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Interview: Bill Wyman – The Legendary Bassist on The Rhythm Kings (Part One)

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For almost 30 years bassist Bill Wyman, along with drummer Charlie Watts, formed the rhythm section of the Rolling Stones. By the early ‘90s Wyman left the band, tired of the commercial and physical grind. A couple of years later he formed his own group, Bill Wyman and the Rhythm Kings, focusing on roots music, including rockabilly, blues, and swing. On November 22, four of their CDs (Anywhere the Wind Blows, Struttin’ Our Stuff, Groovin’, Double Bill), spanning the years 1998 to 2001, will be re-released in a five-disc set. Wyman sat down for a discussion that covered the formation of the Rhythm Kings, the material he chooses, and his approach to playing bass. In conversation he came across as gregarious and enthusiastic about the Kings and their music.

A lot of people aren’t familiar with how the Rhythm Kings were created. Can you talk about that, and how this project is different than some of your previous solo projects?

Yeah, absolutely. When I left the Stones  in ’93 — well, ’91, but they didn’t believe me for two years — I stayed away from music for a couple of years. I just focused on my restaurant. I was writing book on archaeology, opening events for the museums and things like that. And getting married, of course. I’m now married 18 years and have three beautiful teenage daughters, so that was a good one. Then I thought maybe I’d love to play some more music, but in a different way. Not worried about charts or record companies and all the bunk that goes with it, all the pressures. Just do anything and have a bit of fun.

So I just started to call up a few mates and just started to record anything whether it came from the 1920s to the 1970s; I didn’t care. I’d do a Fats Waller song and then we’d do an Ethel Waters song from the ’20s and then we’d do a Creedence Clearwater song or J.J. Cale, just whatever grabbed me at the time which I thought was a good song, a Jackie Wilson song or Sam Cooke or Ray Charles. We’ve got a lot of singers in the band, six singers all with different styles, so we were able to experiment with learning very quickly any kind of music. It took a while to get our record deal because it wasn’t commercial music. People didn’t know how to sell it. I got lots of great compliments about it, but they said, “We can’t sign you because we don’t know how to work on this kind of stuff. We don’t know how good the market is out there.”

Anyway, we finally got our deal and then they asked us to tour, which I hadn’t even thought about. So I asked the band and we did a few gigs to start with. They sold out instantly. They asked us for double shows in all the venues, so we did and it was very, very popular. So then we decided to do tours after that. And in the meantime we were cutting records, just going in and cutting anything I wanted in one, two, or three takes. That’s it. If you can’t get it in three takes, don’t do it. If you’re playing a Jackie Wilson song and it’s got a bit of charm about it, we don’t want to lose that charm. We don’t want to sit there and do 28 takes like I used to do all the time. So I tried to do that with the Rhythm Kings from the beginning. If we couldn’t get it in three takes I’d say, “Forget that one. Let’s get on to another song.” We’d cut three songs a day and just go in for three days. Not much later we’d go in for another three days and we had a whole stockpile of music, all kinds of areas and styles. It was fabulous. We didn’t have any pressures and it’s all high-quality stuff, because I’ve got great, great musicians doing it. They’re doing it for the same reason as me. They just do it for the love again. They’ve all got their careers. They all work with other people. But we just get together twice a year and in the studio occasionally and just have fun doing it. And then they get back to their normal work.

It’s interesting that you’re use the word “fun.” I take a look at all the different influences that you guys have and I ask myself what seems to be the common denominator? And most of it seems to fall under the heading of “fun” songs.

Good-time music, I’ve always believed that that’s what music is. Music was created hundreds and hundreds of years ago just to make people feel good, especially with the black community in America. Just cheering them up on a Saturday night at a fish fry or the house party, just to get their brains somewhere else just for a couple of hours and have a good time and then get back to the basics the next morning. Fats Domino songs are like that. “Blue Monday” — he talked about it. So I’ve always thought music was for fun and it’s better in small places to play. Stadiums, I lost interest. There was no communication with the audience anymore. I like little clubs, so we started off doing the little clubs and theaters and small concert halls. That’s what we do all the time. There’s no money in it really because it’s a 10-piece band, plus our guest; we always have a guest on tour. And we just do it for the love, the whole band. [The musicians] turn down gigs, good-paying gigs, to play with us. [Singer] Beverly Skeete has turned down [an] Eurythmics tour to play with my band, which was such a compliment.

That really is. You were talking about some of the genres that you draw on. Can you describe some of the artists and what you get out of them? What are some of your influences?  I know it’s  tough question.

I’d be all day. I’ll give you an example. Ethel Waters in the 1920s and ’30s. She became — you might know about her — she became a great actress in movies in the ’40s. I’ve got all her stuff and I’ve always listened to her for years and years and years. One song stood out, “My Handyman.” It’s from the ’30s. It isn’t really rude but it’s a little bit saucy, a few double entendres. I said to Beverly, “My dear, I want to do this song. And let’s do it really simple.” And I had this fabulous piano player that I’ve used on the first three albums called Dave Hartley who later went on to work with Sting and the Olympics. I said, “Dave, you can play [it] on the piano, can’t you?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Beverly, lean against the piano like Ethel Waters would have done in the 1920s. Just lean against the piano and just sing it with Dave.” And they did it in one take. It was beautiful.

We did only a few Stones songs, because I don’t like to use it as a crutch. We decided to do “Melody.” It’s a great song. Billy Preston was involved in it and he sang it with Mick [Jagger]. And I thought I could do that really good with Beverly and Georgie Fame, my wonderful organ player. You know of Georgie Fame?

Yeah, I know a little bit about him.

He did “Yeh, Yeh” and all those songs in the ’60s. He’s a brilliant musician. I asked him to do it together. We’d cut the track and they got on the mic to sing the vocal and they sang and it was wonderful. It was the first thing that Beverly ever did with us. I said, “That’s fantastic and we’ve got it in one.” And they said, “Can’t we do it again?” I said, “Why? Didn’t you think it was good enough?” They said, “Oh yeah, but we’re just having fun. Can we do it a few more times just for the fun of it?” And then they cut a better version. They did it three times and we cut the master. That’s the attitude of the musicians in the band. It’s fantastic. When I was in the Stones for 30 years it was such hard work. So much pressure all the time. It was very difficult to enjoy it sometimes. No disrespect, because I loved my 30 years. We’re still great friends. So it’s not disrespect. It’s just a fact.

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About Phillip Barnett

Phillip Barnett is a software geek with multiple, conflicting musical fantasies. He has played jazz piano, folk guitar and klezmer clarinet (not all at the same time - that would look ridiculous and would probably hurt his back).