Bill Wyman Solo: It's Me, Such As I Am

At last, a quiet Stone speaks

Bill Wyman in Amsterdam.
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
June 6, 1974

The night before, Bill Wyman had been in a studio making a short promotional film for his debut solo album, Monkey Grip, released May 15th. After the shooting he hung around with the crew until dawn, chatting about this technical point and that, much of the detail new to him – for as Wyman explained, with the Stones, once the basic recording is over, he and Charlie Watts tend to fade into the background.

This time, though, Wyman was the center of attention, and in the small hours one of the dancers used to liven up the footage came over to tell him, "It's really good to find out you're a nice person. I was nervous about meeting you, I thought you were going to be a pig." Not the first time, Wyman said, that people have said that same thing. Being in center shot all the time was a strange experience, and so was remembering the words. "That's usually Mick's problem," Wyman said the next day, as he lounged back in a settee in a London hotel, his rich black hair in full contrast with the pale skin. "For the past ten years all I've had to do is stand in the background, sometimes put on a bit of makeup and look happy to be there. I'm only just getting the full impact of what you have to do once the record is finished. People keep coming up to me and saying, 'Don't forget the radio, the promotion, the television . . . '

"But I wanted to be involved from start to finish, even with cutting the master. I heard the first one and realized it didn't sound the same as the tape playback, so I went along to make sure they weren't cutting off the bottom 200 cycles, which they were. I even looked at the grooves through a microscope."

For Wyman, making the album has meant shaking off inhibitions, some acquired via his media-strengthened casting as the shadow figure in the Stones, others rooted in his readily admitted limitations as a musician. "With the Stones I like to just lay back and fatten out the sound, sticking with Charlie's bass drum, and that way I tend to go unnoticed. There must be hundreds of better bass players than me. I mean I could never play like Jack Bruce. If I was ambitious in that direction I'd practice, which I don't. So I went into this album well aware of my capabilities. Really I had little to gain by doing it. Unless it came out great I was going to get slagged, especially if it was a pseudo-Stones record, like everybody imagined it would be. That's why I didn't use people who'd been involved with the group. It turned out to be fun to do, not uptight like I was afraid of, and if this feeling comes over then I'll be happy with it. I wanted it to be a good-time thing, which is so lacking today with everybody heavy and worried about what they're doing. I love early Fifties stuff and old blues, where the simple object was to please the people."

Though Wyman has had one of his compositions cut by the Stones – "I think it was 1967" – he's always found it tough going to write suitable material for the group and found alternative outlets hard to come by. "It was always a question of 'If it's good, why don't the Stones do it?' And with all those managerial and publishing hassles we got into – it got to the point where we couldn't release a live album of our own songs without going down on our knees and begging and being told, 'OK, if you give me $200,000' – I just gave up. Then after we cleared up the ABKCo thing over a year ago, I seriously got on with writing good songs. The melodies came easily enough, but I could never write the bloody words."

The breakthrough came with "I Wanna Get Me a Gun," an up-tempo, almost sing-along song which opens Side One. "I kept doing these lyrics then looking at them away from the music and seeing that they didn't come to a conclusion, hadn't got a story behind them. All of a sudden I wrote this thing about boozing all night, threatening people with guns, screwing the preacher's wife – which isn't me at all – then coupling it with the idea that it was only a fantasy. After that I got the gist of writing much clearer."

Selecting the musicians to work with was another hurdle. "The Stones haven't actually done many sessions with other people so I wasn't familiar with many outside musicians. Mick Taylor's done some, mostly before he joined the band, but Charlie and me haven't had much experience. I did John Hammond in the Sixties, the Howlin' Wolf sessions, knocked around with Eric Clapton and Winwood a bit, but usually it was a case of 'How are you, I'm fine thanks.' I hardly know any British musicians at all. But on the first Manassas album I'd worked with Dallas Taylor and seen what an underrated and under-used drummer he was. So about six months before we started recording I played Dallas a few numbers and he liked them. I love Charlie's drumming, of course, but we know each other so well that working with him would have pulled us toward a Stones feel. So I had a drummer, but still needed a guitarist and pianist. I thought of Leon [Russell] because the way I play piano has a vague Leon style, only very mediocre, and I like the way he turns chords around. But I'd heard how he takes things over and I was scared of that. Same with Dr. John. One hears these things, and I'm not strong enough to control a scene like that. Anyway, Leon said he'd like to do it and I phoned up Dr. John. He said, 'What, you doing a solo album!' But, unlike a lot of others, thought it was a great idea. He had the flu but said, 'I've got Saturday and Sunday free, I'll be along.' He came in with that growling voice of his that you can hardly understand, and his hats and walking stick. But he's for real, and an amazingly nice guy. Leon came in as well, and quietly got stuck in.

"I was still short of a guitar, however. I'd heard various musicians on record but didn't know their temperament and if we'd get on. Thought of Ry Cooder, then thought again that he might be too authentic blues for me to sing with. And I tried to contact Roy Buchanan and went through these funny numbers with his producer and never spoke to the man himself. It was too heavy and I thought, 'Forget it.' Then Dallas said, 'Why not use Danny Kortchmar,' but as I said, these people were just names to me. I knew he'd done James Taylor and Carole King, but I wondered if I was letting myself in for some average player. It turned out he was great, could just slip into any style, and I kept him all the time.

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