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

At last, a quiet Stone speaks

Bill Wyman
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Bill Wyman in Amsterdam.
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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.

"What happened in the beginning, when we were touring the States and I decided to do the album, was that everyone – including the Stones – was saying, 'Well, you'd better get a producer in to help you finish the songs, then get a top producer like Richard Perry' – none of which exactly boosted my confidence. Then they said, 'Get in some top session guys who'll sell the album, and who's going to do the singing?' It was awful, I felt it slipping away from me.

"Mind you, I can understand their attitude because I'd never sung, and only done a bit of amateur producing with that Tucky Buzzard thing and John Walker, both of which taught me a lot but weren't very successful. You see, the way the Stones work is almost a tradition. Keith and Mick have the final say, which is fair because it's their song we're playing. The rest of us put up suggestions but we don't freak out if they're ignored. I think that's the way it has to be if you want to stay together. With four or five egos battling it out you can't last. Look at Ray Davies and the Kinks, Townshend and the Who. I can remember touring in the early days with the Yardbirds backing us. They had Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, who at the time had to be two of the best guitarists. But every night it was a battle of egos, getting louder and louder. It ruined the music and was horrible to hear. That's what happens if you don't have people who're willing to back down.

"So altogether I had a lot to get over. I was terrified of sitting at the piano or picking up a guitar and saying, 'Fellers, this is what we're doing tonight.' I haven't the guts for that, so instead I made these demos on a little B&O deck, seven-and-a-half i.p.s. and with some sort of overtracking. But without being able to play drums and being only reasonable on guitar and piano, you can imagine they were pretty rough. I used, to wait until the old lady had gone shopping before singing, and then used to sing too softly so that I'd be in a low key."

For backings, Wyman used vocalists Betty Wright, husband-wife duo Gwen and George McCrae and the Bonnaroo Horn Section of Dr. John and Allen Toussaint fame. "Incredible to work with, those horns, you could never get players like that in England. The sheer professionalism, knowing how to blend for their sound, how to tune up in five seconds. They'd walk in, know exactly where to stand around this one mike and be ready to go." Only occasionally did the sessions threaten to turn into a superjam, something Wyman is allergic to. "One time word got around and a whole bunch of people came in," recalled Wyman, "and it turned into one of those L.A. scenes. Jay Winding, son of Kai Winding the trombonist, was on organ. Excellent player – and there was whassisname Perkins . . . Wayne, that's it . . . on bass, me on electric and about four other guitarists. It was insane, out of control and we didn't use it. I didn't mind though, because it's a great compliment when those people drop in. Like Leon, who's already done his sessions, asked if he could come along the next night. I told him we already had a pianist, but he said he'd come anyway. He even offered to do some singing, if I didn't want to. Well, it's better than 'Nice session, man,' and you never see them again.

"With this record, I had to work with people I trusted. That was one of the conditions to get over my insecurity. I know over the years I've slipped further and further back out of the limelight, which makes life a little free, of course, with me and Charlie being fourth choice for interviews. But it would be wrong to think that I did the album to get more famous. I know this is going to sound like a cliche, but I think I have something to say which can't be said through the Stones. My thing, my feelings about certain types of music, that element of happiness and fun, doesn't fit our style. It wasn't all so serious for the first three or four years together, and that goes for most of the bands. The difference now is the difference between playing the local youth club and Carnegie Hall. It's such a production now, and you feel responsible for all those people you need around you, and sort of trapped against going too far off the beaten track. How often do people come out of a concert these days feeling like dancing in the street like they did when Bill Haley first played?"

This story is from the June 6th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 162: June 6, 1974
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