Wyman took a couple of years off after leaving the Stones before returning to active work with music and photography. Now Wyman is back in the States for the first time since the Stones' U.S. tour in 1989 and will spend a week in Memphis in what will amount to a total immersion in blues culture. Wyman's post-Stones roots band, the Rhythm Kings, will headline opening night of the Great Southern Beer Festival on Friday, August 24th. Wyman will then make three area appearances to promote his new book on blues history, Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey: A Journey To Music's Heart & Soul (DK Publishing): at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Tuesday, August 28th; at Tower Records on Thursday, August 30th; and at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, on Friday, August 31st.
This week-long Memphis stay will afford Wyman a bit of rest after a solid month of touring the Northeast and Canada with the Rhythm Kings (the Memphis appearance marks the beginning of Wyman's book tour). According to Wyman, his wife and three children (all girls, ages 6, 5, and 3) will be flying out for the Memphis stay, which will lead to the rock-and-roll legend's first-ever visit to Graceland.
"I [had offers] to go whenever we came through on Stones tours," Wyman says, "but I never really had any desire -- but I think my children will like it. They know all about Elvis. Whenever they see him on TV, they say, 'Elvis!'"
Wyman's most memorable previous Memphis visit was during a Stones tour in 1975 when the band brought Memphis blues icon the late Furry Lewis out on stage during a performance at Memorial Stadium (later renamed the Liberty Bowl). This meeting of blues legend and blues worshiper is documented in Wyman's book, but Wyman says he still doesn't know how the meeting came about.
"We just arrived and there he was. We didn't know anything about it until we stepped off the plane and there he was on the tarmac," Wyman says. "Maybe the promoter lined it up. I don't really know. But he came backstage during the show and we all rapped and he was very nice. Then he appeared at the show. I had actually tried to meet Furry earlier, maybe it was '72. I came over and was staying with [Booker T. and the MGs bassist] Duck Dunn for a weekend and they asked if we wanted to go see Furry, and of course we did. But as we started to drive into Memphis there was this tremendous thunderstorm with torrential rains, so we had to switch plans and I didn't get to meet him on that trip."
This pursuit of Lewis was natural for blues fanatics like the Stones, who, before they were crowned "World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band," earned the crown of World's Greatest (White) Blues Band with early albums like 1964's The Rolling Stones: England's Newest Hitmakers and 1965's still-incendiary The Rolling Stones Now!, which were composed entirely of blues covers.
This life-long love of the blues is clearly manifest in Blues Odyssey, a 400-page, coffee-table-style tome that brims with accessible, well-written, and wide-ranging information on America's signature art, encompassing bits of jazz, ragtime, gospel, jug bands, and rock-and-roll in addition to the lone-guy-with-guitar vision of the blues that has become standard in the public imagination. Wyman's book also bears the imprint of modern-day Memphis, quoting or referencing local music and tourism figures such as the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission's Jerry Schilling, the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau's Kevin Kane, the Blues Foundation's Howard Stovall, and local performers Mose Vinson, Blind Mississippi Morris, and Brad Webb, in addition to such obvious sources as Sam Phillips and Rufus Thomas.
Wyman says he was driven to create a reliable introduction to the blues that was accessible to average fans. "I've got a lot of blues books in my collection but they're all a bit heavy reading if you're not a blues fanatic," Wyman says. "I like the historical books, especially the Samuel Charters books, but I wanted a book that introduces the blues to people [and] would be interesting to anyone." The book will be followed by a companion, two-part television special, which will be broadcast on Bravo in November.
Wyman's personal blues odyssey will take another interesting twist this weekend, when he shares billing with signature bluesmen B.B. King and Buddy Guy, who will be closing the Great Southern Beer Festival on Sunday night. It won't be the first time Wyman has crossed paths with what are likely the two most important living bluesmen. King toured America with the Stones and Chuck Berry in 1969. Guy toured Europe with the Stones, Junior Wells, and Bonnie Raitt in 1970.
For those hoping that these longstanding friendships might result in some shared stage time this weekend, Wyman is coy.
"Well, B.B. did ask me at one of the festivals in Europe recently if I'd come up and do a song," Wyman admits. "But it's a bit difficult for me. If you're a guitarist or piano player you can do it. You can just hang around and drop in and out where you feel necessary. But if you're a bass player you're part of the rhythm section and you've got to know the song inside-out, the arrangement and the timings, otherwise you're gonna knock people off. But you never know. Buddy could come up and play with us. That would be more manageable."