Ex-Rolling Stones bassist brings new roots-rock band to N.Y. area
Nothing about Bill Wyman's band, the Rhythm Kings, offers much hint that he was the bass player with the Rolling Stones for 30 years.
Hitting on the Rhythm Kings cold, you might think this was a roadhouse band airlifted from another era. They play rock, R&B, Fats Waller songs, standards, shuffles, blues. They play original songs, and they shade familiar tunes including Groovin' or Daydream with a little jazz.
"After I left the Stones in '93, I wanted music to be fun again," says Wyman, who turns 65 on Oct. 24. "So I invited a few friends over to play songs we liked. Pretty soon we had 60 tracks and I thought, 'What do I do now?' It was that naive."
It took him two years to find a record deal.
"I got fantastic comebacks, people like [Atlantic Records president] Ahmet Ertegun saying they loved it and they played it all the time ... but it didn't fit their roster. They didn't know how to promote it."
Finally, a British label took a chance, and the first Rhythm Kings record went to No. 1 on the British jazz and blues chart. So did the second.
And they hit the road, which became the most fun of all.
"With the Stones now, you're a speck on a stage," says Wyman. "As a fan, if I wanted to see Dylan or Elvis in the early days, I'd want to be close enough to see the sweat. With this band, you can be 6 feet away."
For three years they've played Britain and Europe, including the Montreaux Jazz Festival, and now US audiences get their first taste, tonight at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., and Friday at Town Hall.
"In a way, this is like when the Stones first came over," in 1964, Wyman says. "Nobody knows what to expect. People assumed the Stones were another band riding the Beatles' hype, when of course we were nothing of the sort. We were throwing Chicago blues at them."
By 1965, the fans caught on. In Wyman's classic phrase, "We didn't play concerts. We played riots and near-riots."
Nor was this just teen hysteria. The Stones were that good, in no small part because Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts created the best rhythm section in rock 'n' roll history.
"People say that a lot," says Wyman. "I'm not sure I agree with it, but it's flattering to hear. I'm proud of our work."
By the '80s, however, the glow was fading.
"Since I didn't share in the songwriting, my income was from records and tours," Wyman says. "And from '82 to '89 we didn't tour, so I was pretty much on the bread line."
He solved that problem by joining the Stones' 1989-90 Steel Wheels tour. Then he bailed.
He wanted to select, write and produce his own songs - functions reserved for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ("who obviously served the band very well"). He wanted to study photography, painting and archeology, and start a new family, which now includes daughters ages 6, 5 and 3.
"I often wish I'd left earlier," he says.
He also says he left cordially.
"I talk with Charlie all the time," he says. "A few weeks ago he came to see my band, and I've seen his jazz group. I see Woody [Ron Wood] sometimes, and I see Mick a lot.
"One night recently we were all at a club, and we ended up on stage jamming - Mick, Dave Stewart, me, Woody and some others. I enjoyed that. But I have no intention ever to do anything again with the Stones."
Wyman remains the Stones' primary in-house historian, and his second book on the band comes out this fall. He wrote a book on Chagall "that did quite nicely" and his history of the blues will be published Sept 1. He has finished two hour-long companion documentaries on the blues, one covering prewar and the other postwar, that will be shown on Bravo.
He can do all this not because the Rhythm Kings make a lot of money - they don't - but because they're efficient. "We did a two-CD set, Double Bill, in eight days," he says. "Everything you hear is first, maybe second take. With the Stones, an album took six months."
Equally important, he thinks the Rhythm Kings fill a void.
"A great chunk of the audience is not being served by the major record companies or the radio," he says. "They love roots music, [which] they aren't hearing."
That music was more prominent 30 or 40 years ago, Wyman suggests, in part because the roots were closer. "If someone liked the Stones, they could go hear Muddy Waters or Slim Harpo or [John Lee] Hooker at a club. We helped remind people what was there."
The Rhythm Kings lineup seems a bit mix-and-match, with singers like Georgie Fame, rock guitarist Albert Lee, jazz guitarist Martin Taylor and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, but it's not a round robin. It's a band.
"This isn't a Ringo Starr show," says Wyman. "I'm not insulting Ringo, just saying this is different. Gary isn't singing Whiter Shade of Pale and I'm not singing Stones hits. You're more apt to get Jackie Wilson."
More Rhythm Kings information here
Wyman / Brooker interview excerpts here.
Bill Wyman talks to Record Collector about Gary Brooker