50 Years Ago: Tony Kaye Leaves Yes for the First Time
Tony Kaye's purring Hammond organ is one of the signature Yes sounds — a powerful instrument that fuels so many songs from the prog rock band's first three LPs. But ironically, it also helped drive a wedge among the musicians themselves, leading to the keyboardist's first exit from the lineup in August 1971.
The classically trained Kaye joined Yes three years earlier, the group having evolved as a sort of adventurous offshoot of the London psych outfit Mabel Greer's Toyshop. And his steady organ and piano were crucial to their early evolution — always rooted in melody, never showy for the sake of virtuoso flash. "Tony was more of a soulful player and was great at filling spaces with his mighty swirling organ." guitarist Peter Banks reflected in the 1999 book Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes.
Still, Kaye wasn't a dominant presence on either of the band's first two records, 1969's Yes or 1970's Time and a Word — he didn't earn a writing credit on either, and much of his playing on the latter is obscured by orchestral arrangements. But everything coalesced the following year with The Yes Album, a masterpiece bolstered by the charismatic, genre-agnostic guitar of new recruit Steve Howe and the pristine production of Eddie Offord.
Kaye's B-3 creates a perfect backdrop on the full-band composition "Yours Is No Disgrace," contrasting with Howe's psychedelic flights of fancy and Chris Squire's crunching bass; and his bouncy piano, including a jazz-flavored solo, is a highlight of the sputtering "A Venture." There are occasional splashes of Moog synthesizer across the record, but Kaye mostly stuck to his favored instruments on The Yes Album — a creative choice that stirred up friction.
"There was a sort of new ideology that keyboards could actually bring more to the band than just the organ and the piano," Anderson said in the 1997 Rock Family Trees documentary The Prog Rock Years. "There were string sounds; there were choirs and various other sounds. There were the sort of colors that I started to feel very strongly that Yes could reinterpret through rock and roll, put it onstage and actually perform mini-symphonies." But Kaye wasn't too interested — at least in the early '70s — in expanding his keyboard arsenal. "It was the beginning of the Moog synthesizer and the mellotron, instruments I didn’t particularly like," he told Rolling Stone in 2021.
"It was not that pleasant to my Hammond ears, so to say. I was not particularly happy in doing that. … Jon [Anderson] and Chris, but particularly Jon, wanted to create this orchestral thing. And obviously, Rick [Wakeman] fit perfectly because that’s what he was playing. And so it was a split that had to happen."
Wakeman, the witty keyboard wizard who then played in Strawbs (and had racked up sessions with giants like David Bowie, T. Rex and Elton John), accepted Yes' offer to replace Kaye. And given the creative explosion that followed on Fragile and Close to the Edge, it was the right move for everyone.
“Tony Kaye was amazing over the first three albums,” Anderson told Something Else! in 2015. “It was just a question of having someone in the band who was willing to try different keyboard sounds. Tony was very: ‘I want to play the piano and the organ; that’s my thing.’ When we tried to push him into different sounds, he wasn’t really eager to do it. You don’t want to force anybody to do anything.”
Drummer Bill Bruford, looking back on the band's endless member changes, had a more humorous description. "I seem to remember a culture in the band of wanting to get better at everything — and having the best people in the band," he said in the Rock Family Trees doc. "And I seem to remember a culture developing rather like a revolving door, where if you could find a better person, you'd have them in the band. … If you [felt] there was a better guy down the street who covered a [wider amount] of material and had a better fuzz box, he was in [and] the other guy was out."
Yes continued that search for perfection over the decades, to the point where it brought them almost full circle: Kaye wound up back in the group lineup during the '80s and early '90s — another spin on the band's unending carousel.