Alan White Is the Most Famous Drummer You've Never Heard Of

Yes is joining Asia and members of the Moody Blues and Carl Palmer's ELP for the Royal Affair Tour at the Hard Rock on July 13.
Yes is joining Asia and members of the Moody Blues and Carl Palmer's ELP for the Royal Affair Tour at the Hard Rock on July 13. Photo by Gottlieb Bros.
Alan White just might be the most famous drummer you’ve never heard of.

It’s difficult to imagine not knowing the name of a world-renowned, Grammy Award-winning, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame percussionist. But even after almost 50 years, some people still ask, “Alan who?”

While White's name may not be instantly recognizable, his music certainly is. White is the beat behind Yes hits such as “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Love Will Find a Way,” "Changes" and the epically-long “The Remembering (High the Memory)."

You've also heard White's skills on John Lennon's “Instant Karma!” with its popping, innovating drum breaks, and “Imagine,” Rolling Stone’s No. 3 Greatest Song of All Time.

“It was a great steppingstone in my career to actually be playing with somebody that famous, but I didn’t really realize it at the time,” White says of getting tapped in 1969 to play with, among others, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, and Yoko Ono in the Plastic Ono Band.

White was only 20 years old at the time, but already a veteran of the London club scene he’d been playing since age 13 with a string of local bands.

“I got a call out of the blue, and it was Lennon, and I guess he saw me playing in a club and he said, ‘I saw you playing, and you’re just what I need. I got a gig to do tomorrow,’” White remembers.

So White did what anyone would have done if they’d been interrupted by some prankster while making Sunday morning breakfast. He hung up.

“He called back about ten minutes later and said, ‘No really, this is John Lennon. Can you do a show in Toronto? I’ll send a car for you in the morning,’” White says. “...And next thing I know I’m onstage with John Lennon.”

But it wasn’t only Lennon who recognized White’s talent. The same week in 1972 that White, who also plays piano, was offered the job with Yes, he was also offered gigs with both Jethro Tull and America.

“Yes was just a quality band with a lot of great music,” he says of the band he ultimately chose. “And I love a challenge in music and Yes was a great challenge. They were ultra-talented people.”

White will play all the Yes favorites, as well as what promises to be a spirited, star-studded version of “Imagine” when Yes brings the Royal Affair Tour to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on July 13.

The show will feature a who’s who of British rock royalty, including John Lodge of the Moody Blues with a tribute to his recently deceased former bandmate Ray Thomas, as well as Arthur Brown on vocals with Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. The band Asia will introduce its new lineup with a special performance by founding member Steve Howe, the current guitarist for Yes.

Despite playing on some of the most enduring songs of all time and being considered one of the most innovative drummers of his generation, White speaks in an understated manner – few words, no boasting.

“You just do what you do in life,” he says.

Even so, he says Yes’ 2017 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was special.

“Everybody was elated,” he says. “We’re just glad we finally got the recognition we deserved for playing great music all these years.”

At 70, White still loves to play live, even though he says the schedule can be grueling. And after playing on over 50 albums with the likes of Jimmy Page, George Harrison, Eddie Money, and Gary Wright, there is one musician he would have loved to have been able to tour with again.

“Joe Cocker,” he says. “That was a great band, and he was absolutely a great person to work with.”

White currently lives near Seattle, and while he likes to play golf and get outside when he can, he says back surgery keeps him from doing anything too physical. “I built a log cabin and we moved up to the mountains and I’m spending a lot of time putting furniture in and making it really comfortable,” he says.

Mostly, he just loves to play music and is looking forward to coming to South Florida.

“It’s been wonderful,” he says of his time with Yes. “When I first joined the band, I said, 'I’ll give you three months, and you give me three months, and let’s see if we can make this work.' And here I am 47 years later.”

Yes Presents the Royal Affair Tour. 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 13, at the Hard Rock Event Center at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood; Tickets cost $50 to $130 via
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Wendy Rhodes is a lover of rock 'n' roll and all things vegan. She has witnessed a green flash, kissed a live shark, and stood atop an active volcano. She is always open to new story ideas.