Bill Wyman: I can't live off the Stones royalties
Date: January 10, 2008 10:06
Daily Telegraph 10 January: slightly longer version of article in today's newspaper
Bill Wyman: I can't live off the Stones royalties
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 10/01/2008
Former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman talks to Robert Sandall about the new tour by his band the Rhythm Kings - and why, at 71, he has to keep working
Bill Wyman is sitting in a booth at the back of his Sticky Fingers restaurant cuddling a very beautiful young girl with long curly hair and slanting eyes called Matilda. She is telling him what she thought about his band the Rhythm Kings' recent performance at the O2 centre, where they supported Led Zeppelin.
Happy now: "Playing with the Stones there was always such a lot of pressure", says Bill Wyman
For Matilda, this isn't an easy conversation. For one thing, the large age difference between them means that most of the vintage r'n'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 reproachfully, slithering around on her banquette, the way mildly bored 9 year olds do when grown ups are doing most of the talking. "Everybody else was singing except you." Wyman beams indulgently at his youngest daughter and explains that he's looking after her while his wife is off skiing in France with her sisters, Katie, 13 and Jessica, 12.
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. In a couple of weeks The Rhythm Kings embark on a 32 date trek across the UK, playing 6 nights a week at small theatres and concert halls from Fife to Cornwall. Last Autumn they toured Europe before joining the bill at the Ahmet Ertegun memorial benefit in December.
As well as performing a half hour set on their own, 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 2 days," Wyman says, with evident satisfaction. "Musicians have really started to appreciate this band. Everyone we played with at the O2 has emailed me since to ask if we'll play for them when they come back."
Though Wyman clearly enjoys this kind of praise, compliments about his stamina fall on resolutely 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, which is the honourable way."
His band - a fluctuating squad of veterans presently headed by guitarist Albert Lee, the vocalist Beverley Skeeter and Dennis LaCorriere, formerly of Dr Hook - do not sign up with him to line their pockets, Wyman insists. "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 1990's as a deliberate antidote to the one he left after the Steel Wheels tour. From a financial standpoint, the timing of his departure 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. With the Rhythm Kings we do it all in 2 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. "It was just a 3 month thing," he says. "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."
Wyman took his real family to see this other Rolling one when they played the O2 arena last Summer. After hanging out back stage for a couple of hours he and the wife and kids tried to take their seats out front but were instantly recognised and mobbed by the crowd and forced back. "We missed the first half of the show, but it was a wonderful moment. My wife was in tears. The point that gets forgotten about me and the Stones is that we spent half of our lives together. We still send each other birthday and Christmas presents."
Well, you have to ask, and Wyman duly tells of the gifts that 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: "a poinsettia the size of a table, so big we couldn't get in the office." His favorite present was the box of Bronze Age artefacts from Charlie Watts, a lavish nod to his keen interest in archaeology. This included two flat blade axes from 2000BC in perfect condition.
"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; he thinks that it might have been a book.
Wyman's current phase of contentment in all areas dates back to his watershed year, 1992. It was then that he conceived the idea of forming a band with an older musical agenda which would allow him to play the bass the way he had always wanted to, in a more fluid, jazzy style.
"When I play now it has more the feel of a double bass, an instrument which I love but can never play because I've got such little hands." These, he explains, are the reason why he originally removed the frets from his electric bass in 1962, to make it into a sort of miniature double. And that's why he still prefers to hold it vertically, in a manner that became his live trademark with the Stones. "That wasn't a gimmick, it was a necessity!"
His other major decision of 1992 was to marry a Californian model, Suzanne Accosta, a woman he had befriended in Paris in 1979. "When we first met Suzanne had no idea who I was. She asked me what I did and I said was a musician. 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 of casual, non-sexual contact - for most of which Wyman's relationship with the teenage Mandy Smith was all over the world's gossip pages, along with suggestions that he was a sex addict in the grip of a mid-life crisis - he invited Accosta to London and asked her to marry him. "She said I'd have to change my ways and I said 'I will.' And I have."
Wyman is understandably thrilled to have had the chance of a second bash at fatherhood so late in life "It was nice for me to realise that I wasn't firing blanks, of course. I joined the Stones when my son Stephen was 8 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. And I've never been so happy. I've still got my health, my career, all my hair, and three beautiful daughters."
At this Matilda, who has just finished crayoning over a sheet of paper listing The Rhythm Kings'