November 01, 2000
Willie and the Poor Boys
Over the last decade or so, Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings have established themselves as probably the former Stone's most satisfying extracurricular project, with a host of good friends and famous names coming together to cover pretty much every musical base close to the bassist's heart.
Anyone who's been to a Rhythm Kings gig or bought one of their CDs will be able to confirm the band's prowess, but it's sometimes forgotten that their roots lie in another of Wyman's all-star, Roots/R&B-oriented big band ensembles. Willie and The Poor Boys were an irregular but surprisingly long-lived outlet fort Bill's own musical tastes, while he was still a member of The Stones.
For something that evolved into a whole lot of fun for all the participants, the Willie and The Poor Boys project had its origins in tragic circumstances. In the late 1970s, former Small Faces and Faces bassist Ronnie Lane was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis - an apparently incurable disease of the central nervous system. Refusing to succumb, by 1983 he was attempting to establish the foundation Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis (aka ARMS). However, Ronnie's debilitating illness meant that he was unable to fully support himself: ARMS desperately needed to raise funds, both for general research and, more specifically, to pay for the MS treatments that Lane needed.
Thus it was that, in early 1983, Ronnie's girlfriend, Boo Oldfield, contacted producer Glyn Johns (who'd worked with Lane since the halcyon days of The Small Faces) in an attempt to organise a fundraising concert for ARMS. As producer for the British Rock aristocracy, Johns certainly had the contacts to pull together such an event: indeed, at the time he was working with Eric Clapton in staging a Command Performance for the Prince of Wales at the Royal Albert Hall. Johns extended the booking at the venue so that two all-star fundraisers could be held on consecutive nights (20 and 21 September). The second night, which saw the participants presented to Prince Charles and Lady Diana, was in aid of the Prince's Trust, but the first night was for ARMS.
It was a resounding success, hailed the following weekend by an uncharacteristically effusive Mail On Sunday as "...the show of the decade". In addition to an appearance from Ronnie Lane during the encore, the shows featured various band permutations, including all three former Yardbirds guitarists (Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck), Steve Winwood, Lane's former colleague Kenney Jones, a brace of Stones (Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts) as well as the likes of Andy Fairweather-Low, Ray Cooper, Chris Stainton and Simon Philips.
In fact, the two nights at the Albert Hall were so enjoyable for all concerned that, in late November, the show moved on to America, by which time Joe Cocker (replacing the unavailable Winwood) and former Free/Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers had also become involved. Shows were played in Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, with a third Stone, Ron Wood, taking part in the two consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden in the second week of December.
The pivotal involvement of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts was down to Glyn Johns, who, in addition to producing various Stones classics, had been friendly with Bill since the mid-60s, when they had formed their own publishing company as well as co-managing Pop group The End. While Johns had acted as enabler for the ARMS show, he was essentially a background figure rather than a leader of men. Wyman, on the other hand, was a born organiser who was growing increasingly frustrated by his subservient role in the Stones, and he soon began to derive more enjoyment from this side project than from his main source of employment. "It was great fun to play with these guys", he now admits of the American shows, "and we felt we did a good job in raising awareness of this crippling disease."
With Bill in the saddle, the ad hoc all-star charity gigs (for which purposes their participants had been collectively known as The All Star Band) slowly developed into a solo project that he christened Willie & The Poor Boys, with Bill - or William Perks, as he'd been known in his pre-Stones days - as the titular Willie. In August 1985 he attempted to explain the name to American chat show king David Letterman. "When we were at school, they used to call me little Willie. I never quite worked that one out, I didn't understand - it looked alright to me, you know..." Leaving aside such knockabout ribaldry, the name was primarily inspired by Willy & The Poor Boys, a 1970 album by one of Bill's favourite bands, Creedence Clearwater Revival.