Rolling on in a more relaxed rhythm, Bill’s happy to dig up the musical past

THREE or four decades ago, when Bill Wyman was part of one of the tightest rhythm sections in the business, at the centre of the world’s biggest band, you might have been hard pushed to talk to him about anything else but the albums, the tours and possibly the partying. At their height the Stones were playing a ridiculous 360 gigs a year and “home” was a tour bus or a succession of nameless hotels. Mind you, it was usually Jagger who did any talking that was required.

These days the working-class lad who grew up in South London and served in the RAF before forming his first band, can entertain his listener perfectly well without necessarily talking about rock ‘n’ roll. While music, and particularly rhythm and blues, are still very much part of his life, he’s busy with family and a wide array of interests including photography – his first big exhibition has just opened in London) – metal detecting, history, charity sporting events, restaurants, homes here and in the South of France – and he is also a writer.

If he hadn’t been a musician, he reckons he’d have been a historian and, amazingly, he says that despite the stories about bedding hundreds of women years ago, he often left the other Stones to party while he explored museums.

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These days his principal home is a country manor in substantial Suffolk acreage, and in fine weather he likes nothing better than to get out onto the land with his metal detector. He has contributed considerably to local historians’ understanding of ancient Suffolk, thanks to the haul of mostly Iron Age and Roman coins and artefacts he has dug up. Once you start him off on the subject he is difficult to stop, taking huge pleasure in reeling off a list of recent booty.

“I found an Iron Age coin and two brooches, 28 Roman coins, three or four Roman brooches and a golden coin the size of a 10 pence from the time of Edward III who came to the throne in 1360. That would have paid a man-at-arms’s salary for a year. I also found the seal ring belonging to the high sheriff of Suffolk, who was appointed in 1784. Because of bad weather I’ve only been out about eight times this year, though. It’s a bit frustrating.”

He keeps his finds, and they are stored alongside Wyman’s collection of Rolling Stones memorabilia in carefully organised cases.

He was always, it seems, even in the headiest days of the Stones, the most steady, “dad” figure of the band. But, as he approaches his 75th birthday later this month, he doesn’t feel his life is shrinking or his enjoyment of making music and connecting with a live audience are diminishing. The difference between the tours he does every couple of years with his Rhythm Kings and Stones tours is that he doesn’t have to do it, and when he does, it is purely for the pleasure of the music.

To use the football analogy he favours, he has a squad of top-flight musicians he calls upon.

In the team for this autumn’s 34 dates are Georgie Fame, Beverley Skeete, Terry Taylor, Frank Mead, Nick Payne, Geraint Watkins, Peter Frampton and Andy Fairweather Lowe. Guest artist Mary Wilson (ex Supremes) will join them.

“We have the same basic band each time with a few changes, depending on who’s had an injury or a red card,” says Wyman. “We all do it for the joy of playing together and making an audience happy. After I left the Stones (in 1992) I decided I needed a rest. When I got the Rhythm Kings together in 1997, the aim was to do music but not how we did it before, when it became just hard work and none of us really had a life. In this band we play many different styles of music, from jazz and soul to blues and rock ‘n’ roll, we all harmonise together on the vocals, and unlike the Stones where we relentlessly rehearsed for a month a list of songs we already knew, we now get together for two afternoons of run-through. It’s so much more relaxed.

“Nobody’s career building or in it for the money – although some of the band were a bit disappointed when I wouldn’t accept an invitation to tour Australia. I like to be at home, near my family.”

He still sees “the boys”, particularly Charlie Watts. “I’m very fond of them and their families. We send birthday gifts, and we have a laugh when we see each other.”

He attributes his departure from the Stones in part to his not being able to do his share of the songwriting, which was dominated by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

“ It was a closed shop,” is how he puts it.

He’d also had enough of the long tours, the wear and tear.

“Some years ago I took my three young daughters to a Stones gig and they enjoyed it, they were very sweet.

“They asked me afterwards, ‘Daddy, why did you leave?’ I said, ‘So that I could have you...’ and that satisfied them.”

He says he can’t imagine a time when the music will stop, but nowadays he does it his own way.

Looking back through his trademark purple-tinted lenses, Bill Wyman remembers as though it happened only yesterday the time when the big dance band music on the American Forces Radio he listened to suddenly began to become infiltrated by rock ‘n’ roll.

It was the late 1950s, and skiffle gave way to names like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, ripping up the rule book and revolutionising popular culture. Over here, acts like Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball were knocked sideways.

As a child Wyman had played the organ with his father. After National Service he became a carpenter, got married, had a son by the first of three wives, and began to teach himself bass guitar. This led him to start his first band, The Cliftons, which gigged at weddings, dances and youth clubs around South London. In 1962 Wyman successfully auditioned to be the Rolling Stones’ bassist and joined Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Brian Jones. The Beatles came along and a year later the Stones broke onto the British music scene (he makes the clear distinction “they were a pop band, while we played jazz clubs”), ploughing a much more explosive furrow.

“It was all so fresh, everything that was going on then, and things moved so fast. I had a great 30 years... but I think I enjoy performing more now, to be honest.”

Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings play Sheffield City Hall on November 3 ( Box office 0114 278 9789), at Hull City Hall on November 4 (01482 226655), Harrogate International Conference Centre on November 5 (0845 1308840), and St George’s Hall, Bradford on November 27 (01274 432000).