Alan White, drummer with prog rock band Yes, dies aged 72

Alan White, longtime drummer for prog rock band Yes, has died at home aged 72 after a short illness. Announcing the news, the band said they were “shocked and stunned”.

White was one of the longest-running members of the group, having joined in 1972, replacing Bill Bruford (who joined King Crimson).

Born in 1949 in County Durham, White began playing the drums aged 12, and joined his first band a year later: the Downbeats, later the Blue Chips. Success stepped up a notch with a place in Billy Fury’s backing band, and after John Lennon saw a performance by another White band, prog rockers Griffin, he was recruited as drummer for the Plastic Ono Band.

Whisked in a limo to an airport and given three days to learn the group’s material, White played the concert that became live album Live Peace in Toronto 1969, and also played drums on Lennon’s album Imagine (plus vibraphone on Jealous Guy) as well as George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Other live work came backing another drumming legend, Ginger Baker, in his sprawling group Air Force.

Alan White, seated in blue jeans, with Yes in 1974.
Alan White, seated in blue jeans, with Yes in 1974. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

White was asked to join Yes in 1972, and again he had only three days to learn the repertoire for a US tour. “I was prepared for different time signatures and the way the band flowed, but I added more of a rock element than Bill [Bruford] did,” he later said.

The first studio album he played on (and the band’s sixth overall), Tales from Topographic Oceans, was also Yes’s first UK No 1. Success continued – 1977’s Going For the One was another chart-topper – but the band began fracturing, with keyboardist Rick Wakeman and the then singer Jon Anderson leaving by the early 1980s. Despite the brief addition of Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes (AKA the Buggles) to the group, Yes split in 1981.

White played with Yes bassist Chris Squire and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page in a group called XYZ, whose work has been bootlegged but never formally released; Robert Plant was briefly mooted as a lead singer.

White formed another new band, Cinema, with Squire, Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye and guitarist Trevor Rabin, whose demos wooed Jon Anderson back to the fold – they soon relaunched the Yes name. This began the group’s most commercially successful period in the US, with the single Owner of a Lonely Heart reaching No 1 there in 1983.

Anderson left again in 1988, and formed Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe with other ex-Yes members. “I didn’t necessarily feel betrayed, but at the same time it was something for us to deal with,” White later said. “But we just put our heads down and carried on making Yes music.”

The lineup continued to fluctuate in the years since – Anderson and Howe rejoined in 1995, along with a brief spell for Wakeman – and there was another hiatus from 2005 to 2008, but White remained the rhythmic heart of the group throughout. “You want to keep the Yes name going to keep that high standard of musicianship and then carry it forward,” he said in 2015.

He is a credited songwriter on dozens of songs and played on more than 40 of their albums. Health difficulties beginning in 2016 meant his role with the group was reduced, but he continued to perform a portion of each live set, with Jay Schellen playing the bulk of the material.