Ex-Stone happier as Rhythm King
At 71, Bill Wyman says he has to keep working
Bill Wyman is sitting in a booth at the back of his Sticky Fingers restaurant cuddling a beautiful young girl called Matilda. She’s telling him what she thought about his band the Rhythm Kings’ recent performance at the O2 arena, where they supported Led Zeppelin.
For Matilda, this isn’t an easy conversation. For one thing, the large age difference between them means that most of the vintage R&B tunes the Rhythm Kings play were recorded decades before she was born. It can’t help either that the guy she’s with, the group’s leader and bass player, is her father.
“It was great, but you weren’t very good, Dad,” Matilda says, slithering around on her banquette, the way bored nine-year-olds do when grownups are doing most of the talking. “Everybody else was singing except you.” Wyman beams indulgently at his youngest daughter.
A less pernickety observer than Matilda might marvel at the fact that, at 71, Wyman is more active now than he has been since the earliest days of the Rolling Stones. Today, the Rhythm Kings embark on a 32-date U.K. tour, playing small theatres and concert halls. Last fall, they toured Europe before joining the bill at the Ahmet Ertegun memorial benefit in December. As well as performing their own set, the Rhythm Kings stood in as the house band on the night for Paulo Nutini and a host of soul greats, including Solomon Burke and Percy Sledge. “We had to learn 30 songs in two days,” Wyman says, with evident satisfac- tion. “Musicians have really started to appreciate this band.”
Though Wyman enjoys the praise, compliments about his stamina fall on deaf ears. “We’ve always worked hard. We have to because of the budget. You can’t make much money touring with a 10-piece band. You get a bit of small change, but basically you do it because you love playing.”
His band – a fluctuating squad of veterans presently headed by guitarist Albert Lee, vocalist Beverley Skeeter and Dennis LaCorriere, formerly of Dr. Hook – do not sign up with him to line their pockets. “Beverley has turned down gigs with Annie Lennox to tour with the Rhythm Kings, for which she gets a fifth of the money. This has not been a career move for any of us.”
Wyman formed his current band in the early ’90s as a deliberate antidote to the one he left after the Steel Wheels tour. From a financial standpoint, the timing of his departure from the Stones was not auspicious. “The big money wasn’t there yet. I had a small nest egg, and I can live nicely. But I can’t rely on Stones royalties to support me. I have to work, and I’m not in the same league as the boys who stayed on.
“But I wanted to have fun. Playing with the Stones there was always such a lot of pressure. The next album or single always had to be the best, or at least sell more. When we got together to play, it was a great moment. Working with Charlie (Watts) was fantastic, and we’re still really close. But, when I toured with the Stones, it would take a month to practise all these songs we’d been playing for 30 years. The Rhythm Kings do it all in two days.”
Wyman is keen to quash the rumours about lingering bad blood between him and his former bandmates. He concedes that the airbrushing of his image from the archive photographs that appeared on the sleeve of the Stones’ 2005 retrospective album Rarities was “disappointing and petty, but I don’t know whose decision that was. I don’t bring those things up.” His general view is that the wounds, such as they were, healed years ago. “They didn’t want me to leave, but we get on great now. I had 30 great years with them, then a really nice divorce, and, corny as it may sound, we are still family. We still send each other birthday and Christmas presents.”
Well, you have to ask what these are, and Wyman duly tells of the gifts he recently received from the other Stones. A large, scented candle from Richards, “one of those huge round things that burns forever. Keith always sends me those.” An even larger potted plant from Ronnie Wood – “a poinsettia the size of a table.”
His favourite present was the box of Bronze Age artifacts from Watts, a nod to his keen interest in archeology. This included two flat-blade axes from 2,000 BC. “When Charlie dropped the box off he said, ‘Be careful with this; it’s a bit fragile.’ Now, what did Mick get me?” Strangely for a man with such a retentive memory – exhaustively detailed in his memoir Stone Alone – Wyman can’t remember what Jagger slipped in Santa’s sack; it might have been a book.
Wyman’s current phase of contentment dates back to 1992, when he conceived the idea of forming a band with an older musical agenda that would allow him to play the bass in a more fluid, jazzy style. “When I play now, it has more the feel of a double bass, an instrument that I love but can never play because I’ve got such little hands.” He still prefers to hold his electric bass vertically, his trademark with the Stones. “That wasn’t a gimmick, it was a necessity!”
His other major decision of 1992 was to marry Suzanne Accosta, whom he had befriended in Paris in 1979. “When we first met, Suzanne had no idea who I was. She went a bit pale after I said I was in the Stones. She didn’t seem all that impressed with it.”
After 13 years – during which Wyman’s relationship with the teenage Mandy Smith was all over the gossip pages, along with suggestions that he was a sex addict – he proposed to Accosta. “She said I’d have to change my ways, and I have.”
Wyman is thrilled to have had the chance of a second bash at fatherhood late in life. “I joined the Stones when my son Stephen was eight months old, and I never really saw him grow up. I’m now at the age when, if you’re lucky, you’re doting on your grandchildren. I’ve never been so happy. I’ve got my health, my career, all my hair, and three beautiful daughters.”
At this Matilda, who has just finished crayoning over a list of band tour dates, flashes her father the sweetest smile.