Former Stone Bill Wyman Rolls On

Bill Wyman may no longer be a Rolling Stone but he still keeps himself busy. Apart from recording and touring with his band the Rhythm Kings, the former Stones bassist is now a documentary maker and p

Bill Wyman may no longer be a Rolling Stone but he still keeps himself busy. Apart from recording and touring with his band the Rhythm Kings, the former Stones bassist is now a documentary maker and published author. His latest venture is the European DVD release of "Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey." The documentary was originally shown on U.S. television in 2001, when a companion book written in collaboration with Richard Havers was published.

Ironically, "Blues Odyssey" started out as neither a TV nor a book project. "I just fancied doing a sort of 13-part radio series on all the great blues artists," Wyman explains. "I did a pilot one on Howlin' Wolf and it was well received, but everybody said, 'This should be a TV series, not radio.' So I started to think about that and did a little pilot for TV, a little eight-minute thing. Everybody loved it at the conventions and things and the people we sent it to said, 'This is a book.' So we did both at the same time. So I got to the book backwards, really."

Published by Dorling Kindersley, the book is a beautiful and lavish affair. "I chose Dorling Kindersley because they focus on illustrations and I love the way they just pop pictures and boxes everywhere with information," explains Wyman. "You can look at twelve different things on a double page spread with writing between [and] a background picture. I just love that. So I said that's the way I want a blues book to be. I don't want it to be a reading book with a bunch of pictures stuck in the middle."

"That's the way I did 'Stone Alone,'" he adds, referring to his 1990 book of Rolling Stones memories. "And I wasn't happy with it afterwards because everybody wanted more pictures. So we had a thousand illustrations in ['Blues Odyssey']." And that's not to disparage the text element of the book. It contained almost as much sociological as musical history and won a literary award from the Blues Foundation."

Dispiritingly for Wyman, the enthusiasm for the TV program in the States was not matched by the networks in Britain: "When we wanted to have it released in England, we couldn't get any of the TV companies the slightest bit interested in [broadcasting] it. We went to all five channels and they all ummed and ahhed for months and in the end passed on it. They're not interested in something that's a bit honest and created for good reasons. They're looking for a bit of scandal, a bit of gossip and a bit of controversy. In the end we decided to put it out on DVD and it's selling really well."

If blues was underground music in a then-still very segregated America, a word probably doesn't exist for how obscure it was in Wyman's native U.K. during his musically formative years. "There were like 50 people in England that knew anything about blues," he estimates. "If you heard the new album of Jimmy Reed on Veejay or something, someone spent a lot of time finding that and buying that off of some American airman who was posted here and then made tapes of it and passed it off."

"Way back in '57, when I first saw Chuck Berry in the film 'Rock Rock Rock', he blew me away, so I immediately went to my local record shop in south London and tried to buy it. They didn't have anything. Nothing was imported on Chuck Berry. So I had to write off to a record company in Chicago and wait a month to get 'One Dozen Berries.' I found later -- researching the Stones history - that that's exactly what Mick [Jagger] did two or three years after I did, because he was younger. Young people don't realize that in the early days, they were not available, those records. That's why the Stones were so successful and so different in those days from any other bands because we were a blues band playing music that the general public had never heard."

The initial blues purism of the Rolling Stones -- whom Wyman joined in December 1962 -- was destined not to last. "When you were in ballrooms, they just stood there open mouthed gaping and had no idea what to do to the music," he recalls. Fearful that promoters wouldn't book them if they put off the audiences, the Stones switched over to rhythm and blues, of which Wyman says, "It's a bit more poppy. It's black man's pop music at the time."

Nonetheless, the Stones continued to place 12-bar blues tracks on almost every one of their albums up to the late 1970s. They also made an extraordinary statement of their roots in late 1964 when, after securing their first U.K. No. 1 hit with a cover of "It's All Over Now," they decided to follow it up with the utterly down-home Willie Dixon song "Little Red Rooster."

"We released that record against everybody telling us not to on the Friday and on the Monday it was No. 1 in [weekly U.K. music paper] NME," says Wyman. "And it's probably the only blues record that's ever been No. 1 in England. So it just proves the point that there was an audience out there that liked that kind of music."

That enthusiasm is present throughout "Rolling With the Stones," Wyman's 2002 follow-up to "Blues Odyssey." It's a huge, colorful, and engrossing read. Despite the photos and pictures of memorabilia, Wyman admits the book would have been impossible to assemble if he hadn't kept a contemporaneous written diary. "That was vital because that was the spine of the book," he says. "We started off by building it on my dairy and the day-by-day events. That was the skeleton we worked on and then embellished it from there."

Wyman estimates that about 95% of the book's pictorial element comes his own private collection. "But that 95% in the book is [only] about 10% of what I've got. Absolutely gospel that is."

Wyman attempted to strike a balance between the comprehensive and the unusual. "Obviously you had to feature albums that had been seen, tour posters, things like that because they were part of the history," he says, "but I tried to find as many lesser known things throughout and quotes and little comments and stories that weren't in your normal mundane boring Stones books, of which there are nearly 200, I think."

Asked if the "Stone Alone 2" project he put aside for "Rolling With the Stones" is still a possibility, Wyman says, "There might be room for it in a more detailed way because fans did love that book and I still get compliments for it. They say, 'I just love it, seeing what cigarettes Mick was smoking in 1966.' All right, it's boring for a reviewer, but it's interesting to a fan and I wrote it for fans. So there probably is a possibility of another book, but I'm working on other projects at the moment. I don't have time."

His musical activities are now focused on the Rhythm Kings, a fluctuating aggregation of well-known names such as Georgie Fame and Albert Lee. "I'm just finishing up on the new studio album with the Rhythm Kings," he says. "Hope to have it out at the end of June." A European summer tour will follow the album's release, where fans will be treated to a smorgasbord of sound. "We cover about 12 different styles of music," he says. "We do a complete mixture of music from jazz, blues, soul, gospel, rockabilly, early country, early rock'n'roll, the occasional reggae."

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first assembling of the classic, original Rolling Stones lineup: Wyman, drummer Charlie Watts, frontman Mick Jagger, and guitarist Keith Richards and Brian Jones.

Wyman denies that the sight of the band -- with Darryl Jones in his place -- wowing crowds around the globe makes him feel a pang of regret for exiting in 1992. "Not for one minute," he says. "I never had a second thought about leaving the band. It's never crossed my mind once. I get this question asked me daily -- 10 times a day probably if I'm doing interviews or meeting people backstage at a Rhythm Kings gig or something. I have no interest whatsoever. I'm great friends with the band socially. My children mix with Mick's kids. That's the way it is: it's social now, it's family."

He does admit that if he'd been allowed to contribute a song to each Stones album, he might have stayed. "You like to contribute. Most other bands did give other members that leeway. The Beatles did with George and Ringo. The Who did with John Entwistle. The Stones didn't and it came to the point of, 'Alright, well that's a closed door, so I'll do something else with my creations.'" Asked about the arrangement that Ronnie Wood allegedly has, whereby he gets songs placed on Stones albums as long as their composition is credited to 'Jagger-Richards,' Wyman says, "Well that's the other alternative. I don't want to go into that. It's a bit political and it's not my business. I'm not like that. I'd rather say, 'No, I'll do it somewhere else.'"

He does believe that the band sounds different now than it did when he was still a member. "I think the dangerous bit about the Stones on stage is gone -- when it sounded like any minute the whole thing could collapse into absurdity or would take off and elevate into something magnificent," he opines. "I think that bit's gone: that kind of wobbly rhythm we had, which was the trademark, which no other band could really copy because it was a natural thing. They're much more precise, they're more machine-like sounding now."

Nonetheless, his fondness for his days with one of the two or three most important acts of all time seems to shine through in the form of the conciliatory note on which he finishes: "But they still cut it and they're still out there and they're still very popular."