Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey: A Journey to Music's Heart & Soul (DK Publishing, $40, 400 pp.)
Companion television program airs 7 p.m. Nov. 1 on Bravo
About a month ago, Bill Wyman was at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, where a large crowd had gathered to hear the Rolling Stones' former bassist talk about, well, the Stones. Technically, he was there to promote his latest book, Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey, but let's face it, Wyman draws a crowd for the same reason he's able to get publishing contracts: He was once a member of the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band. It's not as though Wyman were trying to escape or deny his past; in fact, he was perfectly willing to answer question after question about the Stones. Eventually, the questions came around to Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey.
As one might expect, Wyman did not chain himself to a computer to complete this book. Instead, he worked with writer Richard Havers, and it was Havers who made the research trips to Mississippi and other places. Still, throughout his career, Wyman has worked and talked with numerous blues musicians, and the story told in this book is his understanding of the history of the blues.
"It's a bit strange that a working-class boy from Southeast London is in [town] selling a book on the history of blues music," Wyman joked during a phone interview a few days before his Nashville signing. No kidding. The late Robert Palmer he is not, nor does he aim to be. However, as a passionate blues fan for years, Wyman felt that many books on the subject were "hard reading." So three years ago he decided to take on the task of creating a more accessible blues history, originally conceived as a 13-part radio series, with each segment highlighting a different blues artist. He produced a one-hour pilot focusing on Howlin' Wolf, presented it to a radio station, and was told the project was better suited for TV.
"I had to rethink and regroup and then I thought, all right, I'll do a six-part TV series," he says. "I started to get into that and [then] people all around me said this has got to be a book." Soon Wyman started working on a book that "anyone could pick up, including young people [and] children, and find something interesting in it." He also wanted to find a way to connect the music to the landscape from which it came. "When we heard songs abut Highway 49 or Highway 61, Route 66 and all that sort of stuff, [we] never really knew where they were."
Teaming up with DK Publishing was a brilliant move, as the publishing house has a well-deserved reputation for gorgeous, reader-friendly volumes on everything from cooking to travel to a line of illustrated guides for children. With its easy-to-read type and abundant photographs, Wyman's coffee-table book is a perfect fit for the DK list. In addition to the book's main narrative, one-page profiles of especially significant artists are scattered throughout. Images of record jackets (most taken from Wyman's own collection) and vintage record advertisements are included, as are sidebars featuring stories of Wyman's numerous encounters with blues artists. Illustrated maps highlight all sorts of information, including the locations of WPA recording sessions, the cities from which several players took their names (Tampa Red and Kokomo Arnold, for example), and the course of the mighty Mississippi and the parallel route of Highway 61.
That's not to say there aren't some design problems with Blues Odyssey. There are instances, for example, when an artist profile and a map will interrupt the logical flow of the narrative, and the reader must turn a page or two, wondering what happened to the second half of the sentence. Still, the book works well either as a cover-to-cover read or as a quick information source.
In the end, the companion television series was reduced to only two hours, forcing Wyman to "squash 100 years of blues music into two 50-minute segments." Though he describes the task as "impossible," he also feels that he managed to "get an awful lot in there." The program, which airs 7 p.m. Nov. 1 on Bravo, has a rather different feel than the book, in part because it starts off with Wyman's story and chronicles the evolution of his musical tastes before launching into the history of the blues. In doing so, it makes it more obvious that his fascination with the music is the framework through which the genre is presented. As such, the show is a better representation of "Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey," the man's journey into the blues.
Given Wyman's admitted shyness in front of a camera, Clarke Peters, creator of the musical Five Guys Named Moe, serves as presenter for the program. Unfortunately, this device is often more disruptive than cohesive, as one minute Peters is walking around London or looking through a record collection with Wyman, and the next he's strolling around the Mississippi Delta. The structure doesn't quite hold all the pieces together.
The expected elements are included, though: audio clips, film footage, artist interviews, photographic images and segments of Wyman talking about the music. Audio and/or video recordings of Papa Charlie Jackson, Frank Hutchenson and British skiffle performer Lonnie Donegan are treats; the clips of Wyman's own Rhythm Kings, on the other hand, are long enough to seem like shameless plugs. Fortunately, the blues performers themselves do a lot of talking, and some of the best moments come when Wyman is hanging out with Buddy Guy, B.B. King, "Big Bill" Morganfield (Muddy Waters' son) and others.
Taken in tandem with the book, the documentary serves as a fine overview of the blues genre. On its own, though, the program suffers from too little time to cover the subject matter adequately. It certainly can't hold a candle to more exhaustive music series, like Bravo's own Popular Song: Soundtrack to the Century.
In addition to the Blues Odyssey book and documentary, the project also includes a recently released double-CD. According to Wyman, the discs feature his favorite songs from artists he feels are the most important in the genre. There are a total of 47 tracks spanning the years 1925-1951, highlighting lesser-known musicians like Cow Cow Davenport, Casey Bill, Speckled Red and Blind Lemon Jefferson along with more recognizable names like Mississippi John Hurt, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Robert Johnson.
All in all, Bill Wyman's Blues Odysseyin each of its formsis a decent starting point for a deeper sense of the history of the blues. It's evident that Wyman is merely trying to share his love of the genre and maybe introduce a few people to itan appropriate goal for someone whose band brought the blues to generations of rock fans for years.
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