In November 2011 Proper American Records released a 5CD compilation of music by the Rhythm Kings, a loose aggregation of players led by former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. Similar — in its busman’s holiday by guys with nothing left to prove approach — to Ringo Starr’s All-Starr outfit, the Rhythm Kings differentiate themselves by playing music in the style of pre-rock’n'roll genres. While it’s a grab-bag approach that encompasses early jazz, swing, blues, soul and r&b, it works amazingly well, and the fun quotient always comes through.
Bill Wyman recently spent the better part of an hour talking with me about the new set, and the guiding aesthetic for the Rhythm Kings. He also tossed in some Stones history as well. Here’s our conversation. – bk
Bill Kopp: I got the vinyl LP Willie and the Poor Boys when it first came out. As I understand the history of that record and project, it was a one-off that sort of grew out of the ARMS concert. But in retrospect it’s a clear forerunner of the Rhythm Kings. So how did the idea for the Rhythm Kings unfold?
Bill Wyman: That was a record to raise money for Ronnie Lane‘s MS [Multiple Sclerosis] charity. So, yeah…it was like a forerunner of the Rhythm Kings without realizing it, wasn’t it?
We had such a great time doing Willie and the Poor Boys. We did two albums [the self-titled 1985 record and Tear it Up: Live in 1994], and it was so much fun. And when I left the Stones in 1991, I didn’t do music for a couple of years.
They didn’t believe I’d left ’til ’93 (“No, you haven’t left.” “Yes, I have. I left in ’91.” “No, you didn’t.”) In the end, in 1993, just before they were doing the ’94 tour, Mick [Jagger] and Charlie [Watts] finally asked me, “Are you in the band or out?” [I said,] “I’ve been out two years!”
They were very sweet to leave the door open. But that was that. I’d left. And after that I got married – I’ve been married eighteen years now, and have got three beautiful teenage daughters, one of which just got us on board Skype for this interview – and then I thought, yeah, maybe I’d like to get into some music again. But not the way I’d done it in my life; completely different: anything, no matter what it is, no matter what style, whatever era it came from. Just good songs, something I like. Just do it. Just for the fun of it. No pressure from record companies, no image, none of that shit. No one kicking you up the backside; just do it for the love and the fun of it.
And I got people around me, and we went in [to the studio] once a month for three days, and cut like eight, nine tracks each time. And at the end of the year, we had like seventy-five tracks! A lot of ‘em finished, and a lot of ‘em just tracks. But some had vocals and lyrics. Basically, we covered a whole lot of stuff: Fats Waller all the way back to Ethel Waters in the 20s, all the way up to Creedence Clearwater Revival, J.J. Cale, seventies stuff. It was a complete mixture: Jackie Wilson, some Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry, et cetera, et cetera.
Just a whole mixture. Because I had all these different vocalists in the band. And they all could sing different styles, and the band could play all different styles. And we did it!
We finally got a record deal, which took about a year. Because everybody – every time I’d send stuff to them – would always say, “Wow, man. Fantastic. But we can’t sign you, because we don’t know how to promote this or what to do with it. So we’re going to have to say ‘no.’”
And I was getting so disappointed. Tommy LiPuma in New York, who did all that Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks stuff…I was getting the same thing from him. And from a lot of really important record companies. In the end I went with BMG in Germany, who wanted to do it. And it went on from there. So it was all right, but it was very difficult in the beginning.
On that first album [1998's Struttin' Our Stuff], I was a little bit careful, and I tried to make it a little more commercial. We did “Green River,” “Tobacco Road,” the Stones’ “Melody,” so we might get a bit of airplay. It just grew from that, really. And then we found when we were releasing our CDs, they were going into the English jazz and blues charts! Our third one [Groovin' from 2000] went #1 for five weeks, and the others were going top five. And I was very, very happy.
And then the record company said, “We need you to tour to promote it.” Oh no: not that again! That was one of the reasons I left [the Rolling Stones]. They wanted to tour the world; I was done with it.
So we scheduled a few gigs in Holland and Germany; they put the tickets out and it sold out instantly. They had to put second shows on all of them. We added one in London. And they were so successful – the band enjoyed them, and I did, so much – that we decided to tour every year. So what we do, and what we’ve done since that day – and I’ve got almost the same band now that we started with – we do a tour of Europe and Scandinavia in the spring; we do it by road, in a bus. Then we do the UK in the autumn. Like we’re doing now: in mid-October we stared a 38-city tour in seven weeks.
We don’t fuck about: when we do it, we do it. We just get the odd day off to do the laundry, y’know?
And we always have one guest on the tour, just as we do on the records. People like Eric Clapton.
BK: And it’s Mary Wilson on this tour…
BW: Right. Mary Wilson of the Supremes. I’ve known her since the sixties. We did The T.A.M.I. Show together, and we’ve stayed friends. She did a big show with us in Monte Carlo, in Monaco for Prince Albert‘s Grace Kelly Foundation. And it was so successful that I asked her if she wanted to do this. We had had Eddie Floyd for two or three years; he was fantastic. We had Gary “U.S.” Bonds three years ago. We had Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook, and so on. So I thought, let’s have Mary for a change.
Once in a while, we’ll have the occasional guest on an album as well. If I think there’s a certain track that needs something a bit unusual that’s not in the band, then I’ll ask Mark Knopfler or Chris Rea or somebody, y’know?
BK: When the Rhythm Kings do covers, they tend to be jump blues and swing as much as rock and soul. Those sort of pre-rock’n'roll styles had a clear influence on rock’s attitude. Roy Brown, Louis Prima, Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers…
BW: And Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris and all that lot…
BK: …their music, while perhaps not strictly speaking rock and roll, has more of the “feel” even than some of the other styles that went into the mix to create rock and roll. Tell me a little about the appeal this sort of music has to you.
It’s just great fun. They’re having a great time, all of those people just went out there and had a bloody good time. Like Fats Waller in the 20s and 30s; he was never serious on one song. I’ve got his whole collection, and I’ve been listening to him since before I joined the Stones. Every single song, he’s having a ball. He died early; that was probably a consequence of it.
But what a fabulous way to play music. And I thought, yeah, we should do this. It’s just fabulous to play. This band save a month in the spring and two or three months in the autumn for the Rhythm Kings. And that’s what they do. The rest of the time they all work with all sorts of other acts. And sometimes they’ll turn down really good financial offers to be with the Rhythm Kings. Beverley Skeete – my wonderful black girl singer – she’s toured with everybody over the years: Chaka Khan, Dusty Springfield, Jamiroquai, The Eurythmics. She turns down The Eurythmics now to work with the Rhythm Kings.
I swear to you: we’re doing a 38-city tour, and we’re always asked back. Year after year after year. And we have other shows popping in as well. Because when we get to the end of a two-hour show – we usually go to two and a quarter, actually – the last three numbers, the audience are up on their feet, dancing and cheering and clapping and all that. And then when we go off the stage, they clap and clap and clap. We do three encores; when we go to our dressing room, they stand and clap for ten minutes! Night after night after night. And it’s such a pleasure, you know. That’s what music’s about. Not worrying about image, god-almighty.
BK: I’m sure that all of you onstage, you feed off all that energy.
BW: I’m not bullshitting you: that’s what happens. Because this band plays a whole mixture of music; you can’t get fed up with it. I go to see bands, and after three songs, I’m bored. The same song, the same key, the same volume. Nothing changes except a few lyrics. I get bored after a few minutes; don’t wanna hear it any more. This band, it’s fluctuating, changing every song. A different lyricist, etc. We might do a blues from Chicago with a great slide guitar from Terry Taylor. Or wonderful blues harmonica from Frank Mead, my horn player. Then we do a Ray Charles song with Georgie Fame. Then we do a rockabilly thing, a Gene Vincent thing with Albert Lee playing all them wonderful licks.
It just changes, one after the other. You can’t get bored with it. That’s what I try to do with the band, and on record. And it works. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it, man. I’ve got so many projects in my life, I wouldn’t have time to fuck about. If it’s not wonderful to do, there’s no point in doing it.
BK: A lot has been written about how, for example, the Beatles got to hear obscure American sides because sailors brought records to Liverpool. They got a steady diet of music that perhaps people in other parts of the country wouldn’t have got to hear. Growing up in South London, How did you learn about this music?
BW: I kinda knew it before I joined the Stones, when I had a little band in South London. I had heard Fats Waller and Dizzy Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan and some of the jazz people. A bit of Ray Charles; I had heard that growing up before I played music. And then when I started playing, we did sort of black r&b with my band. We did Jackie Wilson things, Chuck Berry of course. We did “What’d I Say?” and that kind of stuff. Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran. And also people like Larry Williams, Lloyd Price. He did that record, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952, way before rock’roll, but it was rock’n'roll.
When I joined the Stones, I went into a blues band. A pure blues band. And the only thing that I had ever played that they had played was Chuck Berry! And when I first started, they did used to do one Fats Domino song, but for the life of me I can never remember what it was. I could manage that, but I knew nothing about Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. Bo Diddley, I had never heard of any of those people. So I learned all of that in the Stones.
They learned as well. Because Mick and Keith [Richards] were coming from a Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley kind of thing, and Brian Jones was coming from [a background of] Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and all that stuff. And it integrated, and we all learned from each other. They learned it in the first few months before me and Charlie joined, and from the time we joined, we all brought something into the band.
And then as it went on, I learned, and picked up records from all the people I hadn’t been able to afford to buy. Like Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker and Lighting Hopkins. I’ve got like twenty albums of Hooker, from 1940 onwards. I started to buy early stuff like Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, early Ray Charles. And I started to build up a record collection of early r&b and music that was going to go into soul music. That’s where I learned it all, basically.
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