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Bill Wyman, 87, is a happily married country squire, writing books and playing on the Rolling Stones’ new album. By Christopher Sandford

Blog | By Christopher Sandford | Apr 11, 2024

While the unstoppable Rolling Stones launch their latest US-stadium tour in April, the band’s founding bass-player and archivist Bill Wyman, 87, will be enjoying the more sedate charms of his 15th-century manor house near Bury St Edmunds.

In 1993, Wyman had the good grace to leave the Stones voluntarily – one of only two men to do so in the group’s history.

He had forged a 30-year partnership with Charlie Watts as the most unobtrusive but reliably solid rhythm section in rock-music history.

With his Buster Keaton stoneface, Bill fell into the comically deadpan school of rockers. By his own admission, he was also the Stone who did the fewest drugs and had the most sex. Wyman’s love life attracted some harrumphing tabloid coverage later in the 1980s when, aged 52, he married 18-year-old Mandy Smith, whom he had ‘fallen in love with’ when she was 13.

Compounding the story, Wyman’s son Stephen, who was 30, in turn announced his own engagement to 47-year-old Patsy Smith, who was none other than Mandy’s mother. Had both romantic partnerships flourished, Bill would have become his son’s son-in-law, while Mandy would have become both Stephen’s stepmother and his stepdaughter. And Patsy would have become Mandy’s daughter-in-law as well as her mother – clearly a ticklish situation for all parties.

In the event, Bill and Mandy separated two years later, and in 1993 he married the American-born model Suzanne Accosta, with whom he has three daughters.

Chelsea. He has marketed a line of metal-detectors, formed his own rhythm-and-blues band, opened a London restaurant and hosted an exhibition of his photography.

And he has continued to collect, obsessively, memorabilia on the Stones and just about everyone else he’s ever met. Keith Richards once told me that he thought Bill was a great bass-player, but that he was really born to be a librarian.

Wyman’s latest venture is a slim but well-produced memoir, Billy in the Wars, a winningly unsentimental account of his growing up in south London under the shadow of the Luftwaffe. Although there are gripping moments recalling the Blitz, what comes through most is a sense of English stoicism in the face of sacrifice and adversity.

It’s extraordinary to think that the child who largely existed on a diet of whale meat and tinned spam would go on to enjoy a 30-year tenure in the famously debauched rock group.

Bill does think, though, that rationing was responsible for his short height – five foot six, the same as his fellow Rolling Stone Brian Jones. He thinks it accounts for the short height, too, of other rock stars, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Lane and Steve Marriott - all under five foot six.

‘I loved what I achieved with the Stones,’ Wyman has remarked of his decision to walk away from the world’s most lucrative musical corporation. ‘But I needed to sort out my personal life – and my future.’ He has stayed in touch with the Stones, though. On their album Hackney Diamonds, released last year, he played bass on one track, Live by the Sword. Proving that he was the least well- known but also the most eclectic member of the group, Wyman has written a series of well-received memoirs. He has also published books on everything from his friend Marc Chagall to the history of stars, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Lane and Steve Marriott – all under five foot six.

He says, ‘Although the war ended in 1945, we were all on rationing until eight years later. That is why we are all small.’ The book’s publication gave me the opportunity to ask Wyman what lessons he’d drawn from growing up in the way he did.

‘Being without electricity and living with food-rationing until I was 17 says it all,’ Bill told me. ‘But we managed, even though the toilet was in the garden and there were no facilities like a bathroom, heating, or hot running water. It made you really appreciate everything in later life.

‘I think the whole war experience gave me the capacity to enjoy the simple things in life, like nature, history and friends and family,’ he adds. ‘It also created a work ethic in me that borders on the excessive, which probably came from growing up where death was all around. I have a deep respect for the time I have on this planet, and it’s important for me to be as productive as I can.’

Wyman – then going under the name William Perks – spent most of the war years with his grandmother, whom he adored. He says his father, a bricklayer, took him out of school at 15, ‘and I think he did it out of spite’. Presumably, Mr Perks Snr wasn’t thrilled when Bill eventually announced that he was quitting his day job to join the Rolling Stones in 1962.

‘It would be fair to say that neither my mother nor my father was too pleased about it, no,’ Bill confirms.

Born in 1936, Wyman was one of the postwar generation who did compulsory national service. His three years in the RAF not only taught him the merits of punctuality and neatness (neither of them qualities immediately associated with his colleagues in the Stones), but also exposed him to the alluring sounds of early rock and roll.

‘When I was a child, I went to see my first big dance band performing live,’ Wyman tells me. ‘I was mesmerised, and it was there that the seed was planted that I’d like to be in a band when I grew up.

‘A few years later, when I was stationed in Germany, I heard the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll on American Services Radio, as the British and American zones were close. I was so inspired that I bought a leather pilot jacket, drew a picture of Elvis Presley on the back, and walked around the camp with my new guitar that I’d bought in the local town. Everyone on the base started to call me Elvis!’ You could have got long odds at the time Wyman joined the Stones in late 1962 that the band would still be in business more than 60 years later. ‘Music just wasn’t a career option,’ he tells me. ‘We always thought it would last only a couple of years.

At the beginning, I still had a day job and I would play in the clubs at night. I was Wyman has always insisted that he left the Stones on good terms. Twenty years later, however, that relationship was tested when he joined the band onstage for part of their 50th-anniversary shows at London’s O2 Arena.

‘The nice thing was that my kids saw me on stage with the Stones,’ he says. ‘The band asked me to rehearse with them for three days. I was under the impression I was going to get really involved, but when it came to it, they wanted me to do only two songs, which was very disappointing.’

Wyman declined to join his old colleagues for their subsequent shows in New York, in part because the former RAF man had developed a fear of flying, but in larger part because, as he puts it, ‘I have better things to do.’

The latest of those things is Billy in the Wars, which I heartily recommend. One of the attractions – as well as one of the flaws – of Wyman the author is that he leaves little unresearched or unexplained. As a fount of detail about Luftwaffe-plane- spotting, rationing allocations and south-London street topography, the book matches many encyclopedias.

But its real charm comes when Bill abandons the lists and lets the spotlight fall on the physically unprepossessing child from the materially and perhaps emotionally starved background.

That child later enjoyed fame and fortune as a member of the most flamboyant combo in rock history.

He then went on to a third act as a happily married country squire, with an impressive variety of interests and the ability to look back with a certain amount of pride, and with gentle humour, on the whole journey.

Now that’s a story. Bill Wyman’s Billy in the Wars (Pegasus,£16.99) is out now Christopher Sandford is author of 1964: