Picking up from Part One of our interview, music legend Bill Wyman addresses the material he chooses for the Rhythm Kings, his approach to playing bass, and some of his perceived technical limitations.
When you talk about music from different eras or cultures, you’re referring to experiences that you perhaps personally haven’t experienced. For example, you may have a country song that’s talking about going back to the farm.
I’d love to do George Jones songs, for instance, but I don’t have a singer that could do that. Fine, but we can do Ray Charles songs. We can do Sam Cooke or Jackie Wilson or people like that. We can do Chuck Berry. We can do all the early blues singers, some of the early R&B singers. But there are a lot of things we can’t do, obviously.
Are there songs that you shy away from because the experience being described is a bit too personal or something that you can’t quite relate to?
It’s usually down to whether we can do something with a particular song as good, if not better, than the original and still retain the spirit of the original. That is the most important thing for me. To retain the spirit that the first song, the original song, was created. That’s why I do just one, two, three takes because otherwise I think it becomes too mechanical after that. But there are certain songs that [we] just cannot do; like Bo Diddley songs, which I’d love to do. The Stones were able to do it with Brian Jones — he managed to do that tremolo effect. We did them beautifully in the early days. But when Brian went, the Stones never attempted a Bo Diddley song after that. And so there are certain things we cannot do, but there’s not many, I’ll tell you.
I’ve been very impressed.
We couldn’t do a Satchmo song. We could do an Ethel Waters song. We can do a Billie Holiday song. We can do Fats Waller.
To summarize, it’s more a matter of the sound and the feel rather than the specific lyrics. Is that correct?
I think you’re on the wrong way there a bit. How can I put it? I did a number which was very, very difficult to do. It’s called “Hole In My Soul” and it was done by a guy called Sascha Burland, a jazz musician in a big band. But he did it as a single in the late 1950’s. “Hole In My Soul” is a bit kind of like an early Mose Allison sort of style, but much more jazzy. It’s got lots of breaks and time differences. I didn’t know whether we could ever do it, but I asked Georgie Fame who is a burning genius, “Do you think you could do this?” And we did it. But it’s so different from anything else we would dare to go for.
There’s certain jazz records we cannot go near, you know, because we don’t have the quality. I’ll give you an example. I met Ray Charles, and chatted for half an hour after a wonderful concert in London in the ’90s. He invited me to play on his next album playing bass. I said, “I can’t. I’m not good enough to play with you, Ray.” I’d love to, but I can’t get there. And I turned it down because I know my limits. You could use genius technical bass players, but I’m not that guy. I don’t play like that. I don’t follow rigorous formats or anything. I’m just looser than that. I’m more like Duck Dunn who is quite the player from the Booker T. band. I’m not technically clever so it scared the shit out of me to be asked by Ray Charles to play for him. I would have adored it but I just knew I didn’t have the chops.
I’m surprised to hear that.
Charlie’s [Watts] the same. Leon Russell asked me, Charlie and Stevie Winwood to play on his first album when he came up to England, which we did. That morning when we went in, Charlie said, “I’m so scared, Bill. Can you help me through this?” I said, “Yeah, we’ll manage.” And Steve Winwood was wonderful, of course. And it worked, but Charlie’s done that quite a few times to me when we’ve done things outside the stands. He said, “I never thought I could manage it. I don’t think I’m good enough.” And I said, “Well, let’s go for it.” And it worked out.
Charlie’s like that. We both feel we have certain limits.
Can you talk a little bit about your bass playing and how that’s evolved over the years? Are you doing anything different stylistically?
When I started playing with the Rhythm Kings, I had to completely change my bass style. I started off playing blues with the Stones and early R&B, black music. And then it became more and more heavy, heavy rock. With the Rhythm Kings it was much more sort of jazzy and bluesy and soul-y and quieter, smoother, more relaxed, laid back. I had to completely change my bass playing because 90 percent of the songs we do in Rhythm Kings on record or live either had a double bass playing or no bass at all. All the way up through Chuck Berry and all that, double bass. So I had to try to adapt my style and sound to sound more like a double bass.
When you play bass guitar, you usually play from the lowest string upwards. When you play a double bass, it comes from the high strings down to the lower strings, rather than from the lower strings up. Not all the time, but that’s the basic feel, so I had to re-think the way to play and re-think the kind of lines and notes progressions to play this music. It was a big learning experience for me. But when the first couple of albums came out I had people like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck saying, “Who played the bass on ‘Motivating Mama’ on the first CD?” I said, “I did.” “No, no, it’s double bass, isn’t it? I heard you don’t play double bass.” I said, “No, I’m playing it on my bass.” And you fool people. I can’t do the slap, obviously, but you can fool people with the sound and the feel of it sometimes.
You’re famous for having created the first fretless [electric] bass. Do you ever go back to that?
I used it on and off with the Stones until ‘86. The last album I used it on was Black and Blue on a few tracks. I used it extensively on Exile on Main Street and many times on stuff before that. I would never take it on tour because I was always shit-scared of it being stolen because it was a one-off. I preempted by five years or six years the first fretless basses which I didn’t know [about] until recently.
I’ve just had a bass guitar made as near to substitute of that as possible. They’ve just manufactured it now; it’s going to be coming out on the market. It’s called the Bill Wyman Signature Bass. It’s small and lightweight. It’s really pretty looking. It’s perfect for young people to start learning on because it’s short scale. I’ve got small hands. A young kid can’t pick up a Fender Jaguar bass. They’re too big. I can’t play them; they’re too big. So I decided to make this bass which was a copy of my original homemade bass, to help young people. I did this with the metal detector. I had one made for children because lots of children do metal detecting in England. You can find treasure everywhere.
Can you talk about the release that’s coming out? It covers the years ’98 through 2001, I believe. How did the band evolve during those years?
Yes. Well, it stayed pretty much the same band. When a few people weren’t around… Albert Lee might be in America on tour with the Everly Brothers at that time, so then I’d have Martin Taylor, jazz guitarist, come in; or Andy Fairweather Low come in and play guitar with Terry Taylor, my guy. Sometimes when Georgie Fame wasn’t available because he was touring in Australia, I’d have Chris Stainton, who’s fabulous, out of Eric Clapton’s band. So I’d always have the same two horn players. I usually had the same drummer. The rest of the band stayed the same. We’ve had the odd guest come in and play on various tracks. We’ve had Eddie Floyd for two or three years. We had Gary U.S. Bonds a couple of years ago when we were in England; he was fantastic. We had Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook who did a tour with us. This autumn, starting mid-October, we’ve got a seven-week tour, 38-cities tour of England with Mary Wilson of the Supremes as our guest. And so it goes on.
We’ve got six singers who all sing differently. Albert sings rockabilly and early rock ‘n roll. Georgie Fame sings jazz and blues. Beverly Skeete sings ballads and soul music. We can do any kind of music principally. That’s what the audience loves about us. The tours and the albums are a variety of all kinds of music. You never get fed up with it because it’s changing all the time, from a real Chicago blues with slide guitar and wonderful harmonica to a Ray Charles song to Creedence Clearwater.
Are there genres that you would like to get into that you haven’t had the chance to?
A little bit more of the New Orleans stuff from the early ‘60’s — Benny Spellman, the Neville Brothers, the early Dr. John, Archibald, Allen Touissant; all those great piano players. We haven’t hit on that too much. We did more when Gary Brooker of Procol Harum was in the band for three years because he does all that stuff.
Is there any chance of an appearance in the U.S.?
I don’t fly. I haven’t flown for 10 years now. And I don’t miss it one bit, I’ll tell you. It hasn’t changed my life, either. I will if you build a bridge or a tunnel.