Hard to believe, maybe, but Bill Wyman turns 77 later this month. Yet that’s not stopping him going out on the road again – for a mammoth 27-date UK tour with his star-studded band.
Furthermore, few people will have given him credit for being on the road and in the studio with the Rhythm Kings for the last dozen years, let alone being happily married for the past 20 years. Most of us still associate him with his three decades as a Rolling Stone and notorious past prowess in other areas.
Bill, born William George Perks on October 24, 1936, was with the Stones from 1962 until 1993, and was famously reputed to have bedded more than 1,000 women over the years.
One of those affiliations in particular sticks in the national conscience, his short-lived 1989 marriage – Bill’s second – to 18-year-old model Mandy Smith and their prior relationship, going back to when she was 13.
But while stories occasionally resurface about that period, it’s worth noting that Bill has been with Suzanne Accosta for two decades now, and the couple have three daughters, aged 19, 17 and 15.
Furthermore, despite the odd reunion with the Stones and continuing friendships with members of the band, Bill has been out of that particular rock’n’roll loop for 20 years.
And while Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie made the headlines at Glastonbury 2013, Bill and his own band were on that same weekend bill, enjoying a rapturous response of their own in rural Somerset.
Perhaps understandably, it was suggested I shouldn’t ask questions about the Rolling Stones when I was put through to Bill at his Chelsea base. But as it turned out, he was more than happy to talk – of his own volition – about some of those halcyon days.
But the main focus was his forthcoming month-long tour with the Rhythm Kings, a gruelling schedule for any musician, let alone someone in their late-70s.
That tour starts at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre on October 28, and ends at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal on November 30, with my excuse for catching up an appearance at Preston Guild Hall around half-way, on Friday, November 15.
What I should add at this point is just what a top bloke Bill proved in our over-far-too-soon 15-minute conversation, happy to talk about all sorts, and clearly looking forward to his forthcoming tour. And this is how our chat went.
So is it nice to be going back out on the road?
Yes, it’s always nice. We usually do Europe in the Spring, but didn’t this year because I was working on a book and didn’t have time. But we did about six festivals in the summer, including Glastonbury and a couple in France, so that was nice. And I got a bloody award in Colne, Lancashire, where we did a blues festival! That was great. We had a great audience there, a great time, and they gave me this wonderful blues legend award for me and Chris Farlowe. Obviously looking back to the ’60s!
And you’re getting another this month (the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors’ Gold Badge, recognising Bill’s ‘outstanding contribution to music’) at The Savoy in London.
I’ve got more awards on my own when I’ve been with the Rhythm Kings than I ever got with the Stones, who hardly ever got awards. Amazing. They always bypassed us, because those that be didn’t really like us – the media and all that. So we never really got awards like that. And these are nice awards because they come from your contemporaries from the music business, so mean a bit more than just a bunch of fans voting for their best mates.
You’ve a lot of tour dates coming up, haven’t you?
We have a couple of days’ rehearsal before starting off in Dartford four days after my birthday.
That’s another big birthday, isn’t it?
They’re all big ones these days! But we need the rehearsals, as we’ve got to run through seven new songs for Maria Muldaur, including Midnight at the Oasis, quite a complicated song with lots of chord and key changes. We also have a few new songs, some old stuff and some of our favourites. There’ll be a nice mix, as there always is. It will be fabulous, as it always is. We’ll have great audiences, it’ll be a great time.
That’s quite a band you’ve got, isn’t it?
It’s the same band we started with amazingly. It fluctuates a bit over the years, but when I look back to when we started it’s the same except for the keyboard player.
Ah yes … the keyboard player. You have Georgie Fame coming in! I’m a big fan. In fact, Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo (released 50 years!) is one of my favourite albums of all time.
That was great stuff, and we (The Rolling Stones) used to support him there in the early days. We were in awe of him. Mr Cool, we called him! That jazz he used to sing, a bit like Mose Allison and people like that. Absolutely brilliant.
There were a few American GIs in that audience too, weren’t there?
Oh yeah! They used to follow us around too, because they knew the Blues, which was kind of new to the British audience then.
That must have been a big influence on you.
Georgie was always one of my favourites and I did play some gigs with him. I did a 25-year tribute at the Marquee with Alexis Korner, Georgie, Charlie Watts and some other people. I was always a great fan and in awe of him, so it was wonderful to get him in the band. I was a bit scared to ask him actually. I had Andy Fairweather-Low in the band then, so asked him if he could ask Georgie to join my band. He said ‘come on, do it yourself!’ I said ‘no, I’m nervous’. So he called him, and we’ve been together ever since! We’ve also got Albert Lee, a wonderful guitar player. He’s been with us since the beginning and he’s every guitarist’s favourite guitar player. Then there’s Beverley (Skeete), our wonderful rhythm queen. And the band are still the same. We’ve got two horn players who are very entertaining on stage, and play a variety of instruments.
And you all get on well together?
Oh yes, otherwise we wouldn’t do it!
That was always the intention, wasn’t it? You’d moved on from the big world circuit to something you always said would just be for fun.
Yeah, fun and no pressures, no worrying about charting and all that, just go out there, have a really great time and play some good music. And that’s the way it’s continued. I didn’t think it would last very long. I thought maybe just a couple of years. But we’ve been so popular over the years, and got such a following now that when we play the English tours we’ve people coming from Germany, France and Belgium, Holland, sometimes Australia and America, just to see us. We’ve got this cult following and its great to have it … so we continue!
Your sound and ethos has been popularised by Jools Holland and his band too, hasn’t it?
Yeah, they’re the only other band like us, except they don’t cover the same scope or variety. But they’re fortunate they’ve got TV and radio. We don’t have either of those. They get a lot of promotion like that, we have to fight for ours. We cover a lot more variety, going from jazz to blues to soul music to rockabilly like Gene Vincent and ballads. We also do Cajun music too and they don’t. But they’re a good band too.
Is there an element of paying your musical dues with the Rhythm Kings?
I wouldn’t think of it as that. It’s more reviving some fantastic tunes from your past, by wonderful people like Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, Fats Waller, Billie Holliday and all those kind of people, but also people from the ’50s, ’70s, JJ Cale, Creedence Clearwater Revival … We’ve got over 200 songs to choose from, either live or on albums. So it’s hard to choose what 20 you’re going to do on a tour.
Does that cause arguments?
We never have arguments! I might suggest a Jackie Wilson song and Beverley might suggest another Jackie song. We have that kind of positive choice, not arguments.
How’s life on the tour bus?
We always go on the bus, all low profile. The others listen to music or sleep, but four of us sit at the back and play cards, as we’ve done for 12 years. And its great, a new venue every night, with little time off. Maybe we’ve three days off during the tour.
Those 27 dates in barely a month must take their toll.
Charlie Watts phoned up the other day and said ‘that tour – I can’t believe you can do that, you’re doing so many shows in such a short time!’. With the Stones now, they’re doing one every three or four days, because of building, taking down the stage and all that. So he’s not used to this. But I am, because that’s the way we do it. Sometimes we do 35 or 40 dates. so this is a lightweight one for me!
You’ve obviously still got the stamina.
I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t so much fun and so wonderful to play to these small audiences close up in the theatres and concert halls, have such a good time and see the response we get. We get ovations every night. I wouldn’t do it, because I’ve so many other things on my plate, with the other things I do.
I was looking at a list of some of those descriptions – art collector, artist, musician, producer, composer, author, photographer, diarist, metal detector designer … What do you think will be your greatest legacy out of all of that?
Err… playing charity cricket for 12 years, with all the great cricketers of the world! Brian Lara, Ian Botham,Viv Richards, Richard Hadlee … I’ve played with everybody … David Gower … and it was fantastic being on the field, batting against those people, bowling against them, being bowled at. It was a fantastic career and I was very fortunate to take a hat-trick at The Oval shown live on Sky Television. That was extraordinary for just a bass player from South London – a hat-trick against an old England team! Charlie (Watts) called me and said ‘Did you take a hat-trick? And did you have a cigarette in your other hand?’ I said ‘yeah, I did,’ and there were photos taken. He said, ‘You didn’t stamp it out on the hallowed turf, did you?’
You famously quit smoking in 2009 after 55 years. It’s Stoptober now – are you ever tempted to re-start?
Not at all. I tried it my way, I tried every way – hypnosis, patches, everything, nothing worked. Then I finally thought I’ve got to do it for health reasons, for the future. If I want to stay with my little family growing up, I’ve got to stop this. So whenever I wanted a cigarette I had one, but stopped inhaling. I just puffed and blew away and over a period of six months it just went down to nothing. I don’t think about it and I don’t miss it. No patches, none of that rubbish. No substitutes, just don’t inhale … then you can stop!
You mention your family. You’ve been married 20 years now, and have three young daughters. That suggests a very different Bill Wyman to the one people think they know.
They’re older teenagers now. Normally at my age it would be grandchildren, but they’re my children! That’s fantastic. They’re starting to go to university. Wonderful.
With two girls of my own I can relate to that.
You’ll have to start looking out for the boys!
What do you think 17-year-old William Perks back in 1953 would make of Bill Wyman’s success 60 years later?
Well, there you go … unthinkable. I was working in a little office in Duke Street, London, near Selfridge’s, waiting nervously to get my call-up papers to do national service. No, it’s mind-boggling. There’s magic moments in your life where something happens that was meant to happen but you don’t expect it, and it takes you to a different place.
I see you did your RAF National Service training at Padgate, Warrington. Incidentally, that’s where my dad did his basic training, I think just one year before you.
Oh yes – a nightmare place, that was!
There must have been a lot of fellow servicemen from that era who went to the Suez or wherever. Life could have been very different for you, couldn’t it?
Absolutely. My brother got his National Service two years after me and signed up for a dozen years in the RAF. He was an electrician on Vulcans and old V-bombers and made a career of it. Luckily, I didn’t. I got out and started to play music. And the rest is history! And here I am, still doing it!
* With thanks to Andy Kettle (CMP Entertainment)
* A different version of this feature was first published in the Lancashire Evening Post, and can be found here
* To check out the latest on Bill Wyman and dates on his Rhythm Kings tour, head here