A few years after bassist Bill Wyman left the Rolling Stones in the early ’90s, he formed his own group, the Rhythm Kings. Instead of cranking out formulaic rock ‘n’ roll hits, Wyman decided to cut back on touring, use more spontaneity in recording, and focus on roots music. For more information on Wyman and the formation of the Kings, read my interview with him: Interview: Bill Wyman – The Legendary bassist on The Rhythm Kings. Four of the group’s CDs (Anywhere the Wind Blows, Struttin’ Our Stuff, Groovin’, and Double Bill) spanning the years 1998 to 2001 have just been re-released as the five-disc Collector’s Edition Box Set.
Of course, Bill Wyman can pretty much get whoever he wants to play with him. The Rhythm Kings lineup includes:
- Georgie Fame, the well-known singer and keyboard player who had a string of hits in the ‘60s.
- Vocalist Beverley Skeete, who has performed with Elton John, Sting, Chaka Khan, and The Eurythmics.
- Albert Lee, the guitar virtuoso, who focuses on country and rockabilly-oriented material.
- Jazz/solo guitarist Martin Taylor.
- Pianist Dave Hartley, best-known for his work with Sting.
- Drummer Graham Broad, who has performed with Roger Waters, Tina Turner, and the Beach Boys.
Additionally, guest artists such as Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, George Harrison, and Gary Brooker (the founder of Procol Harum) have played with the group—all-in-all, not a bad lineup.
Wyman’s always been known as a man with wide-ranging interests, and his musical choices reflect this. Selections range from ’60s hits (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River,” the Rascals’ “Groovin’”) to swing (“Hit That Jive, Jack,” “The Joint is Jumping”) to blues (“I Put a Spell on You,” & “I’m Mad”). Original songs by Wyman and other band members try to capture the feeling of a particular genre.
Some of the selections are little-known or forgotten gems. These include “My Handyman,” first performed by Ethel Waters, and “Hole in My Soul” by Sasha Burland. A minor complaint: It would be helpful to have some of the stories behind the songs in the liner notes. Oh, well—I guess that’s what the Internet is for.
While the selection is varied, it is not especially deep. You won’t find the richer, deeper ballads of the swing era—a Billy Strayhorn or Gershwin composition, for example (the exception here is Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays”). The collection is geared heavily toward what Wyman calls “good-time music”.
As one might expect, the results show consistently high artistic values. Highlights of the collection include the following tracks:
- “Any Way the Wind Blows,” the J.J.Cale rockabilly-influenced composition, which features Fame taking the lead vocal and Peter Frampton taking some tasteful lead guitar licks.
- “Tell You a Secret,” written by Wyman and Terry Taylor, featuring raspy-voiced blues singer Adrian Burns and backup singers, along with intertwining guitar, horn and harmonica riffs.
- “When Hollywood goes Black and Tan,” a catchy 1940s period piece first performed by vocalist/pianist Cleo Brown, which celebrates black pioneers in Hollywood and the entertainment business. The Rhythm Kings deliver a spirited rendition featuring Beverley Skeete on vocals and some dynamic stride piano from Dave Hartley.
- “Days Like This,” a Mose Allison composition. Fame somehow captures the quirky tone, world-weariness and sophistication of an Allison vocal (I have no idea how the hell he does it!).
Wyman provides the same rock solid bass support he became famous for with the Rolling Stones. He steps out as lead singer on songs such as “Green River,” “Brownskin Girl,” and “Stuff (Can’t Get Enough).” His somewhat breathy style makes for an interesting change of pace from the other lead vocalists.
The production values are more polished than usual for this kind of music. Many selections feature background singers and a horn section. This isn’t a criticism—many roots music CDs are deficient in one area or another, and we who buy the music excuse the deficiency by deeming it “authentic.”
It’s frankly refreshing to hear a CD with consistently high production values. If it’s not the most complicated music it could have been—well, that’s OK. I found it consistently enjoyable, and a good listen. Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings’: Collector’s Edition Box Set is a breezy, fun tour of the side roads and alleyways of popular music.