He’s the man who once hung up on John Lennon. And despite that, he still went on to play on the ex-Beatle’s most iconic song, “Imagine,” which was recorded 50 years ago this spring.
Alan White, who now lives in the Seattle area, was just another struggling young English rock ’n’ roller when, one night in September 1969, he took his position behind the drums with his band Griffin at the matchbox-sized Rasputin club in London. White didn’t know that Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, were sitting anonymously at the back of the room. The next evening, the drummer was frying up a meal for some of his bandmates at the small house they shared near Wembley Stadium in London when the phone rang.
“A voice announced, ‘Hello, this is John Lennon,’” White remembers with a chuckle. “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.”
It was. Lennon told White he liked what he’d heard of his drumming, and would he care to join some friends and him to play “a little gig” together? In Toronto. Tomorrow.
“The next thing I know,” White continues, “a black limo pulls up at the door in the morning and I’m on my way to Heathrow Airport. There were John and Yoko, both very friendly. Then the door of the men’s room opened, and out came Eric Clapton. He was our guitar player for the night. They hadn’t mentioned that before.”
The hurriedly assembled group rehearsed their set with the aid of a couple of acoustic guitars while cruising at 30,000 feet above the Atlantic. Later that same evening, White was onstage as part of the Rock and Roll Revival festival held at Toronto’s sold-out 22,000-seat Varsity Stadium, which was an attendance about 21,800 larger than back at the Rasputin club. “John was physically sick with nerves before we went on,” says White, “but the show itself was great. I was 20 years old, and I suppose I just took it in my stride. It wasn’t until years later that I went, ‘Wow, what happened there?’”
White became Lennon’s go-to drummer after that, which is how he came to find himself recording at Tittenhurst Park, John and Yoko’s 70-acre estate in the English countryside, in late May 1971.
One of the first songs they did was a short piano ballad featuring just Lennon, White and an old Beatles acquaintance named Klaus Voormann on bass guitar. It was called “Imagine.” The home they were recording in had nine bedrooms, and came equipped with a half-dozen servants’ cottages, which, as more than one critic has noted, made it an interesting choice for a song that invites us to envision a world without possessions. But at the time, nobody was bothered by that, any more than they recognized they were creating one of pop music’s enduring classics.
“John wasn’t one for a lot of detail,” White says. “He showed us the song’s lyrics, played it through on piano, and we took it from there. That was how we operated when we did all those great Lennon songs — ‘Imagine,’ ‘How Do You Sleep?,’ ‘Jealous Guy’ and the rest. I remember once when we were doing ‘Instant Karma!’ at Abbey Road Studios, he looked over at me and said, ‘Whatever it is you’re doing, keep doing it,’ and that completed the technical exchange. John and Yoko were both extremely gracious. I stayed as their guest at Tittenhurst for a few days, which obviously wasn’t too shabby for a young guy living in a little place in north London. When it was all over I had enough money to buy my first car.”
Observing the “Imagine” sessions from behind the window of a small control room was the legendary American producer Phil Spector, who was later convicted of murdering actor Lana Clarkson and who died earlier this year at the age of 81. White remembers, “Phil just stood there, wearing a pair of shades, and didn’t say much,” although he must have performed his dial-spinning duties to Lennon’s satisfaction. “As we were leaving, I saw John hand Phil the keys to his Rolls-Royce and tell him, ‘It’s yours,’” White recalls.
Spector took the raw tapes of “Imagine” to the Record Plant studio in New York, where they were mixed and given one of the producer’s trademark orchestral washes. Released in October 1971, the song was a worldwide hit in time for the holidays. The single has since gone on to sell about 21 million copies worldwide. It’s also been covered by more than 200 other artists, running the gamut from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga to a somewhat eccentric version by the actor Joan Collins backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As former President Jimmy Carter has remarked, “In many countries around the world, you hear ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems.” The award-winning author Kevin Powell is one of those who goes even further. At the height of last summer’s protests in American cities, Powell argued that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is problematic because of its composer’s ties to the slave trade. Why not, Powell wrote, replace it with “the most beautiful, healing, all-people, all-backgrounds-together kind of song you could have,” as he called “Imagine.”
If White’s Beatles résumé was limited to collaborating on the album and single of “Imagine,” it would be pretty impressive. But his involvement with the Fab Four didn’t end there. He was also one of the sprawling troupe of musicians who performed on George Harrison’s bestselling album “All Things Must Pass,” as well as on Harrison’s more specialized set of devotional songs, “The Radha Krsna Temple.” It got to the point where Ringo Starr began to affectionately refer to White as “that other drummer,” sometimes adding a playful intensifier to the phrase. Over the years, a lot of musicians have been talked up as the “fifth Beatle.” Without ever aspiring to it, White could make a strong claim to the title. There was even loose talk later in the 1970s of him joining Paul McCartney’s band Wings, although, largely for scheduling reasons, it didn’t happen.
There are two basic types of working musician — those who find their niche and stick to it for years to come, and those who like to diversify. White is clearly one of the stylistic border-jumpers. In 1972, he joined the hugely successful prog-rock outfit Yes. White had one weekend in which to learn the group’s songs, and his first show with them was in front of 20,000 fans at a stadium in Dallas, with a young band called the Eagles as the support act. Nearly 50 years later, he remains the longest-running continual member of Yes (their founding guitarist Steve Howe took a sabbatical from the lineup in the 1980s), and there are plans for a major tour by the group in 2022.
About 40 years ago, White and his wife, Gigi (who grew up on the Eastside), settled in the Seattle area, and they’re still here today, living in Newcastle. “It’s a great place to live — the weather’s pretty much like England — and obviously it’s a cool music town,” White says of the Seattle area. “If you’re in a band, life’s all about looking over the horizon to the next challenge, the next opportunity. Or at least it should be. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are; you just keep going. I’m always excited about the future.”
White stops himself and grins. “Of course,” he concludes, lightly, “there are certain moments in your past you’ll always be known for. And I’m quite proud of one or two of them, too.” Imagine.