Bill Wyman was in St Paul de Vence last weekend to launch an exhibition of his photos. We took some time with him to discuss his love affair with the South of France, his photography and the great people that have been his friends. Plus how he sees the world of music these days.
Walking out on The Rolling Stones – a band that dominated the world – must have been a tough decision, but he seems convinced it was the right one: he’s driving The Rhythm Kings, and getting massive recognition from audiences and fellow stars. He’s also found the stability to build a lovely family with wife Suzanne and three daughters, together with his older son Stephen. And as his photo exhibition shows, he has known and become friends with some wonderful people. Sitting on the terrace of the world famous Colombe d’Or he’s relaxed and friendly.
The exhibition is divided in two parts.
Yes, there’s a section in the Tourist Office about my time with the Stones. There’s photos of the other Stones, and people that we met, like BB King, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, John Lee Hooker, and the band members. That section also has some memorabilia like the gold disc I got for “Exile on Main Street“, and the stage suit I wore. And there’s one of my bass guitars. There’s even my French residency card!
The second part is the one with all the great people I got to know here in St Paul – André Verdet, César, Arman, Chagall and so many more that have made my times here so great.
How often do you come to St Paul?
I first came here in 1971. My family comes to St Paul a lot, and I join them when I can. But it’s fourteen hours in the car, so I can’t do the long weekends.
You don’t like flying?
I stopped flying in 1990. I got fed up with it. I said to myself “I don’t have to do this, so I won’t”. I had been flying even before I joined the Rolling Stones because of my National Service in the RAF. On our first tour to the US we had to fly for the first time as a band, and they were all terrified and I was the one reassuring them! It hasn’t changed my life really – if I can’t go by train or by car or walk I don’t go.
So how is it different being the band leader compared to life in the Stones as a band member?
It’s not really different on stage – I still play the bass and stand next to the drummer. I choose almost all the songs. The band turn down offers for more money because they appreciate playing with us. Beverley (Skeete) was offered lots more than we pay her to work with Annie Lennox, but she turned it down.
We just have a great time and the audience get into that mood. We aren’t an anxious new band trying to build a career and putting singles onto the market or worrying about image. This isn’t a career move, there isn’t much money, with eight or ten people you don’t earn much. But we enjoy ourselves playing great roots music, with lots of variety. And we get massive respect from other musicians. It’s so gratifying to be asked to play with the greats – we played gigs with Ben E. King, Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Solomon Burke and many more. And they all love working with us. Paul Rodgers told me he wants our band, and I told him to get his own!
The problem with bands these days is they can be boring – the same kind of music for two hours, no dynamics, light and shade.
How difficult is it to get the band members together?
I need to warn them well in advance because they all have other commitments. For example Georgie (Fame) has a band, and Beverley (Skeete) does lots of session work. But we get by with two afternoons of rehearsals to learn eight new songs and revise a few. When I was in the Stones we would do a month of rehearsals before a tour. All those rehearsals for songs we’d been playing for thirty years! It felt like a waste of time to me. But that’s the way Keith (Richards) works, in a more casual way.
Recently there has been a series of sixties and seventies bands reforming to play classic albums or revive a sound. What do you think of that?
It’s nearly always a disappointment. They aren’t the same bands any more. Look at The Hollies – there’s only one or two of them left. Or The Doors – how can they still be touring when Jim Morrison is gone? The Platters and The Drifters – they don’t have original members, but they keep touring. It’s often just because someone owns the name and wants to make some money from it. That said, Led Zeppelin and Cream did reunions recently and were both great. I was on the bill for the Zeppelin gig, and it was a fantastic night.
Bob Dylan recently said that the Stones need you back in the band if they want to sound like the Stones again.
Yes that was very sweet of him. Loads of people including fans and musicians have told me it doesn’t sound the same since I left. And the producer of the remastered “Exile on Main Street” said my bass playing was underrated genius. So many three-page articles about the Stones were all about Mick, Keith, and Ronnie. Myself and Charlie didn’t get a mention. Obviously the sound is different, but the Stones have always moved on each time a member goes. When Brian (Jones) died, or when Mick (Taylor) left, the band found replacements and moved on. It’s a different sound, but it’s still the Stones.
“Stones in Exile” was premièred in Cannes recently.
Yes, the boys asked me to be involved and I gave an interview. I heard that when it was premièred in New York I got lots of laughs because I was complaining about not being able to get hold of English tea, piccalilli, custard, Marmite and above all I didn’t like the milk. I hated tea made with French milk! I still bring stuff with me when I come here.
Where were you all living during the Exile sessions?
Charlie had a place in Arles and used to come and stay at my place here in St Paul. Mick was in Biot, Mick Taylor was in Grasse, and we would all have to go to Villefranche to make the record, and sometimes Keith would be in his bedroom asleep and never come down! It was very rare that all the five of us were together, but by some crazy accident we made this great album.
What do you think about the new tracks that have been added to the “Exile” re-release?
Same as I thought about them at the time – they aren’t right for the album. But on the other hand they are songs from that peak era of the Stones, 1968 to 1972 when we released our top four albums. “Beggars Banquet”, “Sticky Fingers”, “Let It Bleed”, “Exile on Main Street”. They’re my favourite four, and most people would say that’s when we were at the top. After that it drifted a bit.
How has the Colombe d’Or changed since you’ve been coming here?
It’s the same, only there are some more sculptures in the garden by friends of mine like Arman and Cesar.
You like the local art scene.
Yes I used to take time out to visit as many exhibitions as I could, and that way I got to meet the artists. They’re a really interesting bunch, and there’s a mutual respect. French sculptor Arman was a close friend of mine. What a man! I felt vastly inferior in his company, which I loved. He enjoyed my book about the history of the blues. I really miss him. And the local artist César used to cook lunch for us – amazing man. And of course there was Chagall. I took photos of them all.
What was Chagall like?
He was like your favourite grandfather, He was so positive. And he had an artist’s way of speaking. When he married his first wife Bella in Russia, she was from a rich family and he was from a poor one, and to describe their backgrounds he would say “her father ate grapes, my father ate onions”. I once went to his atelier, and he showed me six paintings he was working on. And I asked him, “How do you know when they are finished? He replied, “I take them out into the garden and put them with the flowers, and if they look right then they are finished, but if they look ill I have to cure them with some more paint.” Every time we come here I take the children to the cemetery to visit the grave.
Your photos are mostly candid
I like to take the photos of people with a long lens, like a 135mm, from across the room. That way you get them looking natural. The only one who complained was Mick (Jagger) who always wants photos to be perfectly posed and would say ‘oh Bill put that camera away’, but everyone else was fine. Especially Charlie (Watts) – I’ve got so many wonderful shots of him.
In 1966 when I had some money from working in the Rolling Stones I bought myself a Nikkormat camera in Paris, and started getting serious about photography. Now I use a Nikon digital. Two years ago I went to digital because of my eyesight fading, so I needed the autofocus. Digital photography gives you the chance to manipulate the pictures, so sometimes I do re-framing on the computer. I don’t change the colours. I don’t consider myself a professional photographer, just an amateur that spends a lot of time on his hobby.
Has your French got better since your song “Si si je suis un rock star”?
Well of course that was a bit of a joke, with cockney French. The funny thing was the French distributor told us to correct the French! I said “It’s supposed to be like that, it’s a joke!”. I don’t speak great French but it is better than that.
What is your proudest moment?
(Long pause…) I took a hat-trick at The Oval in a charity cricket match between a celebrity eleven and a former England eleven. It was the first televised hat trick at The Oval, and only the third ever! Derek Underwood came and told me he played 76 times for England, and several hundred times here, and he never took a hat trick! That’s my proudest moment.