Like a Rolling Stone
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Illinois Entertainer
Walking away from what some consider to be the greatest rock n’ roll band of all time might seem like a shocking and perplexing decision, but when speaking with Bill Wyman about his retirement from The Rolling Stones to form The Rhythm Kings, it was simply a matter of personal preference. Though he’s told the tale before, the founding bassist who logged 31 years of service with those legends was simply sick of traveling by plane, and perhaps more importantly, wanted to dive deeper into covering vintage blues, jazz and good old fashioned rock n’ roll that’s so often overlooked in the commercially-minded marketplace.
“There was a gap [after leaving The Stones in 1992] when I wrote a book, opened a restaurant, and got married, so there was a space before starting The Rhythm Kings,” he explains from his UK home via phone. “When we started touring, the audience would yell out for Stones’ songs and I used to say ‘sorry guys, this ain’t The Stones, this is The Rhythm Kings and we don’t do Stones’ songs. Then soon after that, nobody ever yelled anymore and they just accepted what we were doing and they loved it. I’m still doing it with them because it’s such a pleasure to go out there and play just a whole variety of music to an audience. We’ll play a blues song, then a soul song like “Land Of A Thousand Dances,” then we’ll do a ballad, then a JJ Cale song, then maybe Fats Waller, Chuck Berry or Elmore James- everything’s possible in this band.”
Wyman’s quest for variety over the past decade and a half outside The Stones is perhaps most readily available on the brand new Collectors’ Edition Box Set (Proper American Records). The five disc set bundles together the studio projects Struttin’ Our Stuff (1997), Anyway The Wind Blows (1999), Groovin’ (2000) and the double disc Double Bill (2001). The 66 tracks span four hours, excavating their way through obscure memories from Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Louie Jordan, alongside a slew of like-minded originals.
“We basically just want to show people there’s so much nice music out there that people have forgotten about a lot,” observes Wyman. “You do have your collectors that know about this kind of music, but the general public isn’t aware of certain people from the past. It’s nice to do these archeological digs into music and come out with these little gems from the ‘20s to the ‘70s. We just redo them as close to the original as possible, while making sure you capture the original essence.”
Though fans in England have already become privy to such discoveries, Collectors’ Edition Box Set marks the first time Stateside audiences can devour the discs domestically. And considering Wyman will never board an airplane again, it remains the only opportunity for American fans to capture The Rhythm Kings in any format.
“We’ve had offers to tour America, Japan, Australia and everywhere really, but I don’t fly anymore, so that’s out the window,” he assures. “I might come if you build a tunnel or a bridge, but I did it forty years and I just got sick and tired of it. I was flying when I was doing my military service way before The Stones and so I’ve been flying all my life. With The Rhythm Kings, we get in a coach and drive through Scandinavia, Finland, Eastern Europe, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Holland- you name it. And we get to see the countryside, which I never got to when I was in The Stones because all we saw was the airports, the hotels and the gig.”
At 74-years-old, Wyman is certainly taking more time to soak up the scenery, but he’s far from sedimentary, also sidestepping in careers as an author, photographer and even amateur archeologist. However, he’ll put all those interests on hold for a 38 city European tour this fall alongside The Rhythm Kings and special guest collaborator Mary Wilson (from The Supremes).
While American audiences are out of luck seeing those two legends outside of a YouTube clip, they can at least trace Wyman’s lengthy lineage of tag teaming in general throughout the box set. The all-star guest list includes Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Mick Taylor, Mark Knopfler, Peter Frampton and Paul Carrack (amongst many others), alongside The Rhythm Kings’ nucleus, featuring drummer Graham Broad (Roger Waters), singer/guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low (Eric Clapton), singer/organist Georgie Fame, guitarist Albert Lee, vocalist Beverley Skeete, horn players Frank Mead and Nick Payn, pianist Geraint Watkins and guitarist Terry Taylor.
“George [Harrison] was great because I phoned him up and asked if he would play a guitar overdub [on ‘Love Letters’] and he said ‘Bill, why are you asking me when you’ve got the two of the world’s greatest guitar players in your band?’ recalls Wyman. “I said ‘because I want your sound George’ and he said ‘but I only play one note.’ So I said, ‘George, that’s the note I want’ and he did it, bless him. A year later he died of course, but we recorded ‘Taxman’ as a tribute and thank you to him. It’s just a joy to have so many various people, but I don’t lean on The Stones and never have on my solo albums. I never wanted that safety crutch.”
Even so, Wyman doesn’t shy away from discussing his lengthy career with those rock n’ roll purveyors, and mentions he continues to exchange Christmas and birthday presents with each of the remaining members. Even if his current tastes are far removed from “Satisfaction,” he’s regularly consulted about archive releases and looks back fondly on that extensive season of his life.
“One of the great concerts was Hyde Park in London, an open air show to almost half a million people on a lovely sunny day two days after [original guitarist] Brian Jones died and it was very peaceful,” reminisces Wyman. “As far as recording, it was when I was able to add a special bit to help make a track what it was. When we did ‘Miss You,’ it wasn’t sounding right and [session keyboardist] Billy Preston turned around and said ‘why don’t you trying walking bass octaves on it,’ so I tried it and it worked. And the next year, practically every band in the world came up with that kind of riff playing, so that was a nice complement. When ‘Paint It Black’ was finished, everyone said it was great, but I said it was a bit empty in the bottom and suggested adding organ pedals. I didn’t know how to play organ pedals, so I laid on the floor under the organ seat and punched the pedals with my fist and that helped make the record what it is.”
However, arriving at those kinds of sounds on Stones’ records could sometimes take what felt like eternity, which is in stark contrast to Wyman’s methods of recording in The Rhythm Kings. Every cut on Collectors’ Edition Box Set was in final form after just a couple takes, whereas his previous band could labor for hours, if not days, for just the perfect radio-friendly formula.
“We might work on and off on a song for two weeks, spending four hours one night, then move onto something else, then the next night spending five more hours, followed by something else, and then the next night two hours, ending up with 40, 50 or 60 takes,” Wyman muses, eventually confessing one of the first ten rounds was often chosen because it felt looser. “Guys like Robert Johnson only did it in one or two takes and that’s the way I’ve worked with The Rhythm Kings since the beginning. It’s so much more fun when you can cut eight tracks in two afternoons instead of one track in two weeks.”
Though it would seem the ability to record so quickly these days, coupled with his immeasurable innovations from the past, might make Wyman come across as confident and perhaps even cocky, he’s quite possibly one of the most humble rock n’ rollers in history. “Compliments are very nice, but I don’t let them go to my head,” he insists. “I think I’m an okay bass player, which in the case of The Stones, meant being a pretty simple player and being reliable. In The Rhythm Kings, I play a double bass sound because that’s the kind of music we’re playing and I don’t think of it any more than that. I get surprised when people ask me if I could do a track on their new album and I think ‘why me?’ There are lots of other great or better bass players around that they could pick. They say they like my style, but I don’t know what that style is. I just do it and it just comes naturally, but if you ask me to analyze it, I wouldn’t be able to because I haven’t got a clue.”
Like a Rolling Stone perhaps? Or maybe the ultimate Rhythm King.
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