Air Force and Joe Cocker early in his career, had suffered from health problems in recent years. He was forced to sit out of Yes in 2016 due to back surgery, and he guested as the second drummer (alongside Jay Schellen) in 2018 while recovering from a bacterial infection. White then sat out of the band’s 50th anniversary U.K. tour due to what Yes described as "current health issues."
White was born on June 14, 1949, in Pelton, England, and took piano lessons as a child. His interests later moved to the drum kit, and throughout the '60s he played with several smaller bands, including Griffin — a gig that ultimately changed his life. Lennon and Yoko Ono happened to attend one of that group’s club gigs in London, and the next night White received a surprising phone call at home.
“A voice announced, ‘Hello, this is John Lennon,’” White told The Seattle Times in 2021. “I thought it was a mate pulling my leg, put the receiver down and went back to the kitchen. Luckily, the caller rang back. This time I listened and thought: Hang on. Maybe it is John Lennon.”
Lennon, impressed with White’s drumming, invited him to play with his Plastic Ono Band — featuring Ono, Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann — the following night at the Toronto Rock and Roll Festival. That set led to further session work, including performance on Lennon’s 1970 single "Instant Karma!" and 1971 LP, Imagine, along with Harrison’s 1970 triple album, All Things Must Pass.
After a couple of years of hopping around, White found a permanent home in the world of prog: In 1972, after losing cofounding drummer Bill Bruford to King Crimson, Yes recruited White to join the lineup — and, in a mind-boggling feat, he learned the band’s complex repertoire in just three days ahead of their Close to the Edge tour.
"I got to know Eddy Offord, who was the producer for their first few albums," White told Rolling Stone in 2019. "I was sitting in a pub with him in London. We got to be very good friends. One day [Yes singer] Jon [Anderson] and [Yes bassist] Chris [Squire] came around and he said, 'Yes want you to join the band.' I think Chris Squire saw me play with Joe Cocker previous to that. I was just finishing a Joe Cocker tour when Yes asked me. I agreed and said, 'When are we rehearsing?' They said, 'We don’t really have any rehearsals and we’ve got a gig on Monday. Can you learn the repertoire between now and Monday?’ It was a Friday. I said, 'Well, I’ll give it a shot, but it’s a long shot.'"
That long shot paid off for everyone. White gave Yes a powerful rock edge and sonic consistency, the latter a rare commodity for a band that routinely switched members. He played on dozens of concert and studio albums, starting with the divisive 1973 double-LP Tales From Topographic Oceans.
"I was very impressed by the different time signatures and just creating new and adventurous music," he told UCR of that record in 2013. "I thought it was just exciting the whole time, and I think that's what you hear: a bunch of musicians trying to find an alleyway into progressive music. I think it worked, personally, and I think a lot of people appreciate it. And like I said, people would say, "I can't believe you did the whole thing [live]!"
His Yes run lasted more than a half-century, up through 2021’s The Quest, making White the band’s longest-remaining member. And the drummer's versatility anchored the band's numerous shifts in style, from the jazz-fusion pummel of 1974’s Relayer to the sleek, arena-friendly stylings of 1983’s 90125.
White, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with Yes in 2017, released one solo album, 1976’s Ramshackled. He also collaborated with several other bands, including the Yes offshoot supergroup Circa; famously, he and Squire briefly worked on ideas with Jimmy Page for an aborted supergroup named XYZ (Ex Yes-Zeppelin) in 1981.
Yes, though, became his home.
"Every album is different in its own way," he told Examiner in 2013. "Relayer was a great album that I enjoyed playing on. 90215 had a lot of memorable songs on it. After that, it would be Talk, which is a great underestimated album. The Ladder is another. There’s a lot of them, they’re all different and parts of the band’s life. I enjoyed all of them."