By Patrick Prince
Many wondered where Bill Wyman’s creative talents would take him after he officially left The Rolling Stones in the early ’90s. Some wondered if he would retire altogether, leaving his creative past behind him. But since his departure from the Stones, Wyman has become an archaeology enthusiast, photographer, writer and successful entrepreneur. Then there’s The Rhythm Kings, Wyman’s musical labor of love.
Founded by Wyman and his close friend, guitarist Terry Taylor, The Rhythm Kings are a band that escapes the glitz and glamour that comes with being in “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.” The Rhythm Kings go straight to the essence of music that had a great influence on early rock ’n’ roll. Essentially, everything that had influenced Wyman from the very beginning is in the center of The Rhythm Kings’ musical tastes — blues, American roots, jazz standards, swing, soul, R&B and straightforward rock and roll.
The core of the band continues to be Wyman on bass, Georgie Fame on keyboards, Beverley Skeete on vocals, Graham Broad on drums, Terry Taylor and Albert Lee on guitar and Garaint Walkins on piano, who Wyman describes as “Bob Dylan’s favorite English piano player.” Two horn players — Nick Payn and Frank Mead — tour with the band. And what makes the band unique is that any musician can sing at any given time, depending on the song.
In late November, The Rhythm Kings released a modestly packaged, “Collector’s Edition” box set of the band’s first five studio albums. A North American release, this box set was a wonderful way to get this side of the Atlantic noticing The Rhythm Kings again. But as the 50th anniversary of The Rolling Stones approaches with big plans in store, Wyman continues to enjoy a lower profile. Members of The Rhythm Kings are content to record when it pleases them and limit their tours to Europe (Wyman still refuses to use air travel).
It must have been liberating at first, to form a band like The Rhythm Kings — a band that’s just about the music, not concerned about the limelight or the big business of music and all the pressures that come with it.
Bill Wyman: That was the pleasure of it — just going out there and just enjoying playing with no pressures and just having a good time. I mean, going back to the hotel or backstage with a smile on our faces instead of fairly miserable (laughs).
The whole thing with this band — I don’t know whether it comes across in the music, I think it does on record — is that we play a whole variety of music. We just don’t stick to one style, which made it difficult to get a record deal in the first place because no one knew how to sort of promote us or sell our records. But as far as audiences are concerned, they love us because it’s just changing all of the time — we have six vocalists in the band, we’ve got horns, we’ve got two keyboard players, two great guitar players and sometimes three — and we can play anything. We can play jazz, blues, soul, rock, rockabilly, country-flavored stuff, reggae. We can do anything. And there ain’t a band around that does that.
That’s true — going from a song like “Hey Joe” to a Louis Armstrong number.
BW: (laughs) See, nothing’s impossible with the band. And you can stretch back and find these obscure records from the ’30s or the ’20s or whatever it might be, and you can do them with this band, because of the range of vocalists and the versatility of the musicians that I’ve got. And it’s such a pleasure to do that, you know. I just found a track by a guy called Prince La La. Spencer Davis Group did one of his songs (“She Put the Hurt On Me”), and it’s nice. It’s like an archeology dig and finding something way back there that’s been forgotten about or never heard and bring it back to life.
Did you discover the Prince La La track on vinyl?
BW: Well, most of them are on vinyl in my record collection, and quite a lot of them are on cassettes, which I’m slowly transferring over to iTunes. And it was one that just appeared out of the blue. And I can’t remember ever hearing it before, but there it was. But that happens quite a lot with the stuff I got — stuff that people send me on cassette with no names on it, just saying “some nice early blues” or something. And I kind of have forgotten about it, and now I’m playing them and finding some gems there. And that’s really what The Rhythm Kings are all about.
There are a lot of old gems on vinyl.
BW: I have a massive collection back in the country at my house. I’ve got, I don’t know, 6,000 to 8,000 albums, I suppose. And thousands of singles and EPs, going all the way back to the ’50s, really, but I’ve got albums going back to … God knows when. I’ve got the old 10-inch albums. I’ve got all the great girl jazz singers and all that. And then, of course, I’ve got box sets of everything Fats Waller ever did and so on. All the Gene Vincent stuff.
Do you like the warmer sound that vinyl provides for a band?
BW: All The Rhythm Kings’ stuff is done on tape. It’s not digital. We go in the studios and we use tape, either 16- or 24-track tape. We use as many old microphones as we can find, as many old amplifiers, anything that’s got a bit of age to it and still sounds really good, we use it.
The Rhythm Kings do seem to capture the essence of old classics.
BW: Whenever we cut records — and we’ve been doing it for 12 years now — we never go past take three. They are all take one, take two, mostly. On occasion, take three. But if we don’t get the master in three takes, we forget it. I say, “Forget that song. Let’s move on to the next.” Because when you are doing a song by Jackie Wilson or Billie Holiday or Fats Waller or Ethel Waters or whoever it might be, you’ve got to capture the essence of the song, because that’s the thing that makes you like the song in the first place. A lot of people don’t bother to do that, and the only way you can do that is to cut it really quickly but very well. When you hear The Rhythm Kings’ music, you hear that sort of fun, the good thing time, the nice atmosphere it’s got, and the warmness … It’s there because of those quick takes. That’s my logic, anyway.
It makes it feel spontaneous.
BW: Yeah, and that’s how it’s done in the first place. Those guys only had one shot at it, didn’t they? When I used to be in the Stones, sometimes we’d do 30, 40 takes each song. And then we’d always revert back to take seven or take nine, because it had a great mood and the feel was right, even if there were a few bum notes in there — which you could tidy up. The whole thing was just warm and fun, and you were having a good time before it got too technical and too mechanical, and that’s why I always do these very quick recordings with The Rhythm Kings.
You were once quoted as saying that you find it easier to write songs in an older style of music.
BW: Yeah, because I started to analyze them. Previous to that, I tried to write sort of soft rock, some tongue-in-cheek things, had some success over the years — not a lot, but I had some. But I was thinking of trying to write a song that sounded a bit like a ’40s blues ballad. It was a matter of analyzing the way people sang in those days. And the ways the horns played. And the way they did backing vocals, if they ever did. And the slang they used in the lyrics. And I kind of integrated all that, and tried to write in that kind of way, with that kind of mood, and it worked. I also had to re-create my bass playing in a different way to try and sound more like a double-bass feel, because everything we were doing was done previously by a double bass, and they play differently than a bass guitar, obviously. They tend to play down the strings rather than up the strings. So I really had to adapt the way I played to sort of sound more like a double bass, and sometimes it fools people. And a lot of people who hear stuff we’ve done think it is a 1940s song.
Your solo album, “Stone Alone” (1976), had a few songs on there like “A Quarter to Three” and “No More Foolin’” that sounded more like an older style of music.
BW: Yeah, a bit New Orleans-y.
Yes, so it’s something that you have touched on before.
BW: Yeah, it’s kind of been there, hasn’t it? It’s been there without me realizing it, that it’s something that I did like. I didn’t want to copy what was going on in the Stones, which most band members do when they do solo albums — they tend to sound like the band they’re in, like John Entwistle sounded like The Who. I didn’t want to do that, so I think I stepped a bit too far away, because the fans didn’t understand where I was at and all that. But that’s fair enough. I lived through it. And I found my niche with The Rhythm Kings.
In a You Tube interview, you said that you like to work with artists who are good-natured, not prima donnas.
BW: Yeah, if you got good players and they’re not prima donnas, they leave space for everybody else, and everybody admires what everybody else is doing and playing. I mean, for two years I had Albert Lee on guitar and Martin Taylor, the English jazz guitarist, playing opposite — Albert, with his country and rockabilly and early rock ’n’ roll style, against this wonderful jazz playing, and it worked a dream. They loved each other’s music, and they left space for each other. And it was so charming to have that. And that’s what the band is all about, really.
You’ve also had many studio guests on your Rhythm Kings’ albums. Are there other musicians you would like to collaborate with?
BW: There’s always someone out there that I haven’t used in the band that I would like to. I mean, there’s Pete Townshend. There’s Stevie Winwood. And people like that. Some of them are difficult, so you don’t go there. You know it’s going to be a disaster, or it’s gonna be hard work, or it ain’t gonna end up the way you want it. There are a lot of musicians who know what’s going on of our ilk. You know that you don’t have to teach anything; they just know it. If you say a song, they know it. But you can’t use everybody. If I find in the studio that a song needs something from somebody I can think of, then I’ll ask them if they’d like to put a guitar solo on or something like that. I pick the odd person if they are gonna suit the track, really. Otherwise we just use who’s in the band.
And former Stones have been studio guests, like guitarist Mick Taylor.
BW: Yeah, Mick. We did get a nice solo on one track, which we used, so that was all right. And Mick has come on stage and played with us in Holland and a few places like that. And he was with us for the Ian Stewart celebration show in London. He was there with me and Woodie (Ron Wood). We did a nice show with Charlie Watts’ band. It was really fun. He comes and goes a bit, Mick. But I don’t purposefully go out and try to use Stones people, ’cause they’re not suited to this kind of music, really. Always the pity (laughs).
Members of the Stones — including yourself — played on pianist Ben Waters’ Ian Stewart tribute album called “Boogie 4 Stu.” Even though you didn’t record together, it may be the last time you have a track with the Stones.
BW: (sings) ‘This could be the last time ...’ (laughs). Well, you never know. You never know what might happen next year. You never know. I’ll leave it like that.
Some people think you retired when you left the Stones, but you have been doing so many things since then.
BW: I always wanted to do things, but when I was in the band, there was never any time. There was never any time to do movie scores, although I did do one or two. And solo albums — I kind of stepped into without being serious about it, because I could only do it in bits and pieces, tongue-in-cheek stuff. But since I left, I am able to focus much more seriously on stuff.
Interesting how life works.
BW: Yeah, I’ve never been busier. And I’ve never been happier.
When will we see The Rhythm Kings tour America again?
BW: They always ask me if I’m coming over there again. But as I gave up flying in 1990, once you build a bridge or tunnel, I’m over there (laughs).