It’s no secret that Bill Wyman is quite the authority on the history of blues music – his 2001 book Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey: A Journey to Music’s Heart and Soul is testament to that.
For Wyman, the blues is the most important development in the history of music.
“All music seems to have stemmed from the blues,” says Wyman. “Blues was like the tree trunk, and all the branches came out of it, like jazz, ragtime, and then country music, then R and B, then rock and roll, and then soul and gospel. It all seems to have come from the same root in the 1800s.
“You had black blues musicians playing in the south, and then white people heard it and adapted it to their styles, like Irish reels, and Scottish and English folk music – and it became country music, but it still had blues flavours in it,” he says.
But it wasn’t until he joined the Rolling Stones in 1962 that he heard a blues record.
“I first heard the blues when I went to the first rehearsals at the beginning of the Stones in December ’62,” says Wyman.
“Brian Jones had a few records, and Mick had a few like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry – I knew Chuck Berry, but I’d never heard of Bo Diddley, and never heard of any of the blues artists – it was all new to me. After this, I really got into the blues, and spent all my spare time trying to hunt down records,” he adds. Born in 1936, Wyman grew up at a time when blues music was beginning to find its voice in parts of America, but hadn’t yet captured the imaginations of British audiences. “When I grew up, there was no blues music,” says Wyman. “ I grew up a lot earlier than a lot of the 60s musicians – I was a bit ahead of them, a bit older. I never heard blues because there were no blues records in the shops, there was no blues played on the radio – it didn’t exist.
“There were no blues players that visited the UK, except with jazz bands. There was the Chris Barber Band that would feature people like Sonny Terry and Browne McGhee, and Muddy Waters, but they just travelled with his band in front of jazz audiences so the public never got to hear about blues,” he says. It was only once the Rolling Stones began to see commercial success that Wyman was able to build up his collection of blues music. “When we first started touring Europe, in Belgium, France and Denmark you could buy tonnes of blues records,” says Wyman.
“You couldn’t get them in England at the time, so it became a devoted hobby to collect blues records and suss out all the great artists.”
Wyman, however, believes that the reputation of blues music has been damaged over the years by crude stereotypes and poor quality music.
“People should be very careful about what blues music they listen to when they start to listen to it, because if they start off with something that’s not very good quality, it will put them off for life,” says Wyman.
“At its worst, blues music can be really dull and boring, but if they’re listening to someone like Muddy Waters or Elmore James, Little Walter or Jimmy Reed, or people like that, then they would get the really good quality blues. A lot of it’s got fantastic humour, some of it is saucy, a lot of it is very close to the edge.”
In 1997, Wyman formed his band The Rhythm Kings – a group that take their inspiration from the various developments of the blues genre – from rock and roll to jazz, and from soul to country.
“I wanted to do something where I could play songs of quality by anybody from the past, whether it was Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Chuck Berry, Creedence Clearwater Revival, JJ Cale, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, and just see if we could do it,” says Wyman.
“We always try to stick to the basic mood of the original – that’s the bit that people love,” he adds. Once the tour with The Rhythm Kings is complete, Wyman will be heading back into the studio to record a new solo album, which he hopes to release early next year. “I played the demos to a few mates and they really liked them. They said I’m starting to sound a bit like Tom Waits and JJ Cale because I’m singing with quite a low voice as I’m getting older, and I’m finding it more interesting to sing like that.”
This article was published by the Yorkshire Post on November 8, 2013.