The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Rick Wakeman is an Everest in prog rock. It has it all.
Wakeman's first solo studio album, it was released on A&M in January 1973. Wakeman decided on the concept in 1972 while touring with Yes. usicians from Yes and previous band Strawbs play on the album. It reached number 7 (UK) and number 30 (US Billboard 200). It was certified gold in 1975 by the RIA of America and has sold 15 million copies worldwide. In 2009, Wakeman performed the album live for the first time at Hampton Court Palace for the 500th anniversary of Henry's accession. Each track was re-scored with added elements that could not be there due to time restrictions on the vinyl record.
In August 1971, Wakeman replaced keyboardist Tony Kaye with Yes. In early 1972, on tour in the USA to promote Fragile (1971), he bought four books at an airport bookstall in Richmond, Virginia, one being The Private Life of Henry VIII by Nancy Brysson Morrison. As he read about Anne Boleyn on the subsequent flight to Chicago, a theme he recorded in November 1971 ran through his mind. He often scribbled down pieces of music while travelling, but could not find a theme to put them to. Said Wakeman, "I had been searching for a style to write in and suddenly I found it in writing music about these six ladies...I would concentrate on one of the wives and then music just came into my head and I would write it down. Sometimes I was flying, other times I was on stage, or just in front of the piano at home...The "Six Wives" theme gave me the thread, the link, I needed to give me a reason for putting these pieces of music together."
He explains the album's concept in its liner notes: "The album is based around my interpretations of the musical characteristics of the wives of Henry VIII. Although the style may not always be in keeping with their individual history, it is my personal conception of their characters in relation to keyboard instruments."
Recording for the album began in February 1972 with an advance of £4K from A&M. Seven other musicians perform on the record.
Catherine of Aragon - Its basis was originally a piece that Wakeman wrote for Fragile titled "Handle With Care". Recorded at Trident Studios, London, the track features Steve Howe and Chris Squire with percussionist Ray Cooper.
Anne Boleyn - recorded at Morgan Studios and featuring drummer Bill Bruford. Wakeman had a dream about attending her execution that caused him to include a version of "St. Clement", the tune to the hymn "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended" written by John Ellerton. E. J. Hopkins is credited on the album, but the piece is generally attributed to Rev Clement Scholefield.
Catherine Howard - by the time production began on this engineer Ken Scott was replaced by Paul Tregurtha. Strawbs member Chas Cronk, who plays bass on it, recalled the "total confusion" during the recording and "couldn't make head or tail of what [we] were doing. We were going through it part by part and I couldn't see how all the parts were going to match up." He noted that Rick "knew exactly what he was going to do although he had nothing written down. It was all stored in his head."
Jane Seympur - the organ was recorded at St Giles-without-Cripplegate church, London. "I couldn't reproduce the sound I needed on an electronic organ, so we got permission to move the recording equipment into St Giles," said Wakeman. "It was quite an experience playing a lovely instrument like that.
Anne of Cleves - Wakeman calls "a rather fee-form" track, "almost having no form at all, there was a contradiction in what everyone was playing. The guys in the band thought I was completely barking, but it had to be like that."
The album was to be titled Henry VIII and His Six Wives with a track dedicated for Henry himself, but Wakeman recorded the tracks on the wives first and had used up the space available on a vinyl record. The track was then discarded and the album renamed. When recording ended in October 1972 the final cost for the record had reached around £25,000. Wakeman described working on the record as "difficult and cumbersome", but said that the album was a "finally rewarding project".
The cover photograph was taken at Madame Tussauds wax museum, London, where a figure of Richard Nixon can be seen in the background as the curtain was not fully closed.