While often remembered rightfully as the keyboard player during the peak prog albums of Yes, Rick Wakeman deserves solo mention for his thematic albums. Wakeman began playing piano at age 5 and by age 12 was branching into electronic keyboards. He attended the Royal College of Music in 1968 where he got training in keyboards as well as clarinet and orchestration. He left the Royal College after a year to begin doing professional session work. From 1969 to 1971, he was a part of the band 'The Strawbs' as well as session work on David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'. In 1971, he began playing keyboards for Yes, replacing Tony Kaye. During his time in Yes, Wakeman launched a solo career producing concept albums with multi-layered keyboards.
Wakeman's primary influences are classical though you can clearly identify jazz elements in his work behind the more rock-oriented pieces of Yes and in some of his solo pieces.
Main Creative Force
Solo artist - n/a.
Most Likely To Be A Mainstream Rocker
Again, solo artist - n/a.
First Hint of Prog Brilliance
If we're talking about his solo work, it was clear from the very first album, 'The Six Wives of Henry VII' which featured lengthy instrumental pieces designed to capture the essence and personality of each wife. He would perform excerpts of the album while on tour with Yes and some of this is captured in the YesSongs album and concert movie. His second album was an interpretation of the Jules Verne novel 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' which featured narration from David Hemmings. The third follow-up was 'The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table'. All three of these concept albums have been massively popular with prog fans and their sales records are excellent.
Honestly, it is hard to call out a pinnacle of Wakeman's progressive solo career since it is all about as prog as prog gets. In terms of overall album sales, it appears that 'Myths and Legends' is the leader, worldwide. In terms of sheer pretentiousness, it does seem to be the peak.
Influenced By Them
Wakeman definitely influenced a generation of keyboard players in the borderland between rock and classical performance. It is safe to say that every prog-ish band since the 70s includes a keyboard player who has listened to a lot of Wakeman's work.
Wakeman was in and out of the Yes lineup and his attitude tended to echo his opinion of the songs being recorded. He was disenchanted with Yes's 'Tales from Topographic Oceans' though he stuck around long enough to finish the record. He left during the production of 'Relayer' and didn't return to the band for several years, coming back for the '77 album 'Going for the One'. A year later, he left before recording the album 'Tormato' which got its name, according to legend, when a disgusted Wakeman threw a tomato at the album's cover art. He was part of the Yes fragment - Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe and later with that actual Yes of legal name. He continues to perform some of his solo work and his son, Oliver Wakeman, has toured with Yes in his place.
My Personal Take
I liked Wakeman's solo work but then my musical tastes include classical, jazz, and rock and his albums tend to combine those styles. I think the importance of Wakeman's career is more significant for his contributions to Yes than his solo work, but he is a worthy musician in the prog pantheon. The only keyboard player who rivals his expertise and skill is Keith Emerson.