Rhythm remains King for septuagenarian R’n’B legend Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman
Bill Wyman

Malcolm Wyatt talks to a former Rolling Stone still in love with the live music scene after all these years.

Despite the fact that Bill Wyman has been on the road and in the studio with his Rhythm Kings for 17 years, and happily married for 20 years, he remains forever associated with his three decades as a Rolling Stone and notorious past prowess in other areas.

Bill, born William George Perks on October 24, 1936, served the Stones from 1962 until 1993, and is reputed to have bedded more than 1,000 women over the years.

One of those affiliations in particular sticks in the national memory, a short-lived 1989 marriage – his second – to 18-year-old model Mandy Smith, a relationship going back to when she was 13.

But while the repercussions still jar, it’s worth noting that Bill and wife Suzanne married 20 years ago, the pair now with daughters aged 19, 17 and 15.

Furthermore, despite the odd reunion and friendships with members of the Stones, Bill left that legendary outfit 20 years ago.

And while Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie stole the show at Glastonbury 2013, Bill’s band were also on the bill, also going down a storm.

It was suggested I couldn’t ask questions about the Stones when I got through to Bill at his Chelsea base. But as it turned out, he was more than happy to bring up the subject.

The main focus, though, was his month-long 27-date tour, a gruelling schedule for any musician, let alone one about to turn 77.

The tour starts at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre on October 28 and ends at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal on November 30, including Preston Guild Hall on Friday, November 15.

So is it good to be back?

“It’s always nice. We usually do Europe in the Spring, but didn’t this year as I was working on a book. But we did a few festivals in the summer, including a couple in France, Glastonbury and Colne, where I got a bloody award at a blues festival!

“We had a great audience, had a great time, and they gave this wonderful blues legend award for me and Chris Farlowe.”

Bill’s getting another this month at London’s Savoy, the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors’ Gold Badge, recognising an ‘outstanding contribution to music’.

“I’ve got more awards on my own with the Rhythm Kings than I ever got with the Stones.

“They always bypassed us – those that be didn’t really like us, the media and that. But these are nice as they come from your contemporaries, which means a bit more than just a bunch of fans voting for their best mates.”

Bill’s CV is incredibly full, from art collector, artist, musician, producer and composer to author, photographer, diarist and metal detector designer. So what does he feel his greatest legacy will be?

“Er... playing charity cricket with all the great cricketers of the world! Brian Lara, Ian Botham, Viv Richards, Richard Hadlee, David Gower … I’ve played with everybody. It was fantastic being on the field, batting and bowling against those people, and I was very fortunate to take a hat-trick at The Oval, shown live on Sky. That was extraordinary for a bass player from South London – a hat-trick against an old England team! Charlie (Watts) called and said ‘Did you take a hat-trick? And did you have a cigarette in your other hand?’ I said I did, and he said, ‘You didn’t stamp it out on the hallowed turf, did you?’”

Bill famously quit smoking in 2009 after 55 years. Is he ever tempted to re-start?

“Not at all. I tried it every way – hypnosis, patches, 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 when I wanted a cigarette I had one, but stopped inhaling. I just puffed and blew away and over a period of six months it went down to nothing. I don’t think about it and I don’t miss it. No patches, none of that. No substitutes. Just don’t inhale. Then you can stop.”

Family life is important to Bill, suggesting a different guy to the one people think they know.

“My girls are 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.

That said, you have to start looking out for the boys!”

So what would the 17-year-old William Perks back in 1953 have made of Bill Wyman’s success 60 years later?

“Well, there you go … it’s unthinkable really. 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.

Bill is old enough to have been among the generation that did national service, with his basic RAF training carried out not far down the road at Padgate, near Warrington.

“Oh yes – a nightmare place, that was!”

There must have been a lot of his fellow servicemen called to the Suez. Life could have been very different.

“Absolutely. My brother did National Service two years after me and signed up for a dozen years in the RAF, as an electrician on Vulcans and V-bombers. He made a career of it. Luckily, I didn’t. I got out and started to play music. The rest is history. And here I am, still doing it!”