Bill Wyman tells Andrew Cowen why leaving the Rolling Stones was the highlight of his career.
It's been ten years since Bill Wyman walked out on the Rolling Stones, tired of all the touring and its impact on family life. In his 30 year tenure, he'd probably seen it all and, as he approached 60, he decided enough was enough.
Now 70, he's busy and content, riding out his career fronting the Rhythm Kings, a hardworking band of seasoned pros.
"Do I get much time off?" he asked me. "Not as much as I'd like. My life is crammed with work. I never stop. I'm involved in archeological digs and the restaurant (Sticky Fingers in Kensington).
"The Rhythm Kings take out six weeks a year to tour and I have a family too."
There are extra-curricular events to factor in too. When you get a call from Robert Plant asking you to provide the backing band for the support acts at Led Zeppelin's revival gig, you don't say "no".
And so, just before Christmas, Wyman took to the stage of London's O2 Arena with his band to provide backing for Paolo Nuttini, amongst others.
Later the band were the main attraction at the aftershow party, playing their own material and backing whoever wanted to get up on the mic. The party went on all night.
I asked Bill how you would go about getting a gig like that, surely most musician's idea of heaven.
"Well, we didn't apply for it. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had seen us at the Montreux Jazz Festival and enjoyed it. We were recommended on the strength of that.
"It was bloody hard work though. "We had to learn 35 songs in just a few days and that's the advantage of having an experienced band. They have a wider repertoire and, because they're steeped in the music, they learn material much faster than new bands."
Wyman's not your average band leader. He's content to leave a lot of the day-to-day stuff to the musicians.
All the players in the Rhythm Kings are first-class.
"My usual leadership technique is to get everyone together and simply play. They know what they're doing. We also have a laugh.
"We usually do two tours a year, one here and one in Scandinavia. It's my job to round up the band, a bit like managing a football team."
Up front is Terry Taylor, one of Wyman's oldest sparring partners. Georgie Fame is in the squad too. Soul legend Eddie Floyd will sing some of the numbers and Dennis Lecorreira from Dr Hook has finally signed on, after years of pestering.
One familiar face missing will be Kidderminster's Mike Sanchez who has given up his seat on the tour bus due to commitments with his own band.
"Mike was with us for three years. He's a great guy and a fantastic musician. I hope to work with him again," states Bill.
A million miles from the stadiums frequented by his Stones colleagues, Bill enjoys being able to see and interact with the audience.
"There are some familiar faces there, maybe a third have seen us before. To be honest, there's not a lot of young people, most are over 40.
"I suppose it's fairly traditional entertain-ment, rooted in jazz and blues, but a lot of this music is not readily available in the UK. We're not trying to carry a flag for these idioms though, it's just a good night out."
Wyman has little time for current musical trends, although he's pleased that the current live scene is once again vibrant.
"Nobody's selling the records any more," he observes. "The internet has put paid to that. In my day you made records and they paid for the tour. These days, you have to tour because nobody's making money out of the records.
"I don't often hear somebody who grabs me, not like the old days. Back then we had the likes of Taj Mahal, David Bowie and The Police, all world-class bands.
"Of today's bands, I can only think of Paolo Nuttini. He's fantastic and such a lovely, sweet guy.
"Bob Geldof reckoned he was the best thing on, better than Led Zeppelin."
You can't talk to an ex-Stone without bringing up the subject of his old band.
Always the outsider in the Rolling Stones, Wyman shunned the limelight, the drugs and never really got his fair crack at writing the songs. While Mick and Keith loved life on the road, Wyman, a few years older than them, would get bored and homesick.
I asked him how it felt to leave the security of the world's biggest band.
"It was such a bloody relief. I'd had enough. I had got married and wanted to start a new family. My family life had already suffered due to the touring and I didn't want to do it any more.
"I wanted to see my kids grow up. Now it's great. With the Rhythm Kings I can come home after half the gigs.
"With the Stones, my life wasn't my own. We were feeding this machine that had become bigger than the individuals in the band.
"When you're in a hard-working group, they become your family and all that entails.
"I'm still close to Charlie (Watts) - it's that bassist/drummer thing - he came to the O2 with me for the Zeppelin gig. Mick and Keith I speak to sometimes.
"I don't miss it, never have. It really doesn't cross my mind to be doing it all again. To be honest, when I see them on stage now, I sometimes wonder why they're still doing it.
"I always had interests outside the Stones and could never do it properly. I'd start a solo album and then we'd go on tour for three years, meaning it would be out of date when I returned. I had no choice. I had to go along with it. The band always came first.
"Now I do photography, write archeological books. I can focus on things and do them properly. It's the joy of being in control.
When I was in the Stones my life was public property but since I've left, people have been so respectful. I don't get bothered in the street, sometimes I'll be asked politely for an autograph.
"The occasional lorry driver will honk and give me the thumbs up, but that's it.
"The highlight of my career was leaving the Stones. I suppose I gave up a massive earning potential. I wasn't allowed to write songs so I never got the royalties and the big sponsorship and merchandising deals that are so lucrative only kicked in after I left.
"I have no regrets though I'm as happy as I could be." n Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings play Warwick Arts Centre on February 7. Box Office: 024 7652 4524. There's loads of good stuff online at billwyman.com, including footage from the Led Zeppelin concert at the O2 Arena.